In 2011, when we opened the HEART School in Mae Sot, Thailand, we planted trees outside the building. These small, delicate trees have the potential to grow into giants, capable of providing food, shade, and homes for both animals and insects. They protect the delicate balance of the environment by preventing floods and soil erosion and producing life-giving oxygen.
The trees are like our HEART students, community activists with the potential to invoke positive change on the ground. At the HEART School, we believe in the ability of people from the grassroots to transform communities. The HEART School combines the grassroots activism of the Mae Tao Clinic with the human rights and environmental training of EarthRights International. This year, some students came as representatives of their local organizations; others were simply concerned individuals from communities affected by mining or pipelines. Some students came from communities all over Myanmar (Burma) with no health services or no electricity; others have seen their communities destroyed by development projects, and some students arrived ready and eager to learn with little more than the clothes on their back. Despite the multiple hardships they have experienced, the students are already growing as community leaders and activists. They are always smiling, laughing, singing and ready to invite you to eat!
The HEART school runs for seven months. During this time, students study topics relevant to their communities; topics include mining, dams, oil, and their connections to health problems. Students also have evening English classes focusing on conversation, building confidence, and computer classes. ERI staff, local trainers, and a volunteer English teacher instruct the students. Recently, the HEART students returned from a one-month trip to Myanmar, where they gathered evidence for their reports focusing on health or environmental issues impacting their communities. The students are currently writing their reports.
Although they have developed good conversational English skills, many of the students are writing their reports in Burmese. It is so inspiring to see HEART alumni and local community members volunteering their time to assist the students by translating their reports to English. The writing assistants, many of whom also work at the Mae Tao Clinic and the Center for Child Development (CDC) School for migrant children, are giving up their free time for the students.
The HEART school shares property with the boys’ boarding house for the CDC, which is run by the Mae Tao Clinic. It’s not easy living with 75 teenage boys, but the HEART students take it all in stride. They play sports together, share their food, and act as role models for the boys, who desperately need adults to look up to. Community change needs to include everyone, especially children and youth; the HEART students know this.
There is the saying “it takes a community to raise a child.” Perhaps it also takes a community to train an activist. At the HEART School, we are very grateful to the many people who support us. From donors to trainers to volunteers, every action has had a positive effect on our program and students. We want to thank EarthRights International and the Mae Tao Clinic for developing this unique program. Our students are all success stories and represent the positive grassroots growth for the future of Myanmar.
This post was co-written by Raa Hoo Lar, the Local Program Coordinator of ERI's Myanmar Alumni Program, and Laura McLennan, a volunteer at the HEART School.