While traveling abroad is a favorite pastime of college students for the views, food and fun, GIVE Volunteers works to engage travelers for a different reason. This service organization gives young people the opportunity to immerse themselves in the culture of five international destinations where they offer programs. On these trips, volunteers work alongside community members on conservation, restoration and education projects. The Borgen Project spoke to one former volunteer and chapter president, Logan Falk, about her eye-opening experience in Thailand and Laos.
GIVE Volunteers offers a diverse array of programs in North America, Tanzania, Thailand and Laos. Program itineraries vary by country, but overall the organization focuses on combining cultural immersion, tourism and service. The trips are an alternative to traditional study abroad programs, emphasizing hands-on service projects instead of classroom education.
Most volunteers are recruited on college campuses. GIVE often exists as a student-led club on U.S. campuses, offering students the opportunity to volunteer locally in their university towns while fundraising for their potential trips abroad. Some of the trips focus on conservation and restoration efforts, while others place volunteers in impoverished communities to assist with construction, farming and education.
The Borgen Project spoke with a GIVE member who participated in one of these poverty-focused programs in Thailand and Laos. Falk was an executive member of James Madison University’s GIVE chapter in Virginia. On her 5-week trip through Thailand and Laos in the summer of 2022, she worked in local schools teaching English, assisted craftsmen and women and used her “tourist dollar to support local businesses.” For the people living in these areas, such efforts can make a world of difference.
Poverty in Thailand
According to a 2022 report by Thailand’s primary economic agency, The Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC), approximately 8.1 million Thai people live in poverty. Many of these individuals are children. Of the overall population, the poverty rate among children was 9.9% in 2021. UNICEF reports that this is a lasting effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, which raised food and energy costs. Inflation hit its highest rate in 14 years at 7.66% in June of 2022. Households with children were especially impacted, forcing many students out of school.
The effects of poverty forced more than 280,000 children to drop out of school in 2021, the NESDC reports. According to the UNICEF Representative for Thailand, Kyungsun Kim, reversing these effects is imperative to the country’s lasting recovery. In a 2022 UNICEF press release, she emphasized the need for building human capital in Thailand. With the population “rapidly aging,” ensuring children receive protection and the means to grow into active members of society is of the utmost importance.
Poverty in Laos
The issue of poverty is similarly prevalent in Laos. About 23% of the overall population lives below the poverty line, surviving on less than $1.25 per day. Considering that more than 30% of the population is under the age of 14, children suffer significant impacts.
Laos is primarily an agricultural country, with 80% of families working in agriculture. However, the rural areas that house them are prone to food insecurity as a result of extreme floods and droughts. Estimates suggest that 33% of children under the age of 5 face stunted growth due to malnutrition. Of every 22 Laotian children, one dies before they reach their 5th birthday. This is seven times the U.S. infant mortality rate.
For those that do survive, an estimated 28% are forced into child labor to support their families. GIVE Volunteers makes it its mission to get these children back in school and support them with life-changing education.
On her trip, Falk worked one-on-one with children from rural communities in Thailand and Laos, engaging them in activities and teaching them English. She told The Borgen Project that her time volunteering was full of “authentic experiences” in a program that was “constantly creating open learning environments.” Rather than going in with a specific agenda, Falk liked that the trip let volunteers get involved by “asking where [they] can help rather than taking the lead.”
This collaborative approach aligns with Falk’s idea of being a global citizen, one of her biggest takeaways from the program. For her, global citizenship is a reminder “that we all share the same home, so no matter where we are, there are ways for us to be giving back and supporting one another.” On her trip, she learned that the key to being a global citizen and an “ethical and sustainable volunteer” is “supporting the community that is welcoming us with no intention to ‘fix’ it. We went in to learn without judgment.”
After learning from, bonding with and seeing the struggles of people in Thailand and Laos, Falk left GIVE Volunteers with an inspiring realization: “There are so many large and small, intentional social, political, environmental, and economic actions we can take to make a difference on this planet that never ceases to amaze me… We can use our voices, our art, our activism, our knowledge, our money, and our VOTE to support communities within and outside of just our own.”
– Rachel Rebecca Smith