By Tuff Witarama

The public health initiative of Warm Heart isn’t limited to just the physical health of the residents. We also believe that in order for these people to fare well in the community, their emotional well-being is also important. As the months went by and I became more familiar with the community and vice-versa, I started receiving different kinds of requests, some of them involving construction projects. That began when I suggested that we procure funding for a home renovation project for a disabled individual which then led to other projects. 

The projects were modest, costing between $500-1000, and we raised the money from outside foundations, other volunteer groups and local benefactors. Some of my family and friends in Thailand also chipped in. I had never done any construction in my life but I soon found myself mixing concrete. I’m pretty sure that my efforts actually slowed the work down!  Although there’s no way to measure emotional well-being, I’m sure that these simple home improvements did make life easier for those people that we helped.  

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Me trying to mix concrete and working on renovation projects 

Equally as important as improving emotional well-being for the marginalized elderly and disabled in the community is the notion of empowerment. Project Access is an ongoing initiative that Warm Heart partners with to provide wheelchairs and other mobility aids to disabled local residents. In addition to being “the construction guy”, I also happily became “the wheelchair guy” and would receive requests from time to time from people in our area who needed something. 

One incident really stands out. I was helping a paraplegic patient get fitted for this wheelchair. As I lifted him from the transport vehicle onto the temporary wheelchair, I felt a trickle of liquid on my feet. It turned out to be his urine bag leaking. I guess the saying, “no good deed goes unpunished” really is true.

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Some of the disabled receiving wheel chairs from Project Access

OK, that gets me back to my humble Excel sheet, what I left Warm Heart with after my many months there. Day by day, the journey I went on to meet all the people we ended up helping was what provided the individual names that went into the list on the sheet. As I think back over my year at Warm Heart and the work I did, it’s hard to summarize the experience in just a couple of pages. But the one important thing that I keep coming back to is that helping the community meant that I had to assume many unexpected roles, many not directed related to public health, whether it was teaching English to local children, or being a guardian of students at the local high school, or even being a chauffeur.  

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Some of the other things I did at Warm Heart not related to Public Health

Since I returned home, everyone has been asking me what have I taken away from this whole volunteering experience where I wasn’t paid a dime for my efforts. One thing for certain is that I learned that I can do a whole lot with very little skills to help those around me. As Michael Shafer says, “Concentrate on what you actually can do, and forget about what you can’t do.” I also came to realize that there are many people in this world who have the same passion to help others – they just come in different sizes and forms. Working with the other volunteers coming from different parts of the world was an eye-opening experience. Most of the people who volunteer at Warm Heart really want to make a difference with their contribution.

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Some of the other volunteers that I lived and worked with at Warm Heart

Although my year at Warm Heart has been an unforgettable experience, I don’t think it’s really satisfied the reason I originally decided to take a break from my
previous career. I didn’t have any major epiphanies and I still have no idea where I’m headed to next; I’m figuring out the details as I write this. The only thing I do know is that I hope to do something like this again sometime in the future. 

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Daily life in Phrao

(This is the second part of Tuff Witarama´s blog about his experience at Warm Heart)