Finding Purpose and Adventure
by Annaleigh Bonds, June 23, 2017
After graduating from the University of Florida a year ago as a public relations major, I wanted to discover the world and spent seven months working and travelling in Australia, with five months of that time working as an au pair for a family living in a suburb of Brisbane. (To read more about that adventure, check out my blog at https://anniinaussie.wordpress.com/).
While still in Australia, I found Warm Heart online. It seemed to be the perfect fit allowing me to utilize my public relations skills, experience rural living in an authentic environment and most importantly, work with a Children’s Home and Warm Heart’s other worthwhile project areas. Since I had never been to Southeast Asia before, my partner James and I set aside five weeks to backpack through southern Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos before landing in northern Thailand.
I’ve been here for a month and have finally established my projects. My official title is fundraising and public relations volunteer. During the first couple of weeks I did a lot of brainstorming, planning and organizing, trying to figure out where I could fit best and be useful. Many of my early ideas were struck down while other unexpected tasks were thrown at me. For example, my idea to implement a new annually based fundraising system and my suggestions for the websites and social media pages were too complicated to take on for an organization that is too busy worrying about their current projects, much less taking on new ones.
By the second week, I started getting a grasp on what the organization needed and began jumping in. Sometimes I consulted, other times I just hoped I wasn’t crossing boundaries. Turns out, there’s not much crossing boundaries you can do here as anything is better than nothing. My first big duty was as primary handler for both Warm Heart’s worldwide Facebook page as well as the Instagram account.
At first, I was extremely nervous about my posts and worried what Carol, Warm Heart’s communications director, would think, but I quickly learned that she had left things in my hands because she trusted me. I began posting 3-5 times a week on each account, pretty much just posting what I thought was most relative and urgent. So far, both accounts seem to be doing really well and I am having fun being the voice of Warm Heart online.
Eleven new kids have been added to the Children’s Home this year. Highest priority was getting their photos and bios compiled so that they can find sponsors ASAP. We also needed to update the information on the older kids who already have sponsors. Because my initial primary purpose coming to Warm Heart was to fundraise and because James, who is also volunteering here, takes photographs, this has become my main project. It hasn’t always been exciting or eye-opening as it often requires organizing folders online, sorting through pictures and gathering information about the children, but the necessity of it makes it valuable and worthwhile to me.
To spice things up, my partner and I also began working on a social media campaign to promote the program. He has been designing the graphics and I brainstormed the slogan and message while also providing photographs and bios to share. I am extremely excited to launch the campaign.
Aside from the work I do in the office during weekdays, a lot of my time is spent on visits to local events and doing errands with other volunteers. Everything works on a pretty last-minute schedule here; some mornings when we arrive at the volunteer office, we find out that there’s a village festival, Buddhist house blessing or lunch at a police station that day that we’re invited to. These outings keep things exciting and spontaneous which I love. I usually go because I get great material for my social media posts as well as wonderful insights into the local culture.
I’m also giving English classes at Warm Heart, the Phrao subdistrict offices and a restaurant in Phrao where a children’s class is held. Before coming here I knew I would be teaching English, but my teaching schedule has been less structured than I expected and it’s sometimes hard to keep up with. I didn’t get any real training: at first I just joined classes given by other volunteers and quickly picked up on what to do. It can sometimes be challenging to figure out what to teach since there is a wide range of skill levels. My first class was an adult class, but then I tried a children’s class which I enjoyed more so I started making that a regular commitment.
Teaching English is also a great way to get closer to some of the Warm Heart office staff. I meet almost every weekday with Surapee, the new children’s house manager, to practice conversation and vocabulary. She is fairly advanced but still struggles with casual conversation. I’ve also starting working with Tidti: we’ve only had one lesson so far but I’m hoping to help her improve. I took my own language classes for granted when I was in school and regret not putting more effort into learning a second language, so I enjoy seeing Thais eagerly wanting to learn my language.
The children at Warm Heart know basic conversation and words but many of them don’t feel confident enough with their English to have in-depth conversations with volunteers. Lately it has become a campus-wide goal to get them practicing more and setting them up for success with the English language. With so many American volunteers this summer, the kids have plenty of opportunity to practice and improve at English. Hopefully we can make some kind of real impact and not only help them, but also make them want to learn more.
Besides the projects and teaching, I have found great friendships and adventure here at Warm Heart which has added tremendously to my volunteer experience. Although many of the summer volunteers are also American, we all have very different personalities but get along well and hang out together during our free time. On weekends, we take trips to surrounding towns and waterfalls.
While I’ve learned a lot about Warm Heart and the surrounding Phrao valley in the short time I’ve been here, I also realize there is much to be explored in the rest of northern Thailand. Being able to learn about the region through service and in such an intimate way has been a true privilege. I am looking forward to growing my projects throughout the rest of my summer and hoping to make a lasting impact on an organization that definitely deserves the efforts.