Reflections on Laos

By: Lois Scheerschmidt

I’ve known for a long time that my life was missing something. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day tasks that comprise family, work and social interaction – easy to put ‘giving back’ aside.  Off and on, I’ve looked at volunteer opportunities both locally and abroad but never actually took the steps to participate.  Then along came Deanna with her seemingly endless enthusiasm, energy and foresight and I was drawn in and given the perfect opportunity.

When my son was born and I began to be aware of the difference between his upbringing and mine, I expressed (to anyone that would listen) that when he was 12 I was taking him to Haiti to volunteer so that he could see how truly fortunate he was.  Nothing is more important to me than instilling in him the humility that could so easily be lacking in children brought up in our privileged society – I couldn’t bear to raise a ‘spoiled rotten’ child who was all about acquiring ‘stuff’. 

We’ve been travelling extensively over the past few years trying to expose our son to as many cultures as possible.  Having been to Asia once (Thailand and Singapore), we were excited to experience Laos – especially after Deanna described her experience there and her instant appreciation of Luang Prabang.  But above all, we wanted to do what we could to better the lives of the children living in the orphanage schools in the area around Luang Prabang. 

Part of the magic of Give A Shirt is definitely the process surrounding the collection of clothing and blankets to fill the sea can.  Oh, that and watching Deanna tirelessly explore every possible avenue for obtaining contributions toward the end goal – the donation of the sea can, both inter-continental and trans-continental transportation, school and media participation.  Persistence definitely pays off!!! 

The contribution of the school age children is crucial to the overall success of Give A Shirt, not just in terms of labour (sorting and packing of clothes) but in the fact that so many children are made aware of what exactly it is they’re doing – giving away something they already have but don’t need anymore so that another child can have their basic needs met!  It doesn’t get any simpler than that.  Give A Shirt is responsible for making children aware of the plight of other less fortunate children in a tangible way. 

My son and I had the experience of a lifetime in Laos.  Our days spent at the orphanage schools were not easy – it was hot, dusty work sorting and distributing clothing.  And we observed first hand the meals of sticky rice and nothing else, tattered, stained clothing, wooden beds with thin worn mats to sleep on.  Worst of all were the concrete tubs in the middle of an open area that were used for ‘bathing’ while standing in the mud at their base.   I asked Reid how he would feel about staying overnight there and saw his eyes grow big and round at the thought as he shook his head ‘no’. 

We also observed the most beautiful children.  They smiled and played and delighted in using the paints we’d brought to create a banner to send back to the children at Graminia school.  One of my favourite moments (and there are many) was when my son handed one of the boys around his age a brand new soccer ball after they’d kicked it back and forth with each other for a while.  He was incredulous at the idea that the ball was actually going to be his own!

While we were there, we started making plans for our return – when would we come, what would we bring etc.  There was no question in my mind that I’d be back and that growing Give A Shirt would be a priority for many of us that were there.  December 2014 with 2 sea cans will happen with the possibility of another contingent going around spring break.  At this point, Deanna and I are discussing taking Kaelyn and Reid for the entire month of December with the intention of taking on some additional projects and maybe even learning to speak a little bit of the language!

The most difficult part of this experience was readjusting to life when we got back home.  The excessiveness of our society is now a constant consideration for me.  I find myself saying ‘that’s just stuff’ a lot of the time, when it comes to making new purchases and dealing with our existing possessions.  I’ve always hated the idea of sending something to a land fill and consequently my son doesn’t have a lot of toys – especially not cheap toys that we know will break with only a few hours of use.   And I admittedly have as hard a time throwing something away as I do buying it in the first place.  I contemplated down sizing our house, made a career change and am still doing a lot of soul searching.   How do we reconcile ourselves to the disparity of wealth in this world???  How could I every justify getting a pedicure for  $60 when these children were only getting 14 meals a week and 11 of those meals were sticky rice!  To fit in to my ‘culture’ I need to have pretty feet…..  Actually writing it down makes me a little sick to my stomach. 

I don’t know where this journey leads but I’m going to take it one day at a time and right now I’m looking ahead to next December and all of the planning, organizing and recruiting that will lead up to it!  And I’m going to be eternally grateful for the generosity and courage of my friend Deanna!

Imagine….

By: Jill Lienau

I have started this blog many different times in the past month and have finally realized that no matter how many different times I write it, I will never be satisfied or feel that I have done justice to my experience. It was only a just a few days ago as I heard John Lennon’s “Imagine” playing, that I felt the words run deeply through my veins and was able to add the final connection that would tie my writing all together.

After traveling to Laos with the rest of the Give a Shirt team in March 2013, I have been asked by so many people “How are you? How was your trip?” I find myself struggling to answer these questions sufficiently in terms of what people “expect” to hear… “I am good, and it was great.” This response is true but there is so much more that I can’t begin to explain in a concise answer. When I hear this question there is so much I want to share but where do I start? In a recent conversation with Deanna I told her, “I am doing good, but I still don’t feel back to normal” What is normal? As Deanna explained, “That’s because you have changed.” And how true that is…. I have changed. The person that left a month ago is certainly not the same person that I see when I look in the mirror. I feel different… I have a deeper understanding, and I am filled with passion and desire to live a more meaningful life.

I have been fighting and struggling against the materialistic culture that we are absorbed in.  I find myself hyper sensitive to greed and ignorance. Everything from clothing, advertisements, and overabundance in every aspect possibly imaginable irritates me. What resonates with me is that as North Americans we believe we are living the best life possible and yet, having experienced poverty and corruption to an extent that is inconceivable, I truly believe we are doing something wrong. These kind hearted, gentle, gracious people who have so little in terms of material possessions, radiate nothing but pure joy and happiness from deep in their souls… unlike anyone I am yet to meet in North America. “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can? No need for greed or hunger...” If more is truly not better, then it is time to simplify and search deeply for what really matters.

Numerous times I have heard “we need to help people in Canada first. There is poverty here and we should not be helping other countries until every person in Canada is looked after.” And to this, I would respond with a belief that it is our responsibility to help others. What does an invisible border or religion represent?  “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do… nothing to kill or die for; and no religion too…”

I know that I was unable to leave what I saw in Laos and go on living the way I did before. I feel as though my brain is split in two… as I experience something here, I see on the other side the beautiful smiling faces of the kids in the orphanages and feel deep sadness as I try to process and connect the two experiences. “Imagine all the people sharing all the world…”

The powerful change that has occurred is one of intolerance. Intolerance for complaints of not having everything one wants, lack of appreciation and sense of entitlement. Not only intolerance of other people, but of myself as well. Self reflection has led to embarrassment of what I used to value and think was important. As an educator I struggle with finding a way to teach children appreciation, acceptance and global responsibility. I hope that by sharing my experience and passion I will spark at least some interest and inspire change.

As I re-live the day that we were loading up the truck at Deak Kum Pa orphanage with clothes to take to Num Buk, I remember the overwhelming sense of joy and happiness that I felt as I played Frisbee with Phon- a ten year old boy with a smile that could melt any heart. It is this feeling that I keep going back to when I struggle with not having the answers.  What I do know is that Laos and Give a Shirt ignited a fire inside me that I know has led me down the path that I have been forever searching for. I wanted to go to Laos to help others, but what I didn’t know was that the people I met, the connections I made, and the experiences I had, have helped me more than I ever imagined.

I hear the lyrics of John Lennon’s “Imagine” playing in the back of my mind…. “Imagine all the people living life in peace… you may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you will join us, and the world will live as one.” We may not be able to solve all the problems but we will make a difference… One shirt at a time….

And here we go!

The adventure we are all about to embark upon started two years ago with a dinner conversation with Lois and invitation to go to Thailand, and then a suggestion by a friend to go to Laos and then a five year old girl asking me how many kids was 500?  that turned into 6 hockey bags of clothing and donations of money from many of you - then meeting Andrew and the experience of the Laotian children that would stay in my heart and circulate in my blood...  

Interrupt that with watching both of my parent's health deteriorate, surrounded by those nearing the end of their days on earth....  then a year ago sitting with my dad and watching him breathe for his final hours and then two months later witnessing my mother as she also left the earthly realm....

Then a friend sent me the video for "where the hell is Matt" and while I loved the video, it was the lyrics that resonated...

If all the days that come to pass

Are behind these walls

I’ll be left at the end of things

In a world kept small

I did not want to be at the end of my days "in a world kept small" like my father and my mother, both of whom dreamed of travel and never did much of it...  I didn't want to wait until some future moment to make a difference in the lives of others.. Andrew was doing it, lots of others are doing it, why couldn't I?  

and Part 2 began...

with tea one fall morning with Karen and Christy and the revealing of Christy's challenge to find a home for their philanthropy funds...  I could help her with that..

about the exact same time as that conversation was occurring in Edmonton, Samantha in Calgary, was watching the video for the Deak Kum Pa Orphanage and sent me an email suggesting that her business and my business partner up and do some fundraising and then we would travel together to Laos...   

the gods were whispering in everyone's ears that day and we were all listening!

Travel far from what I know

I’ll be swept away

I need to know

I can be lost and not afraid

with an email to Andrew I learned he had just sold his shares in his hotel and would now be working to improve the lives of more than 2,000 children in three orphanages...  it would seem that once he made that decision, the call for help was going out to all of those who would listen..

Remember we’re lost together

Remember we’re the same

We hold the burning rhytm in our hearts

We hold the flame

and then a meeting with Elston and Christy and the idea for a SeaCan... 

get Dayton on a plane out here to make a website.. GIVE A SHIRT...

and a text message to Lois - who in a heartbeat decided she was going too!

now let's make a video in front of the SeaCan

an email to Jill to let her know Kaelyn would be missing school

a reply from Jill that she wanted to be involved after running down the school hallway to infuse Kendra and Andrew with her excitement..  on board come the three Graminia teachers!

agreement from the principal of the school to allow us through the school doors again to do a clothing drive

then the donation of the SeaCan

and a friend sent me the contact for the shipping broker...

a lunch conversation with a lawyer from St. Alberta and soon her daughter's school in Morinville was on board

and a teacher in Spruce Grove who read the Parkland newsletter and the story caught her eye and she joined in

a trip to Saskatchewan to give a presentation and Grant was hooked along with Andrew Clements from Calgary.

then a donation of 500,000 Aeroplan miles from Lionel that would later convert to $5,000 cash

and then the final piece to the puzzle, and email from a friend pointing me in the direction of a Laotians in Winnipeg - one of them leaving the next day for Laos, who would end up locating a trucking company that would pick up the can from Bangkok...

Kaelyn and I hit the tour circuit, traveling to schools to give our presentation..

Tammy, a teacher at Robina Baker in Devon joined the growing momentum

and so the clothing was collected and poured into Graminia school 

a truck load from Lois in Sherwood Park...

boxes and packing supplies were donated

parents from Graminia school showed up to sort and fold and pack

our audience on Facebook and Twitter grew

a truck and trailer load of clothing was brought up from Calgary and Stathmore by Andrew

Elston picked up loads from Morinville and Spruce Grove

someone responding to a call for help on Facebook picked up more boxes of clothing from Calgary

another call for help on Facebook brought donations of boxes to the school

then there was the Global TV coverage..

and article in the Devon Dispatch that would catch the eye of the manager of Tim Hortons who would later donate jersey's

and all along Samantha is working away in her business in Calgary collecting clothing and raising funds..

while Dayton updates and improves the website

and a truck and trailer load from Grant and Terry and many others in Saskatchewan would arrive...

and on it went until just the right amount of clothing and blankets arrived to exactly fill the can...

then the snow prevented the first attempt to pick up the can so we miss our first shipping date..

and finally the truck arrived and drove away with our beloved can...  one of Kaelyn's classmates was heard to say "now those kids in Laos don't have to be poor anymore."

then onto the train to Vancouver

and then on board the Seattle Express to China for another delay..

and finally to arrive in Bangkok on March 11th...

where I would find out the proper documentation was not in order..

more scrambling and phone calls and couriers..

then the release of the can through Thai customs..

and tonight as I complete my packing... the whereabouts of the container remains a mystery - hoping the trucking company has sorted out the drama around the customs documents for the Laos border crossing..

and donations continue to flow in as do more sponsorships for students...

and last moment negotiations with Laos airlines to waive excess baggage fees...

while keeping the vision of us all approaching that container in four days to unlock the doors and begin to unpack and distribute the contents - in a far away land...

..we cannot possibly know how this will impact and change us -  we will have our shared and individual experiences...  it really is a mystery how this was grown and taken on its own life outside and inside of us all...  

as Andrew recently reminded us, the top 1% of humanity has the ability to eradicate poverty...  

and after our 8 days in Laos has passed.... 

I’ll find my way home

On the Western wind

To a place that was once my world

Back from where I’ve been

And in the morning light I’ll remember

As the sun will rise

We are all the glowing embers

Of a distant fire

We’re gonna trip the light

We’re gonna break the night

And we’ll see with new eyes

When we trip the light...

and I wonder what we all will see with our new eyes?