“She’ll come across quite shy,” said Alan, the director of LEOT, a small grassroots organization providing scholarships in Laos. “But you’ll see when she opens up that she is quite determined and has a very strong work ethic.” Alan is speaking of Sisaveth, a student that Chelsea and Emily Shoemaker, from Rochester NY, have funded to receive a 2 year scholarship through GoPhilanthropic’s Grassroots Gift program this past holiday season. Sisaveth’s scholarship was offered to them by their aunt Kathleen Richardson, a renowned Materials Scientist at Clemson University. It’s inspiring to see this connecting of the female dots– from a science professor in South Carolina, to her university-age nieces in NY state, to a bright young woman in Luang Prabang, Laos thousands of miles away who aspires to be a Math teacher. It makes you realize that the world just isn’t that big.
Laos is by far one of the most beautiful places in the world I have had the pleasure of visiting–it simply oozes charm and authenticity. Travelers from all over the world are now adding this surreal UNESCO heritage city tucked into the mountains and bordered by the Mekong to their bucket lists. It famous for the procession of monks collecting their alms in the wee morning hours, its studded golden Buddhist temples, French architecture, and fantastic beer. But dig a little bit deeper beneath the polished tourism surface and you will see a combination of severe poverty, a terrain still littered with landmines from the Vietnam War (in an agricultural society), and an education system that ends for most children at secondary school. GoPhilanthropic has partnered with LEOT, focused on providing disadvantaged young people, most of whom are from ethnic hill tribes, the opportunity to go to college and universities. This is a chance akin to winning the lottery in the US. LEOT’s students are studying a range of subjects from accounting, to English, economics, environmental studies, mathematics and tourism. They attend universities and colleges in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Apart from academic studies, other trades and professions are also sponsored–one student is training to be an electrician and another as a policeman. Because LEOT is small, it pays very close attention to each sponsored student, performance is closely monitored and continued support subject to academic results.
We meet Sisaveth outside my hotel for coffee, along with Alan and Kheak, another of LEOT’s scholarship students. Sisaveth hardly says a word–it’s not until later when we are at her home that I begin to see what I now know is a deep determination to build a better future for herself and for her family. She already attends school in the afternoon but must work every morning at a job that pays $40 a month. Without the job she cannot go to school. Our scholarship will essentially buy her out of her morning work schedule allowing her the luxury of studying all day. In addition, she will gain English classes to further add to her growing skill set. Sisaveth has the same youthful spirit that one might find with her counterparts in more developed countries. She wears a cool jean jacket and loves to listen to music on her cell phone, but I notice a wrinkle in her brow, a look on her face that reflects the weight of tremendous responsibility. This sticks out to me most as I meet the young people involved with our non-profit partners. Their drive comes not from wanting a better life for themselves, but for extending one to several generations in their families.
Sisaveth’s mother greets us warmly and she pats my back as she guides me through her tiny two-roomed house where she has raised 7 children. She grins ear to ear as she looks at her daughter. Her father bangs away making what looks to be a bed. Chickens run around a plastic tub that holds the family’s water source. We spend the rest of the day in the mountains in the small ethnic hill tribe village, lunching over a local fish soup and sharing life stories. After eating I notice Sisaveth slipping out of the hut, a line of children following her like ducklings. A few minutes later I hear soft singing and the patter of feet. I find Sisaveth in the middle of a circle of children, teaching them a traditional dance. She radiates a confidence and commands attention in a way only a natural born teacher could. The children watch in amazement and then each start to move, trying to match her movements and song. She leads, they follow and I am struck by how important it is that she continue in this role of mentor/ teacher. The children of Laos need the Sisaveths to engage them and show them the way forward – in Math, in dance, in life.
Thank you Kathleen Richardson, Chelsea and Emily Shoemaker -for making Sisaveth’s dream possible. If you would like to become a Grassroots Giver please contact: [email protected]