ALAMEDA -- The Mae Kok Foundation sits on the banks of a river in Northern Thailand, near the converging borders of Myanmar and Laos.
It is thousands of miles from Alameda geographically and culturally. But this summer, the two communities shared a common link. Alamedan Jason Powell, 20, spent a month at Mae Kok as part of the International Student Volunteers (ISV) program. Powell, a junior sociology major at Cal State Chico, chose Mae Kok from a list of nine potential international destinations. His own contributions and financial support from friends, family and Bay Area businesses allowed him to make the almost-$7,000 trip.
"I really wanted to do social work with kids," Powell explains. "Something that combined working with kids and teaching -- and Thailand had it all." Sipping much-needed caffeine in his parents' backyard one day after returning to the United States, Powell recounts his trip in vivid detail.
Originally founded by Thai businessman Pipat Chaisurin as a narcotics rehabilitation facility, Mae Kok now functions as an orphanage and youth development center. At the helm is Chaisurin's widow, Anuluck, who generally goes by "Mom." Mrs. Chaisurin began collaborating with ISV in 2009 when she needed support to improve her facilities and outreach programs. The students' physical labor and enthusiasm for social justice have proved crucial to the foundation's development. Twelve groups from ISV have now visited and worked
Thirty-two people ages 4 to 18 live at Mae Kok. Some are ethnic Thais, others are members of the nearby Akha hill tribe and a few are refugees from neighboring Myanmar. All come from homes wracked by extreme poverty or neglect. Many of the Mae Kok residents were literally orphaned when their parents died from substance abuse or AIDS. Others have parents who simply could not afford to care for them. "A few of the kids' parents just said, 'You know, if you send him back to us, we can give him a bowl of rice a day, but that's it' " Powell says.
Powell's tone is matter-of-fact; he just spent a month among children for whom such brutal circumstances are common. But there is emotion in his voice, as if he is still wrapping his head around the concept.
Along with providing the basic necessities of food and housing, 'Mom's' ' mission is to foster a sense of self-respect and independence in her charges. Some of the kids attend regular school, while others study vocations such as gardening, welding, building and embroidery. But everyone at Mae Kok works -- hard.
Powell and the other ISV volunteers rose early and spent their days cleaning and building infrastructure. He speaks with more than a little awe in his voice about the work ethic demonstrated by even the youngest Mae Kok residents.
"These kids are up between 4:30 and 5 a.m., hand washing their clothes, getting ready for school, doing chores, taking care of the animals," Powell says. " 'Mom' doesn't want them to feel like victims. She wants them to succeed in the real world."
Among other tasks at the foundation, Powell helped build a pigpen and biogas tank that will eventually power an indoor cooking stove. Along with performing on-site labor, Powell also taught English in the nearby city of Chiang Mai.
Powell has no doubt that his time in Thailand has changed him forever. He plans to keep in contact with his fellow volunteers as well as the adults and children who live at the foundation. Some of his new friends speak limited or no English, but Powell has learned enough Thai to communicate on a conversational level.
Powell hopes that he has left something of himself with the children at Mae Kok. "I taught this one kid three songs on the guitar -- Beatles, Pink Floyd and Santana. And later I was walking around and I heard it being played. He had totally memorized them."
Powell believes that he learned as much, if not more, from the children as they learned from him. "You see kids, and they have so little, and you want to help any way you can. You want to just say 'Here! Take everything I have!' But what's really helping them is to bring them up on the inside, to make them realize that they can be self-motivated and do it on their own."
Powell is still processing what Thailand means to him, but he is certain about one thing. He will return to Thailand, and he has no plans of stopping there. Thinking about what the world might hold for him, Powell seems immune to what must be extreme jet lag. "I have the travel bug now," he says, cheerily slugging his coffee drink. "There are so many places I'm going to go."