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How to volunteer when red tape gets in the way: A story from Mawlamyine

Posted by on September 6, 2012
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We made it a point to volunteer in our travels. I’m ashamed to admit we got lazy in South America. But in Asia, we tried. We really did. But for one reason or another — there was a large fee we had to pay or they wanted us to commit to six months or more — every opportunity evaded us. (There was that one time we bought medicine for a poor man in a Laos village, but that’s a really long, complicated story I’d rather not get into here.)

In the end, we realized that if we wanted to do something, we needed to get a bit creative and offer our time in a more basic way. No organizations, no red tape. This is that story.

Our interests have always lay with helping kids. If you could hear our squeals when we see Asian babies, then you’d know we’re obsessed. But we’re against donating toys or playing games, and we definitely don’t condone orphanage visits unless we have long-term plans. There’s something to be said for brightening a child’s day, of course, but what kind of lasting impact does it have? How does that increase their market value to break the cycle of poverty?

We know English. We can teach English. We also have money. We can buy school supplies. And that’s what we did on two really eye-opening days in Mawlamyine, Myanmar.

Among the list of questions to ask the guesthouse owner, Mr. Anthony — “how much is the bus to Taungoo?” and “what time does the market close?” — was the most important one: “Do you know a school where we can practice English with students and get them school supplies?”

He knew a place — St. Joseph’s Convent, a school and home for children who’ve been displaced by government actions. (Myanmar is home to many people of the Karin minority, a Christian-faith ethnic group that has been persecuted for many years.) So he phoned his friend, a nun at the convent, who arranged a time for us to come.

We didn’t quite know what we were getting into. Would we help with homework? Would we be assisting a teacher? Would we be conducting a round of English sing-a-long with toddlers? As we walked into the classroom on the first day, it was clear that no, no, we’d be playing teacher for two hours.

There was the dry erase board. There were the waiting students. Go.


Without a lesson plan or an ounce of teacher training, we just winged it. I personally thought back to all the phrases and words I learned when I began studying Farsi a couple years ago. “How are you?”, “Where are you from?”, “I like to ride my bicycle,” and — because no language course is complete without talk of weather — “It’s sunny today!”

OK, so it wasn’t Shakespeare, but the kids were scribbling in their notebooks, repeating with us and conversing with partners. It was working! And the Eaman-Archana teaching duo was a smooth operation. Who knew?

For their part, the kids were unbelievably polite. I imagine they’re instructed to do this, but every time they answered a question — or even when we entered the room — they stood up. It was sweet but totally unecessary for us. After a while, we told them to stay put. It’s just us! No formalities please. Naturally some kids were more shy than others, but you’d be surprised to hear how many were eager to show off their English. Very endearing.

After our “lesson,” the Sister, who coordinated the session, invited us to the kitchen for some fruit and soda, all the while telling us how shocked she was to receive the phone call that morning. Clearly not in the know about how common this kind of volunteering is, she just didn’t understand where we would ever get the idea to come and do such a thing.

But her shower of praises made us feel a little awkward. Two days? Big whoop. This was nothing. We could be doing so much more. Where was this great idea before, in other countries? We tried our best to explain that our coming was small beans, but it fell on deaf ears. She was smiling ear to ear, so we let her be. If she was happy, we were happy. (I hesitated in even telling this story because I didn’t want anyone to think we think we were saints, doing two days of English practice. But I relented because I think it might inspire travelers to think a little more simply when it comes to volunteering.)

We also asked the Sister what supplies the kids may need, and together, we went straight to the source — the kids. The Sister polled the students, who at first were hesitant to ask for anything. But after some nudging, the requests rolled in: larger notebooks to accommodate math problems, pencil cases to fit larger items like protractors and compasses, umbrellas for the nine girls whose old ones broke with the recent heavy winds and one backpack for a girl who was the only one to not get a new one due to lack of supply.

So to the school supply store we went! And fortunately, with our guesthouse owner by our side to help translate and negotiate. (The money didn’t matter; we just didn’t want to be ripped off simply for being foreigners.) The whole shopping experience was really fun and brought back a lot of memories of back-to-school shopping. We had so much fun picking out supplies, wondering what colors and patterns they’d like, trying to find the most beautiful backpack and testing out umbrellas.

On our second day, we had another lesson with the same kids — this time we came a little more prepared — and finally presented them with their new supplies. They weren’t screaming in delight or switching colors (even though we told them to feel free to do so); they were just so completely and utterly gracious.

The Sister insisted on taking photos of us.


When the girls came to get their umbrellas, we laid them out so they could pick out their favorite colors. But maybe they’ve never been given many choices, because they simply picked the next umbrella in the line.


Alphabet posters for nursery school students.


And in that moment, Eaman and I felt spoiled rotten. I remember a time when I couldn’t get the Lisa Frank folder I wanted. Or the time I wasted a whole White Out pen on decorating my pencil case. I can’t believe how lucky I was.

And it extended beyond notebooks and pens. These kids have endured painful experiences but radiate such positivity. When we asked each of them what they wanted to be when they grow up, they had big answers. Nun, doctor, poet, fashion designer. I love that their dreams are big.


Two girls live at the convent because their mother remarried an alcoholic. The younger of the two has become so introverted that she has trouble talking to anyone but her sister. She spends the day time with the nursery school students — kids who pay tuition but have families and homes to go to after school — and watching ths girl’s face as her friends went home was heartbreaking. In addition to a notebook, pen and pencil case, we brought her a stuffed Piglet.


Before we said our goodbyes, the Sister asked around if any of the students had anything they wanted to say to us themselves. One girl stood up, came to the front and started speaking at length in Burmese, while the Sister translated. I honestly don’t remember her exact words, but I do remember that they were filled with gratitude. And though I didn’t understand a lick of what she was saying, as she spoke, I started choking up. It was just so heartfelt. It was the reason we felt so compelled to be there.

After we said our goodbyes and thanked the Sister for her time, we had a hard time shaking some thoughts. We were starting to connect to the kids. Maybe it was bad to leave them hanging. Why didn’t we buy more supplies? Are we selfish for traveling around the world? Why haven’t we done this more often?

The only way we managed to console ourselves was by trying to emulate some of the positivity we saw in the kids. And with that, a few things came to mind. Small actions have the potential to make a difference. We should always remember how lucky we are. However big of a problem we have in our First World lives, it’s never as bad as we think. And in the end, there is no more wonderful feeling than sharing what is already ours with someone in need.

You probably expected us to already have gained a new perspective on life after traveling, and in some respects, we have. But only after this experience have we felt truly different and more clear-headed. And for that, we thank the kids.

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6 Responses to How to volunteer when red tape gets in the way: A story from Mawlamyine

  1. Dad

    …Very nice blog…very touching…glad you guys were able to do that…

  2. Summar

    Love this post! :)

  3. Cat

    So incredibly moving and inspiring!

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