In the Land of Smiles
When she went home for Christmas Break her first year at Southwestern, Anne Bannister says she took with her an “enormous” stack of study abroad materials to read.
“I wanted to go everywhere and found it impossible to narrow down my list,” Bannister recalls.
The country she ended up going to was not even on her original list – Thailand.
“My stepfather began talking about his friend and mentor from Rutgers University who had started a nonprofit organization in Thailand,” Bannister says. “I was curious to know more and with each thing I heard, the more intrigued I became.”
The organization her stepfather’s friend started is called Warm Heart Worldwide. It brings together volunteers from all over the globe to work on promoting education, microenterprise and health care in Thailand. One particular reason the organization was founded is to offer solutions to the kind of poverty that sends young girls in Thailand into brothels.
“So many organizations have their heart in the right place but don’t provide long-term solutions,” Bannister says. “I believe in Warm Heart’s approach and wanted to be a part of it.”
Warm Heart Worldwide is headquartered in Northern Thailand, in a small town called Phrao. It is about an hour and a half north of Chiang Mai, the nearest big city, which was a 30-hour trip from Texas.
Bannister, a studio arts major with a focus in photography and a minor in communication studies, arrived there in mid-June and has been helping the organization with a variety of tasks, including photography, communications, teaching English to school children, and planting trees and landscaping at the children’s home they run.
One particular project she will be working on is called the Story Project.
“Most of Thailand’s rural villages have no official historical record,” Bannister says. “The current leader of the Story Project has been collecting stories from the village elders, including ghost stories, nursery rhymes and folk songs, that impart important information such as religious beliefs, political views and family values. I am hoping to help continue the work that has already been started and to collect photos, video and audio files that can further help to preserve the once-vibrant story-telling tradition of the village.”
Many of the photos now displayed on the Warm Heart website are ones that Bannister has taken for them. Bannister also has been documenting her experience in Thailand in a blog that is filled with her photos. The blog details experiences such as visiting monastery temples known as wats, encountering a visit by the Royal Thai Princess, preparing an American-style Fourth of July celebration for fellow volunteers at Warm Heart, visiting an elephant park, and learning to ride a motorbike, the main form of transportation in Thailand. She even includes a few lessons in the Thai language.
Bannister says what she is doing in Thailand is exactly the kind of thing she hopes to do in the future. “I want to travel, to do work that is meaningful and has a positive impact on people’s lives, and something that allows for creativity and discovery,” she says.