Considering it was only back in the Summer of 2013 that we stated Pronto's CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) Program, we've been amazed at what we've been able to achieve so far. Our CSR adventure really started out when Khun Derek Brown (KD) our Managing Director introduced us to his friend Khun Nion one of the co-founders of the Kharma Foundation. She shared with us her experiences in working with underprivileged children in Thailand's more inaccessible north-western areas.
The Kharma Foundaion is a Thailand-based nonprofit organization which was established with the aim of helping to alleviate the plight of children in far-off, often poverty-struck regions. For seven years now the foundation has visited orphanages and schools (mostly in the North and on the Thai-Burmese border) to provide much-needed school supplies, material, food, clothing, blankets, books and toys, to name just a few of the things needed. They have also provided materials and manpower to help build new school buildings.
We were greatly inspired by Khun Nion's stories and how her foundation has improved the lives of Thai children so we decided that our CSR program would be to team up with the Karma Foundation so we could all work together on their next project. This was to help help the young students at an elementary school in a small village called Ban Hua Kratail in the Thai-Burmese border province of Mae Hong Son. Some of the children live so far away from their school that they needed to stay there for the week in the dormitory - which needed vital work as well as supplies. But as the charity was heading up there in January 2014, we had a great deal to do.
Our mission, (which we've chosen to accept) is to go to Ban Hua Kratail, build a kindergarten classroom; introduce a self-sustainable farming project by setting up chicken coops, pigs pens, a fish pond along with a mushroom house; to host the Sports Day event on Thailand's Children’s day; to feed the school and the entire village over the course of our stay; and to give our time and deliver donated goods to the school.
Khun Nion and the Kharma Foundation had asked the school headmaster to to arrange for people from the village to help build the initial frame of the new Kindergarten building and prepare the wood to be used in the rest of the construction.
Pronto agreed to sponsor some of the items for the project, so we went to our local wholesale store a couple of days before the trip as well as arranging for some items to be delivered straight to the Pronto office.
The Fantastic Five
Though every one of the Pronto CSR team is dedicated to their role, not all of them were able to make it on this trip, which, due to the rough roads upcountry and long distances involved would take a few days. So it came down to a team of five fantastic volunteers to head to Mae Hong Son and complete the mission. Here are the chosen five:
From left to right: Bell (Social Media Producer), Cory (Co-Founder/VP Product Development), Derek (Co-Founder/Managing Director), Chamy (Email Marketing & Newsletter Producer) and May (Client Production Manager).
The Journey North
Chammy, Bell and myself arrived in the northern city of Chiang Mai, a one-hour plane ride from Bangkok around at around 6pm. Here we were met by three vans and 18 other volunteers for the four-hour ride on winding roads from Chiang Mai to a hotel in Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son, where we were to stay for the night.
At the hotel, we met up with the rest of the crew along with Derek and Cory who had driven up from Bangkok with our trucks of goodies and brought a mini-mountain of cooking ingredients in two delivery trucks for our four-day stay at the school. After a little reunion, we headed for bed. This was to be our last night on clean comfy mattresses before our real journey into the unknown was to begin.
Day 1 - First Impressions
At 6am, the bleary-eyed volunteers were in the lobby and ready to check out. We loaded four pickup trucks with the groceries from our two trucks, slung our bags into the back and headed to the headmaster’s house at the foot of the hill. Here, quite impressively, a 10-wheel military truck (it seems the boys in green were happy to help) was waiting for us.
We loaded this beast of a truck up with playground equipment, preassembled bunk beds, mattresses, and boxes of donated items that were delivered to the school headmaster’s house days before. After an hour of feverish packing, we started out on the bumpy three-hour ride up the mountains to our destination - Baan Huai Gratai School.
It was a long trip, but when we pulled up in front of the school, the students were standing outside of the classroom waiting. Aged from 5 to 12 years old and clad in tracksuit uniforms and sandals, they rushed over to the pickup trucks to help us unload and carry stuff inside the school. The teachers came out to greet the crew and led of us to the half-finished kindergarten building that the Kharma Foundation had arranged to be built by the volunteers.
The frame let off a delicious scent of freshly-cut wood as we sat in its shade to enjoy a meal that the school had prepared for us. It was only 11am and had already been a long day, but there was still work to be done. So the well-fed volunteers were separated into three team: construction, kitchen, and teaching.
The kitchen team was responsible for preparing dinner for the 80 students, 6 teachers, 24 volunteers, and more than ten workers from the village. With all that food to prepare, the team went straight to the kitchen and started cutting up ingredients as soon as their tents were up.
The construction team was split into two, with one group to assemble bunk beds for the boy’s and girl’s dorms and the other to work on the walls of the kindergarten building and making of mushroom house. Obviously the kids were eager to play with the playground equipment that we'd brought along and the Pronto teaching team watched over them while teachers helped with communication and coordination between volunteers and the people from the village.
After a great deal of hard work, we all sat down and had dinner together in the cafeteria. Some of the kids, with the supervision of a teacher surprised us with homemade french fries made out of freshly picked sweet potatoes - a very crispy treat.
Once we had eaten, the kids did their part to help clear up. With a little time now to call our own, some of the volunteers hung out in the camp area, others hung round the kitchen, trying to sneak some Isaan food and others simply went to bed early, exhausted by the day's activities.
Day 2 - Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho, it's off to work we go
Morning brought a surprise as the dormitory kids has risen well before us and has been hard at work cooking rice and doing chores. This was all well before 6:30am, the time us more tardy volunteers got to the kitchen. Once the other more local students had arrived, the school day proper started.
In Thai schools, it is usual to begin the day by gathering in front of the Thai flag for the morning ceremony (similar to the morning Pledge of Allegiance in the USA) before heading to the cafeteria for breakfast. The morning meal was followed by a quick dish washing session before all the students gathered in a classroom (all 80 of them), and followed the volunteers in singing cheering songs and doing math and English problems - bribed by our rewards of snacks and treats.
Outside the classroom, the construction team got to work. Their tasks included finishing boarding up the sides of the kindergarten building and putting up shelves and walls around the mushroom house. The kitchen team probably had the toughest challenge, having to make lunch for the entire village on top of what they had to prepare for the school, including the hungry mouths and empty bellies of the volunteers and hired workers.
As the day came to a close, we gathered at the top of the nearby hill to celebrate our hard work. The tasty meal was served in a buffet style and it was great to sit out by the campfire and enjoy good food and good company. The evening's entertainment was provided by the students themselves, dressed in their village costumes they performed traditional dances and rocked out to some modern Thai-pop song too.
When it got pitch dark, the teachers also organized for us to “loi-kom” (sending off a sky lantern), a local tradition that is usually held around the full moon festivals in this Northern part of Thailand. As this lovely lantern gently rose into the night sky, its progress was watched by the expats and Thai and expat volunteers were awestruck by its simple yet timeless beauty.
Day 3 - Sport’s day (It’s going down!)
Our third day at the school was Thailand's Children’s day, which is held every second Saturday of January. On this day, government compounds, zoos, military bases, museums, restaurants, shopping malls, and other public destinations hold special events and allow children in for free. But being over three hours drive away from a sealed road, the the children from the Baan Huai Gratai School tend to miss out on the fun activities their city counterparts take for granted. So this year, the Karma Foundation decided to host and sponsor a special Children’s Day at the school.
Apart from the unfortunate kitchen team who were sent back to slave over hot stoves, the busy volunteers got to enjoy a morning performance from the school children. The Foundation awarded prizes to winners of an art contest and toys, school supplies, and snacks were handed out.
We also took part in more traditional Thai fun and games such as: a speed eating contest, a race to the top of a slippery bamboo pole race, kick the bucket blindfolded, musical chairs and a balloon blowing contest, to name but a few. Everyone took part and enjoyed the fun, volunteers, villages and children alike.
After a lovely lunch provided by the kitchen team, the events continued and became a little more serious and competitive. The students and volunteers were split up into two different teams: Pink and White, with equal numbers of volunteers and students on each. The first event was an Eleven-Legged race, followed by a Tug of War and Chair Ball (think ultimate frisbee with a ball and one person on each team holding basket on a chair).
The Chair Ball game between volunteers got really intense and even a little bloody in places. In fact, we couldn't even figure out the overall final score, but everyone agreed that tired as they were, it had been a blast. But there was still more fun to come.
We asked the students, their families, and the entire village to come back the school that night for our special show. After the sun set, we turned off all the lights in the buildings so we could see the magical blanket of stars in the sky. As everyone gathered in front of the school, two volunteers from Kharma Foundation started a firework extravagance. All the kids and people in the village, some of whom had never seen fireworks in their life, were running around crying in excitement and mock-horror.
It was fantastic and needless to say, there was a massive round of applause at the end of the show. And, when the lights went back up, it seemed we could still see the fireworks going off in the student's eyes, so enraptured they were by what they'd seen.
Day 4 - The Farewell
On our final day, the ever-overworked kitchen team rose early to cook their last meal for the trip. The rest of the volunteers quickly had their breakfast, packed up their belongings, and started setting up tables to lay out the donated goods we’re were to give away during the closing ceremony. Before this, the Pronto Team took time to perform eye examinations for all the students. We were very pleased to find that there wasn't a single student who needed corrective lenses.
The closing ceremony commenced and the headmaster started out by thanking all the volunteers for coming and helping out at the school. Then the children joined a line that went past our tables and they recieved shoes, clothes, underwear, sport equipment, and other donated goods. But once all these items had been fairly distributed, things got a little quiet. It was almost time for us to say goodbye and begin our long journey back to the city.
Before we left, several older kids ran into the school building and each came out with hill tribe bags from their village and gave to us. That’s when I started to cry. i was going to miss it here, more than I could say. A few photos and tearful group hugs later, all the volunteers loaded the pickup trucks with their belongings and we were off, a little sad but also very uplifted at all we'd seen and done.
So, what did we learn?
We learned many many things both from Kharma Foundation and Baan Huai Gratai School. But perhaps the most notable lessons were:
1. Preparation makes perfect. Khun Noin and her team started planning for this event a year ahead and invested hours of vigorous preparation for the project to come out as smoothly as it did. Many things could have gone wrong, but since all the problems has been anticipated and were part of the plan, solutions for disaster were already in place - nothing really slowed us down.
2. Choose the right people for the job. Khun Nion met up with and got to know all the volunteers before the actual trip. So she knew who would be the best person for each team, or even if they were suitable to go at all.
Future CSR Projects
We're still trying to figure out which direction to go with our future CSR projects. Whether to focus on education, healthcare, environmental, or social issues. As a company Pronto wants to make sure that we impact on society only in a positive way and benefits go to those who need them most.