Higher Education: Warm Heart

Warm Heart is a community-based development organization serving mountainous, rural northern Thailand. Warm Heart is dedicated to finding relevant solutions to support and enable isolated hill tribe and Thai villages in becoming socially and economically sustainable communities.

Meet Michael Shafer and Evelind Schecter, a former Rutgers professor and a successful New York businesswoman who designed a dramatically different retirement plan. Uprooting their American middle-class lives, this husband-wife team replanted themselves in the remote Phrao district of northern Thailand, crafting their next chapter through a shared mission dedicated to promoting equality and improving the lives of those living in poverty.

"People thought I was simply mad to leave a full, tenured position at a major research university, but I am so immensely glad I did. The very thought that I might have missed all of this for financial security paid for in the drudgery just kills me," Michael said.

Michael was inspired to create Warm Heart after working with a group of courageous women involved in the sex industry in the Mekong Region. Fueled by their stories, coupled with the international misperceptions of the sex trade, he established Warm Heart with the vision to provide opportunities for the very poor, so that one day, brothels will no longer be an option.

"Professor Shafer, why are people so interested in the sex?" the girls asked. "Why don't they stop to think about a life that is so bad that life in a brothel is worth paying a trafficker for?"

Warm Heart is a grassroots organization committed to helping villagers in the Phrao district help themselves. It organizes community projects that improve access to education and basic health services, create jobs and sustainable incomes for the poorest in the community, and restore the environment to sustain future generations.

The Phrao district is set amidst a brilliant backdrop of rolling hills, rice paddies, mango orchards, and seclusion. But this beautiful façade masks the day-to-day struggle of more than one third of its villagers who live below the poverty line. In Phrao, the average education level is fourth grade, one hospital serves 54,000 people, and the majority are agricultural day laborers who can work only seven months a year, compelling them to migrate to find work on plantations, as domestics, in sweatshops, or in brothels.

Children born in hill tribe villages grow up facing unfathomable hardships. Mountain villages are hours from valley schools, forcing children to either board with strangers or not attend school at all. These children speak different languages and come from different cultures, setting them apart with a harsh disadvantage at a Thai public school. More than 85 percent drop out after sixth grade.

Sarang was brought to Warm Heart's children's home at age eight because his village was in the middle of a drug war. He spoke no Thai and struggled at school. Last semester, 12 year-old Sarang received his school's highest academic award.

Aom, age 15, was abandoned by her teenage mother at birth. She has flourished at Warm Heart and hopes to be a designer. In May, she starts at Payap Technological and Business College in Chiang Mai.

Phrao does not lack energy or capability; it lacks opportunity and resources. Listening to the villagers' challenges and striving to address their needs, Michael and Evelind have worked alongside this community to define problems and develop sustainable solutions. Jobs created through bio-char fertilization production, reforestation, coffee production, silk creation, and traditional crafts being brought into the global market enable economic freedom and empowerment.

Weaving together his enthusiasm for innovation and his strong commitment to justice, Michael aims to help this community reach its full potential, ultimately breaking this cycle of poverty. Here is the who, what, where, when, why and how of Michael's journey.

Q. Who inspires you?

A. "Dreamers and visionaries with the will and courage to act. I suppose the obvious names others would know are Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, men who could imagine whole new worlds and hold onto that dream despite everything, while they calculatingly made it a reality. To this day, King's I have a Dream speech gives me shivers, as do Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence that inspired it.

Jefferson, Lincoln, and King are mere humans who envisioned a new, fundamentally different, better world and made it happen. They were not all talk-talk. They were also do-do.

These are the people I admire and there are many more like them out there; unsung visionaries who have not perhaps tried to change the world, but just the same have made their visions reality and improved the world in some small way.

Here in Phrao, I am inspired daily by my wife and by members of our community who, like quiet, quotidian Kings and Mandelas, are making dreams come true."

Q. What is your vision for a better world?

A. "On the homepage of the Warm Heart website we say that Warm Heart is built on 'the most powerful idea in the world: all people are created equal.' Equal. Everybody can have rights; according to the UN, you are born with them. Equality takes action.

In that same paragraph in the homepage, we say that we left our old life to found Warm Heart 'to help others claim their own equality. We, too, have a dream, a dream that one day equality will be as widely practiced as it is talked about.'

So what's my better world? It's a world in which people actually have equal opportunities. I'm here at Warm Heart teaching about attitudes and action. That's what it takes. People here -- like the great majority of people in the world -- are taught to believe that they should expect less (or they are beaten to the same conclusion).

The first order of business, therefore, is to change their attitudes toward themselves and others. If you don't think you're equal and capable of anything, you won't get far. But just attitudes are worthless. It takes action. To claim equality, an equal share of the pie, means competing with the others who are currently enjoying it, and for that you need education, skills, and resources."

Q. Where do you find happiness?

A. "A very long time ago, when I was 16 or 17, I worked at a summer program for kids from the local Head Start Program. On the first day, I was sitting on the pavement in the parking lot registering kids when this skinny little girl skidded to a stop on her bike spraying us with pebbles. She announced: 'I'm Karen Audette,' and I fell in love. From that time on, the one thing that has made me most happy is big grins from kids."

Q. When do your creative juices serge?

A. "Whenever someone tells me something can't be done. I live by a simple rule: If you can define a problem, you can solve it. Don't tell me that this or that has to be this way. Don't tell me that there is no health service here because it can't be done, no jobs because...no whatever, because. If there is a 'because,' there is a solution...if you are smart enough, creative enough and persistent enough. The latter is really important.

Here's what I tell my kids: If you have small dreams, you will have a small life. If you have big dreams, you may not achieve them all, but you will achieve more than you ever imagined possible!"

Q. Why Warm Heart?

A. "A group of very brave young women pushed me into it. In the summer of 2007, I led a program to train 25 young women from the Greater Mekong Region (Burma, Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam) to start their own NGOs. Some had worked in the sex trade or had been labor 'trafficked.' Most were interested in starting NGOs to deal with the issue of what is called 'sex trafficking' in the US, but they thought that our understanding of 'sex trafficking' was naive and stupid, if not simply deceitful.

I spent hours talking to them. They told me their stories and the stories of their mothers, sisters, cousins and friends. They showed me the fingers that had been torn off by machines and the scars from cigarette burns. And they told me that they had all signed up to go; the 'traffickers' had provided an essential service--getting them to a place of work--and that they had willingly paid for the traffickers' services. Why? Because the work was the best option they had.

I started Warm Heart for them. We never talk about 'trafficking.' The mothers of many of our children work in the business. No, Warm Heart is not an 'anti-trafficking' organization. Warm Heart exists to improve the lives of young women to the point that life in a brothel will never again be an option."

Q. How has traveling changed your life?

A. "I was the classic country kid who saw Paris and never looked back. Literally. At fifteen I went to France on a study abroad program and lived with a family in the provincial city of Rennes in Brittany. I wanted it all. I wanted to know about modern art, modern theater. I wanted to be a regular at the cafes where famous writers used to hang out and to get drunk in the basement jazz bars. I wanted to know about good food and good wine.

After that, I was up for anything. That summer, my brother and I walked the length of Yugoslavia and decided we wanted to travel around Africa for a year. That Thanksgiving, Africa '73 Inc. (an alternative educational nonprofit) was born with my father at its head because none of us were old enough to sign the paperwork. We left for Africa in May 1973 and returned in September of 1974.
We saw Haile Selassie chucked off the throne in Ethiopia in May 1974 and in May 1975, I returned to observe closely the rising insurgency against the Derg that had tossed him out the previous year. Watching the insurgent leaders mobilize peasants to fight a powerful army that boasted Russian piloted MIGs and Cuban crewed tanks with wooden pitchforks inspired my life's work.

For almost forty years, I have struggled with the same questions that I confronted in northern Ethiopia in 1975: How do communities form? What binds people together so tightly that they will die to protect the community defined by those bonds? How can you make communities? And, in my later work, how can you re-make communities after they have been smashed?

Call it community development here in Phrao, but it's all an extension of how traveling changed the course of a boy from Hanover, NH so completely that he ended up here."

To learn more about Warm Heart or to become a volunteer, please visit: http://warmheartworldwide.org/

To donate to Warm Heart, please visit: http://www.crowdrise.com/giveourkidsthefuture


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