Guest post by Barbara Hopper…

Traveling with teenagers can be challenging at the best of times. When your relationship is sketchy to begin with, it can be even trickier. I had several goals in mind when planning a trip to SE Asia with my 15-year old son last summer.

Of course, I wanted to inspire Danny by sharing my passion for travel. I wanted him experience exotic cultures and new foods, and to grasp how people in other parts of the world actually live. I hoped he would develop a real appreciation of the myriad opportunities he has at his disposal. Most importantly, I hoped to bond with my son.

Volunteering abroad offers structure, purpose, and a chance to absorb the local culture. Volunteers forge new relationships while giving back to the community. With the aid of my best friend ‘Google’, I scoured the internet for days in my quest for a good fit.

Openmind Projects

After much research, we decided on teaching English at Openmind Projects in Nong Khai, Thailand.  Less advantaged young people from rural villages come to live at Openmind to learn English, computer, and research skills. This organization also focuses on helping communities in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Nepal by creating grass roots projects in education, conservation, and environment. Family friendly, they embrace volunteers of all ages and backgrounds. And Openmind is very reasonably priced.

One of the things that drew me to Openmind is their flexibility. They work with you to find the placement and project that fits best with your interests, skills, and needs. While researching volunteer opportunities abroad, I discovered that many places require their volunteers to be housed together or with host families. Openmind understands that older volunteers and families often want more privacy. Basic onsite accommodations are provided; however, we were free to arrange our own, more comfortable lodging.

Getting Oriented

The author, center, and her son Danny with new friend Tuli
The author, center, and her son Danny with new friend Tuli

Arriving at Openmind, we received a warm welcome from the staff and residents. For the first three days, we were immersed in learning about the culture, basic Thai words and phrases, and how to get around the city, interspersed with fun and practical tasks.

We went to a local hole-in-the wall restaurant — no tourists and no menu — where we stumbled over our paltry Thai, giggling like school-children while we ordered our meals. At the Sadet Market, which carries just about everything, our mission was to find items on our trusty list and learn the Thai words for them.

Pounding ingredients for papaya salad
Pounding ingredients for papaya salad

The residents took us to the local outdoor produce and meat market, where we ordered fresh ingredients, again in Thai, to cook dinner. I learned how to make spicy papaya salad, a delicious staple in that region.

Papaya salad
Papaya salad

Even though Thai food is not usually vegetarian, they always prepared one or two items that were strictly vegetarian for me. After eating, we were treated to entertainment of traditional Lao dancing. The welcome ceremony ended by everyone tying string around our wrists in a gesture of friendship. All in all, a fun way to immerse yourself in the culture.

Getting Down to Work

Then it was on to the business of teaching English.  For a couple of weeks Danny taught at a local elementary school, challenging him to be innovative and creative.

Danny teaching English at Openmind
Danny teaching English at Openmind

I chose to work with the residents at Openmind. It was difficult because they were all at different levels. There was no structure and no lesson plans, and no way of knowing what the previous volunteers taught. I focused mainly on conversational skills, as I felt that most of the students struggled with comprehension and verbal skills. It was also fun having an opportunity to practice English with a group of monks. I liked the variety of people; however, it would be more beneficial if there was more organization.

Every few months Openmind conducts ‘mini-camps’, where local young people and monks learn about the environment, IT skills and hygiene. Divided into groups, the participants are encouraged to research these subjects. The idea is to educate by finding pertinent information via the internet, while learning to question and debate. Sounds ideal. And in truth, it was enjoyable…the groups were quite innovative in sharing the knowledge.

For me, only downside was there was not really a debate. A list of questions was given for the groups to research, but the questions tended to highlight one viewpoint as fact, and the participants weren’t encouraged to research opposing thoughts.

The Bottom Line

Danny with Toto, the co-founder of Openminds Projects, and his daughter
Danny with Toto, the co-founder of Openminds Projects, and his niece

All in all, the experience was powerful. Danny blossomed and matured, while making friends with everyone. Volunteering enhanced our relationship and strengthened our bond. The people could not have been more hospitable. A special thanks to Toto, the co-founder, for his friendship, knowledge and infinite patience. Openmind Projects definitely strives to make their volunteers feel wanted.

GETTING THERE:

It is a short flight from either Bangkok or Chang Mai to Udon Thani, the closest airport. At the airport you can arrange minibuses to transport you for the hour’s drive to Nong Khai, approximately 200 baht. From Vientiane, Laos, you can just take a bus at the Friendship Bridge across the border.

COSTS:

Volunteer costs are approximately $195.00 for the first week, plus $95.00 for each additional week.

Taking a tuk tuk is the easiest way to get around Nong Khai.

Check out their website at www.openmindprojects.org

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