By Laura Fernandez

Deciding to come to Warm Heart has been a very fulfilling experience, a decision that I’ve never regretted.  Living on the Warm Heart campus in a simple mud house reminded me of when I used to visit the humble houses of the volunteers I worked with back in my country of the Dominican Republic. Mind you, on my first night here when I found out that I was living on my own, I nearly turned and ran.  But gradually I got used to the rural nights and all the bugs; I’ve even tasted a few and they’re worth trying!

My first project area was as Operations Program Manager.  As such I was exposed to all Warm Heart’s organizational processes: communications and marketing, monitoring and evaluations (M&E), public relations and fundraising. In my previous position as a demand planning manager in a large food corporation, I also worked with many different departments: sales, marketing, finance and HR. My job was putting everybody’s priorities and past performances into forecast software, evaluating market trends and prices, and then recommending what products we should be making and at what selling price points. My ability to be flexible and to adapt to many demands allowed me to look at the big picture here at Warm Heart where there is so much going on.  

The areas I focused the most on were marketing/communications and M&E. For M&E I created a database to evaluate the grades of Warm Heart’s 40 children. Warm Heart needs to be able to easily assess each child’s academic performance to identify weaknesses and strengths. The task might sound easy but I had to go through six years of records and work with a Thai volunteer who helped me with the translations. I designed many reports with different parameters for each level, each child and each subject.  I think the database will serve as a powerful tool allowing us to get both an overall and an individual idea of how our kids are doing. I used it already to evaluate this last school term when the results were quite positive. Warm Heart always acknowledges the kids with highest GPAs and every top 4.0 score – we’re going be handing out lots of presents this term!  

I must say I found many of the school subjects to be quite unusual, like badminton, gardening, making fertilizer and haircutting.  One of our kids got a 4.0 in haircutting. But Evelind explained that the Thai education system tries to bring out every possible skill a child may have.  I’m not sure if this approach isn’t counterproductive and if students shouldn’t be learning things that will ensure them of better paid employment in the future. On the other hand, if someone wants to continue living in their small village, there really aren’t a lot of interesting jobs available.  

Another area I focused on was communications/marketing.  Warm Heart has a webpage, a Facebook page and a presence in several other social media.  I had to go deep into our marketing strategies, learn what the organization wanted to achieve, the strategies that had been utilized and the actual results. For the first time in my life I learned about Google analytics. Oh my God, that was the hardest job ever – I had to do so much research just to understand all the terminology and how to read the tables and reports.  After a few intensive weeks, I came up with an analysis on how we stand and how our results have been evolving over the past four months. The data is still fairly skimpy but it’s all we have for now.  The feedback allowed us to assess how effective our ads have been and to identify the main sources of visitors and the strong and weak points of our webpage.

Another important project that I tackled was conducting a satisfaction survey with past and current volunteers.  Everybody who works with quality or HR knows how important it is to keep your clients, stakeholders or employees satisfied and motivated.  At Warm Heart we were not measuring this part of the process. The volunteers are an important source for carrying the word out about Warm Heart’s work to the outside world; if they leave unhappy, this can only hurt Warm Heart. Unfortunately, getting results from the survey was surprisingly difficult and it was frustrating how few people bothered to answer. Carol, the permanent volunteer who runs our communications strategy, told me that this was normal.  That made me realize the incredible effort Warm Heart has to make to attract followers or donors.  There are so many distractions out there, so many huge organizations waging aggressive social media campaigns.  When you don’t have money to pay for good ads, you need to really identify your target audience and have something incredibly eye-catching to attract new viewers to your page.  

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Some of the Warm Heart family

As time went on, Evelind decided that I could handle a second role, that of Volunteer Coordinator.  That was really unexpected and I had no idea what to do. I was used to managing teams at work but here you have to take so much in consideration before addressing someone.  Not only do we have language and cultural barriers, but there are real challenges involved when working with short-term volunteers who come and go and who always have to be oriented and trained before they can start working.  Not only does every volunteer have different skill levels and life experiences, they are each staying for different lengths of time. Evelind says that while work procedures should theoretically be the same between a private company and a non-profit organization, in reality it’s very different.  

Now that my departure date approaches, I can’t stop thinking how much I will miss this whole experience.  I leave feeling satisfied, knowing I added value, helped make a small difference, met different people, learnt so much from everybody. Now I shall continue my journey: Thailand and Warm Heart have left an unforgettable mark on me and I will always be grateful.

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PJ, me and Vacek participating in a Bike for Dad event

(Laura Fernandez just completed a five-month stay at Warm Heart)