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Volunteering brings the world a little closer
29 March 2005
by Janice Greene

San Francisco: Even before the tsunami struck, help was needed in South Asia. Now it's needed even more.

I went to Bangkok in November. I'd signed up with Cross-Cultural Solutions as a three-week volunteer to teach English to Buddhist monks. I was excited, but unsure how much I could teach them in three short weeks.

Arriving in Bangkok, I was deceived at first by the city's slick modernity. It's full of posh malls, with designer-dressed teens glued to their cell phones. But a closer look showed me a different Bangkok.

Two streets down from a high rise, a blind woman sits with an empty bowl, one of a dozen people you might see in an afternoon who is hanging on the edge of survival.

Cross-Cultural Solutions places volunteers with local organizations in 10 countries. I stayed at the CCS group house in Bangkok with a dozen other volunteers, mostly from the United States. Every weekday we set off, usually by taxi, to our various assignments, for about four hours of work. The rest of the day was spent as a tourist or taking advantage of Cross-Cultural Solution's demonstrations of Thai boxing, Thai massage, Thai cooking and language lessons.

Volunteers are offered a variety of assignments. They can help former prostitutes stay off the streets, teach English, help women set up a small business, provide family planning, help with AIDS prevention and more.

Volunteers arrive with flash cards and board games, condoms and cervical caps.

I arrived with short stories for adults, written at fourth-grade level, which I had hoped to read to the monks. The stories were useless, the English was far too advanced for the monks, so I and my teaching partner, Jo Ellen, made up lessons from day to day. Weekday afternoons at 1:30, Jo and I would arrive at Mahamakut Buddhist University in Bangkok, sip tea and wait for the monks to show up. About 20 minutes later, class would begin with six or eight monks, and more would drift into the room as the afternoon wore on. The day usually ended with about 20 students.

We wrote simple sentences with mistakes for them to correct. We broke into groups and drilled them on pronunciation. We typed out simple dialogues on paper, then cut out each speaker's lines into separate sentences and had the monks put them in order.

We had them dictate simple stories, each monk giving us a single sentence that was gathered into a story. My favorite was about a man who left his family, went into the forest, and was eaten by a tiger. "But it was only a dream."

The monks live in temples, called wats. Every morning after dawn, they make their rounds on the city sidewalks with bowls, which passers-by fill with food and flowers. But English lessons are a luxury, especially English taught by a native speaker. Our students wanted to communicate with Westerners, and read English texts on philosophy and religion. They thanked us every day for our efforts.

While the monks were traveling around the country proctoring exams, I worked in an orphanage, with children ages 2 to 6. Having raised a son, I felt as prepared as any volunteer could be. "Just don't wear skirts," my 18-year- old co-worker, Nicole, advised me. "The kids love to lift them up."

I worked at the Children's Foundation, a couple of spacious, airy buildings a 40-minute taxi ride from Bangkok. It was a well-run place with a caring staff, but extra hands were welcome.

The work was challenging, but simple. I didn't even need the smattering of Thai I'd learned. Nods, smiles and shaking my head ("No!") were all I needed. Their needs were clear. A 2-year-old needed help eating soup. The younger kids needed help getting dressed. They liked having their backs stroked as they settled down on the playroom floor for nap time. There were fights to break up and tears to dry.

The kids' stories were awful. Two had brain damage from being thrown down stairs. A brown-haired boy had an American dad he'd never met. Another child, who kept to himself, was given up by his parents simply because they couldn't afford to feed him. Yet these kids, some of whom woke from nightmares, can dance as if their world were magic.

I spent less than a week with them. I hope that somewhere, in the back of their minds, is the memory of a woman who smiled and had a gentle hand, a little proof that not all hands hurt.

Did the monks I taught learn much English? Well, a little. But they know two women from the United States spent their vacations doing their best to teach them and were hungry to learn all they could about Thailand.

And what did volunteering do for me? Right now I'm wearing an amulet, a treasured gift from one of the monks. The globe is so much smaller now.

Only an ocean away, there's a girl who fell asleep holding my hand. The thread that binds me to the blind woman in Bangkok and the homeless man at my bus stop is stronger. The one who benefited most from my volunteer efforts was probably me.

So if a check to the tsunami victims isn't enough, consider volunteering. The opportunities are many, and the contacts close at hand.

Think of one person's volunteer effort as a drop in a bucket -- a precious bucket of water in a time of need.

Find out more about Cross-Cultural Solutions

Janice Greene is on the staff of The Chronicle.

From: San Francisco Chronicle