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Sawat dee!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

For the past six years, nearly a dozen Breck students have spent their spring break hearing the Thai words “Sawat dee” or “Hello!” as they begin each day.

These students, who affectionately call themselves the “Thai-stangs,” are part of the spring break service trip to Thailand. The group has been led by a number of Breck faculty including Frederique Schmidt, Alexis Kent, and Evan Jones. This year, trip leaders included Frederique Schmidt, Upper School Foreign Language/Community Engagement Coordinator, and Rob Johnson, Upper School Chaplain.

While the trip offers students the opportunity to travel to a unique and developing country, its impact on the students is far greater than most expect.

“I can’t rave enough about this trip,” says Kelly Reiling ’18 and a two-year attendee on the trip. “We go there and work with refugee children from Myanmar. Each of them is so amazing. Every one of them is such an individual. They were the only reason I came back to the trip.”

The students and chaperones spend spring break working at an orphanage that is home to 13 children ranging in age from 6-22. This year, the Thai-stangs spent their visit moving the children’s home from their current location in Sangkhlaburi, a rural area on the border of Thailand and Myanmar, to Khon Kaen, an urban area in central Thailand.

“This year’s trip was harder than most because we did so much traveling,” says Schmidt, who has been on the trip three years, including this year. “Traveling by itself is hard, traveling in a different country—the climate, the food, everything being so different—made it more challenging for our kids this year.”

The challenge, however, allowed for rich rewards in other ways.

“Moving can be such a personal experience. You have so many emotions tied up with life changes but this family opened up at a time when they are going through a big life change and the intimacy of that was very apparent,” recalls Schmidt.

The students also felt the uniqueness of the experience, acknowledging they had never felt a connection so close.

“I’ve never met kids like this before,” says Reiling. “Even though their backgrounds are heartbreaking, their warmth and positivity is what I take away. We didn’t have the same language or anywhere close to the same background but I could just laugh with them constantly. We were only with them a week and I literally felt like they were a mix between my sisters, my brothers, my best friends, and my family.”

Integral to the experience is the housemother at the children’s home, Na’am, who has, over the years, grown to be a close friend to Breck’s faculty. Previously, she helped coordinate service opportunities for the Breck students such as building a vegetable garden, constructing a retaining wall, and pouring footings for a new water tank. Now, in their new home, there will be many opportunities for future partnerships and relationship development, another integral piece to the service experience.

“We focus a lot on service at Breck and that service isn’t necessarily coming in and saying, ‘I know what you need,’” explains Schmidt. “Service is coming in and being helpful and respectful. It’s modeling kindness, not just for the children we were meeting there but between each other. We want our students to know you can have this spirit of service and loving kindness as you walk through life. We want it to be ubiquitous, not just during a service-learning trip.”

The trip also allows students to experience the concept of global citizenship, something they discuss and strive for at Breck but actually have an opportunity to practice while in Thailand.

“We want our kids to learn about the world, about their place in the world and have a sense of social responsibility,” says Schmidt. “The relationship piece is so important. We can’t get to understanding social responsibility or tackling issues or even learning how to engage with others from different backgrounds—that idea of global citizenship—without first learning about ourselves, where we come from, and how that perspective influences how we see the world. Self awareness allows us to enter into authentic relationships and building those relationships is what makes the trip so impactful.”

It is this aspect of the trip that makes the biggest impact on the students.

“The trip changed my perspective on those who have access to fewer opportunities than me,” explains Reiling. “It’s not like these children are different people at all. They’re just in different circumstances. They are still super funny and super charismatic; they are just like me.”

Students and alumni who have also experienced the Thailand service trip carry fond memories of their experiences. Throughout spring break, the service group received messages from faculty and alumni with words of wisdom and encouragement. Evan Jones ‘86, past trip leader and Middle School Science Instructor, reminded students:

“Feel the love from the kids and people you interact with. They are all remarkable. You will have a big impact on their lives...let them have a HUGE impact on you.”

For others, the trip inspired business opportunities and foreign studies. Madi Lohman ’14, founder of Madibanani Bread Company and current student at Yale Singapore, met the Breck service group during their trip and has maintained a connection to the children’s home for the past six years. You can read more about her most recent visit on her blog.

In the end, the trip is meant to carry the mission of Breck throughout the world.

“We are trying to teach our students about the inter-relatedness of people,” explains Schmidt. “We all want the same thing. We want to feel safe, to be loved, to have the opportunity to explore our potential, and to be creative. But we are also teaching that people are resilient.”

If you want to learn more about service at Breck, contact Frederique Schmidt, Community Engagement Coordinator, at frederique.schmidt@breckschool.org.