Published in Bangkok Post
“Give a man a fish”, goes the ancient Chinese proverb “and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
It’s an adage that one group of ex-pat women has taken literally. After the 2004 tsunami the trio set up fish farms to help poverty-stricken islanders earn a living. They dug out ponds, filled them with fish and then showed villagers how to farm and sell their produce. It’s worked so well that a similar project is set to start in Sattahip. The women behind these schemes don’t just do fish though – they cast their nets much wider.
Women With a Mission (WWM) began six years ago when Rosanne, from Indiana, USA, along with Australians Bronwyn and Kylie, decided they wanted to give something back. They were already involved in charity work through the Pattaya International Ladies’ Club, but following the tsunami decided to visit the south to see what extra help they could give. They set up ‘lunch farms’ in seven schools around Krabi, Phang Nga and Ranong, where students could cultivate their own food, handed out lunches to more than 900 students and provided milk to children under four.
After helping the tsunami victims they turned their attentions northwards and began helping ethnic groups near the Thai-Myanmar border. Pushed out of their homelands by the Burmese and with few rights in Thailand, the communities live a Spartan existence. Rosanne said: “The children get two meals a day – rice and fish paste – and we said they need more than that as we could see they were malnourished. For 3 baht a day per child we can give them vegetables and fruit and some meat.”
The Du Pla Ya Boarding House is in the Umphium Mai Refugee Camp and is home to 80 children, mostly from the Karen State. As well as improving diets, WWM has helped provide the children with an education. Over the border in Myanmar, WWM also provides vital aid at the Grace Boarding House and Orphanage, in the Shan State. Getting access to such a troubled area can be a huge obstacle, which is one reason the women prefer not to use their surnames for publicity.
Most of the 57 children there have had little schooling. Many of their parents have died while some are migrant workers and so leave their youngsters behind at the home. Some return for their children, some do not. The home used to receive funding from a US couple, but during the recession one of the donors lost his job and the help had to stop. The children here are at risk from the nearby fighting, and WWM is currently stockpiling rice and other supplies in case the unrest moves closer.
As well as helping refugees, WWM has also assisted disabled people closer to home. The Chonburi Handicap Centre provides vocational training at the Redemptorist Center of Pattaya and helps people living in the community. With 10,000 disabled people in Chonburi, there’s a lot of aid needed and the local government can’t always cope. Rosanne and her colleagues have raised close to a million baht and helped 50 people by ensuring they receive benefits, medical equipment and in some cases even building new homes.
Rosanne said: “One woman looked after her grandchildren and made fishing nets. When she had a stroke she couldn’t work or care for the children, so the family sent her to a distant relative. They put her in a metal shed and she was literally baking, she just lay there and cried, wanting to die.”
WWM helped improve her accommodation while the Redemptorist Centre now provides food and cares for her. Such help is typical. It’s not always about throwing money at a problem; it’s about ensuring the money goes to the right places. Rosanne points out that while some well-meaning charities hand over large sums of cash, WWM insists on developing sustainable projects, and following up to ensure that people really are able to cope on their own.
The workload is intense, but Rosanne wouldn’t change a thing. She said: “Once you get hooked and see what you can accomplish and the good you can do, you see the smiles on their faces and you really can’t stop. It’s like a drug. “I think it’s our responsibility as ex-pats living here to give something back.”
For more on the group visit www.mywwm.org.