Kara Lewis will never look at a disposable plastic water bottle the same way again.
Not after spending five months next to a garbage dump outside Mae Sot, Thailand as a volunteer for the Ashland-based non-profit Eyes to Burma, which provides aid to about 500 Burmese migrant workers and economic refugees who spend their days picking through garbage looking for recyclable plastic.
Lewis, 28, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Southern Oregon University, didn’t give a second thought to burning through water bottles until, almost by accident, she was introduced to Eyes to Burma and volunteered on a whim. Then she arrived in Mae Sot and her entire world view was jolted.
“Most people, when they throw something away they think it’s taken care of,” she said, “but it’s not going away it’s just going someplace else.”
Someplace like Mae Sot, to which Lewis has made two trips, most recently late January to early June (she blogged about the experience at eyestoburma.org). Her first trip to the small district in western Thailand that shares a border with Burma in late December of 2012 was a whirlwind three-day affair that came together quickly. One day Lewis was working as a volunteer for the Ashland Art Center, punching ETB’s data into the center’s calendar, when her eyes were drawn to a few key words: “Humanitarian … Thailand … photojournalist.”
Lewis had already been planning to visit Thailand with her boyfriend Nick Benedetti and was considering “volunteer vacation” options — that is, volunteer opportunities to work into her vacation. Later, she would come to loathe the term and avoid the practice, but at the time she just wanted to get her feet wet.
“It was my first trip to southeast Asia, a 3½ week trip, and I knew I wanted part of it to be something meaningful to me, where I was connecting with real people in real situations,” Lewis said. “And I wanted to do something good.”
Eyes to Burma, founded by longtime Ashland aerial photographer Fred Stockwell, was doing good work, she decided, and it wasn’t long after talking with Stockwell that arrangements had been made for Lewis and Benedetti to drop by Mae Sot and see what they could do to help.
Her first day there was spent shadowing Stockwell, who lives in Mae Sot year round as EOB’s project manager. Stockwell needed to check on an 11-year-old girl named Moemoe who had an infected cut on her leg. Turned out the infection had spread, so they had to rush her to a clinic. There, Lewis watched as doctors sliced open the wound and cleaned it out.
“I wanted real life,” Lewis said. “That was real life.”
Lewis’ first day of volunteering sans oversight was spent mostly in a clinic, tending to Moemoe’s needs and trying to make some sort of connection.
The latter proved to be the real challenge. Moemoe didn’t want to eat and was shy. Benedetti tried to draw her out of her shell with silly shenanigans, pointing off into the distance then tickling her when she turned her head. No reaction. Lewis and Benedetti were just getting used to the silence when Moemoe pointed at something. Benedetti looked, excited to see what the girl was finally trying to communicate. Then Moemoe tickled him.
“She took his joke and turned it against him and we were totally surprised,” Lewis said. “We ended up having a really good time. We had ice cream. I don’t know how we did it but we just ended up laughing a lot.
“And that’s what hooked me. These were just people, and this was pretty basic humanitarian stuff.”
Lewis returned to the states a few days later, but the experience stuck with her and she soon agreed to help Stockwell on a consistent basis by writing quarterly emails to supporters and Facebook updates. It’s volunteer work she still does today which involves talking with Stockwell over the phone — conversations that can last anywhere from 45 minutes to several hours.
It’s a thankless job that requires about 15 hours a week, but Lewis is happy to do it and wants to do more. She got a chance to this year and jumped at it, flying back to Mae Sot for the second time and staying for about five months. It was during this extended trip that Lewis was able to see and experience the nuances of day to day life in Mae Sot and gain a greater understanding of ETB’s impact there.
For one, even in the small, poverty-stricken community there is tremendous economic diversity, though most first-worlders would likely have a hard time spotting it. Some of the residents make only $1 a day selling plastic and receive assistance from ETB to help feed their families. Other families bring home $6 a day and can afford the basic necessities as well as a few extras, such as a car battery to power a small light or a cellphone. Extra work, such as can sugar and potato crop picking, is available, though opportunities are limited.
ETB’s mission is to provide life’s essentials — food, clean water, clothing and shelter — for those whose daily income falls short. It also provides medical supplies and transportation to the clinics.
So far, Stockwell has managed to keep ETB humming along for roughly $35,000 to $40,000 a year (all donations), said Lewis. How Stockwell manages to do so much with so little, Lewis can’t fathom.
“I don’t know how he does it,” she said. “It’s mind-boggling for me. He’s definitely got it down.”
Eyes to Burma’s next big fundraiser is Sunday, 5-8 p.m. at Dana Campbell Vineyards (1320 North Mountain Ave.). General admission for the 21-and-older event is $25, and students pay $10. The event will feature live music by Band du Pays and food by Nguyen Street Food.
Stockwell will be there, too.
Besides money, ETB is also seeking working laptops, preferably those equipped with Windows 7. Currently, the school ETB equips has five laptops for 15 students. The more the better, Lewis said, since education is key.
“There are people who live in poverty who are just like you and me,” she said. “The difference is a lack of money, access to opportunities and creature comforts. And those things make all the difference in the world.”
Daily Tidings reporter Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or email@example.com.