The first time I went to Laos was in 2004 with my husband Tui and our children (just two kids at that time ages 4 and 7) to visit my ailing grandmother so that my children can get to meet and know who their great-grandmother is. Laos wasn’t quite as developed as it is today during that trip ten years ago. Tui and I rented a van and driver for the week we were there, and there were many government posts along Route 13 (major highway running the span of southern to northern Laos) that were patrolled by officials carrying weapons. It was very intimidating to say the least, and when we look back at those days we tell ourselves how crazy brave we were to drive all over Laos like that. But it seemed that every time we got stopped at, and Tui would speak Lao to them, they would immediately let us pass through. So his Lao language ability has some great benefits in Laos. I came back home from that trip with a feeling of hopelessness and despair. I couldn’t stand to see the sad condition of my grandmother and the way that my aunts and uncles lived in poverty. I was told they were actually considered well off for the village of Baan Paktapanh’s standard. All throughout Laos wherever I visited was a culture shock for us, from the way they ate to the way they showered and slept. For months after that visit, I was feeling the sad depression of witnessing the poor conditions of the villagers and the country. I had no heart to ever go back to Laos again for I never wanted to revisit those tear jerking emotions again.
It was also during this trip that I learned of my Mae and Pa’s contributions to the village and to their family. The villagers shared what caring and loving people my parents are and how their contribution of a village fish pond really helped them have fishes for their families. All these things were unbeknownst to us for Mae and Pa were afraid to share with us what they did when they came to Laos, because they knew we weren’t financially well off for them to be helping and giving to the villagers. To know of my parents’ contributions even when they didn’t have much to give made me realize that giving isn’t about how much money you had to give, but giving comes from the heart. How could I see the sweet faces of the little children and all the moms who could have been me in my head over and over again and not have desires to help them in whatever way I possibly can? We left with a donation for the village to put a playground in the elementary school as per my seven year old daughter’s request that we do for the children when she had noticed they didn’t have any place to play during their lunch break.
Back at home I was left with feelings of sadness and despair yet hope for what I experienced in my parents’ village. The villagers showed me giving even when they didn’t have much to give. Even in death, my parents taught me that giving from the heart means so much to the receiver. Mae always have told me a story about her poor widow neighbor with small children who never had enough rice to eat. Her compassionate words echoes so strongly in my ears to this day, “Child, we are poor, but that woman is poorer than us so we need to help those who have less than us.” I didn’t know what I was going to go back to Laos to do, but I knew I had to do something for those who had less than we do.
In April 2008, just three months shortly after I came back home from Laos, I went back to Laos with my dear friends, Martha Whitfield and Jit Ponethong, and older sister euy Noi Singharath to do what I can to help the villagers of Laos. I had no idea what to do, but we just knew something, anything is better than nothing. We gathered basic dental, hygiene, school supply kits, and our old clothes to donate to various villages and orphanages we visited. We went from southern Laos all the way to northern Laos passing out sweet treats along Route 13 and hosted book parties at rural villages. We came back home with such a happy high feeling of doing our small part to help the poor villagers.
My kids were also affected by what they saw and felt that they chose to have a charity birthday party where in lieu of gifts for themselves they asked their friends to help contribute to building two bathrooms for the middle school age students. Everyone deserves a private space to go to the bathroom! They raised $1100 to build two basic private bathrooms for the teenage boys and girls of the secondary school. I knew that trip was just the beginning of other things I wanted to do to help the sweet villagers of Laos, especially the children, have an opportunity for a better quality of life.
I couldn’t stop sharing with my closest friends and family about my passion and desire to go back to Laos again and to give back to our Lao roots. Knowing my passion wasn’t going to go away, my practical and logical husband Tui steps in and says, “You need to legitimately start a non-profit charity organization if you are going to continue to do this La so we can have some kind of tax benefit for our contributions.” With his encouragement, guidance and support, the Jai Lao Foundation was founded in April 2009. It continues to be a deep rooted passion of mine to be able to voluntarily serve and give of my time, talent and whatever means and resources I have to better the lives of the children of Laos. I have found myself while in the service of others, and I have also lost myself in the service of others. Today, I am learning the art of balancing my life as a mom and a wife, and a woman with a desire to help enrich the lives of the children of Laos.