28 April, 2017

The Give and the Take

Madison Chicoine is from Des Moines, Iowa. She is a 2016-17 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA placed at Thasala School in Nakhorn Si Thammarat Province, Southern Thailand. Madison studied elementary education with an art minor at Cornell College. She is not entirely sure where her path will lead her once she is done teaching in Thailand, but she knows that whether formally or informally, she will always be a teacher. In her free time, she likes to go for runs, blog, and explore local markets. 

Growing up I was always told about the big things that I was going to do one day. Like many parents, mine made me feel special, as if I was a gift to the world and that my special talents were going to make it so much better one day. This mindset was further reinforced in my college days when everyone was pumped full of
Ghandi's "be the change" attitude. However, what my parents, college leaders, and then I forgot to consider was that perhaps sometimes the world is doing just fine on its own. Sure, there's a lot of room for improvement, but wouldn't it be a bit egotistical to think that there isn't at least one place out there that is doing fine without me coming in and being a do-gooder? This is something that I think is often forgotten in all the hype of volunteering and giving back. I know that I certainly forgot about it as my month long internship at the Camillian Social Center in Chiang Rai approached. What I realized after spending some time here is that sometimes, despite other intentions, I end up taking more than I give.

When I applied to work at Camillian’s Home of Charity, a boarding school for students with disabilities, I felt that it was the perfect opportunity for my particular experiences and training. I am a licensed teacher. I have a few years of experience working with the special needs population, and, thanks to Fulbright, I now have experience teaching in Thailand as well. With supposedly the perfect skills, I came to Camillian with the confidence that I was going to fulfill my parents' prophecy and really make an impact during my time there. I was excited to use my past experiences and training to contribute to their organization. 

The kids loved learning how to play UNO.

During my time at Camillian I taught a few English classes in the mornings, and some afternoons I shared a bit of my culture with the students. One day we spent the afternoon making woven yarn monsters and God’s Eyes, an American summer camp classic Another day we made peanut butter cookies, which turned out quite well despite not having measuring cups and being over-mixed from all the fun that the kids had playing with the pre-baked dough. I thought I had mastered the art of imprecise baking by the time we attempted chocolate meringue cookies. However, if I would have had more experience in making meringues I had realized that this recipe in particular needs a bit more precision than other cookie recipes. In the end, the cookies were pretty ugly but the kids had fun and they were still tasty. In addition to yarn crafts and cookie making, I spent the rest of my time at Camillian playing with the kids, teaching them songs, and assisting the staff whenever I could. 

My amazing coworkers were always ready to help me with my baking experiments.

Even though I contributed to Camillian in all of the ways I could, I was humbled when I realized how independent the staff was in their day to day activities. Of course they found ways for me to be involved, but, at the end of the day, my being there did not drastically change their success or institutional capacity. Additionally, I realized that even though sometimes they did things differently than what I was used to, any suggestions I could have made would have been a lateral move--even though their processes weren’t the same as mine, they worked just as well. For example, in my prior experiences, it was not okay to have mobile children push around their wheelchair bound peers as a precautionary safety measure. However, at Camillian children were always helping each other out in those ways and I never saw any negative consequences because of this. Actually, because everyone was encouraged to help each other and these were some of the most caring children I had ever met. Realizing that I was misled in assuming all of the ways I could change how things were being done was humbling, but in addition to that, I was also ashamed of the white savior complex I’d unknowingly fallen into. This was one of those instances when the “be the change” attitude steered me wrong: the Camillian Center is a well run organization which was doing well before I joined them and will continue doing great things when I leave. Truth be told, in the end, I feel that I got more from them than I was able to give back.

Of the many things I learned during my time at Camillian--the most prominent lesson I learned from the staff and children--was how to welcome a stranger. Despite the many volunteers that come and go within a month or two, everyone there welcomed me as if I had planned to stay there for a year or more. With volunteers being so transitory, I would have imagined, and even expected, them to be a bit more closed off than they were. Instead, I was warmly welcomed into their family: the kids called out greetings to me every morning; and it was noticed if I missed a meal (the cook even ensured there was extra food if I ran late for dinner). Similarly, instead of running away from me, as I experienced with my shy students during my first few weeks teaching in Southern Thailand, the kids would call out to me asking for assistance or just someone to chat with. At first I thought that maybe I was special in some way. After all, I did speak a bit of Thai and could communicate more with everyone there than the typical volunteer. However, after seeing such a warm welcoming to another volunteer I realized that this is something special about the children and staff at Camillian. They are incredibly open to accepting strangers into their lives, especially considering that they already know how fleeting each volunteer’s time will be there.

In addition to this lesson in love, my time at Camillian also taught me a lot about the culture of Northern Thailand. As the students began to return home for summer break, I was allowed to go and drop them off with other staff members. Often the students’ homes were high-up in mountain villages and, despite
 how scary it was to zip up, down, and around on the narrow dirt roads, I felt very fortunate to get to see so much of where these students called home. To top things off, when we arrived at each of the houses we were offered to share lunch with the student and his or her family. Sitting on my little woven stool and sharing an Akha style meal (which is one of the many tribes located in Northern Thailand) was an amazing and truly authentic cultural experience that I will never forget.

Here I am feeling so happy to share a meal at one of my students' homes.

When I first signed up to intern at Camillian, all I really wanted was to learn more about life for individuals with disabilities in Thailand. I never anticipated all that I’d learn about love, culture, and all of the different, yet equally effective, ways to operate in the special needs community. I feel that the little bit of English and culture I taught pales in comparison. At first this made me uncomfortable, since an axiom of most volunteerism (or related work) is to give more than you take. So what happens when you end up taking more than what you put in?

After some reflection on this and talking to one of the Catholic sisters who works here, I stumbled upon the realization that perhaps it’s impossible to actually know how much is given or taken. While currently the scale seems unbalanced, perhaps in the future more volunteers will end up at Camillian because of the experiences I share with them. Or maybe I will teach my future students about what I learned of Thai culture and help shape them into more open-minded individuals who will then go on to give back in their own ways. At the same time, I’m sure that my friends at Camillian will continue to teach volunteers through their warm and welcoming ways. It feels like I wasn’t able to do enough to make up for how much Camillian has given me, I am, nonetheless, confident that what I learned during my time here will become a part of an even bigger cycle of give and take – a cycle that will continue on as long as people keep learning, caring, loving, and growing from each other.

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