Outside of the Classroom

One of the primary reasons I came to Bangkok was to be able to work with Step Ahead, an integrated community development organization that works in many capacities in Thailand.  Step Ahead’s work includes programs in one of the slums in Bangkok, called Khlong Toei.  There, Step Ahead runs a microfinance loan project, organizes sports activities for children, runs health clinics, and much more.  I, however, am primarily working with Step Ahead in a marketing capacity, helping them to market the products of their purse project.

The purse project is located in Pattaya, Thailand, where it is estimated (and this is a low estimation) that 25% of all residents are in some way involved in the sex industry.  Therefore, just by virtue of being born in Pattaya, residents are at risk for sexual exploitation.  Identifying this need, Step Ahead created Itsera, a brand of high-quality handmade bags, made by women in Pattaya.  This project was created as a prevention mechanism; the hope is that by earning a good wage making these bags, the women will be able to avoid the trap of sexual exploitation.

Despite being focused on marketing for Step Ahead, I had the chance to visit Khlong Toei last week.  It was so interesting to see where Step Ahead works, most of all because I spent last semester living and working on the edge of a slum in Kenya.  I could not help but make comparisons between the two in my mind.  To be honest, the slum that we saw here was much more permanent and formal compared to the slum in Kenya.  Most of the slum had paved roads weaving in and out, closed homes with roofs overhead, some people even living in permanent structures, most shacks having electricity and plumbing.  There are even a few small businesses that operate within the slum — for example, we walked by computers and washing machines, which residents can pay to use.  Not to say that Khlong Toei isn’t still very much a slum community, but it was certainly an interesting comparison to Kibera, in Kenya.

During our walk through the slum, we met one of Step Ahead’s clients, a single father with three children.  He has used a microfinance loan that he received from Step Ahead to run a chicken-foot business.  He sells chicken feet, which are a delicacy in Thailand.  School is not in session at the moment, so he and his three children were all sitting around and extracting the bones and nails from the chicken claws with the aim of selling them at the market.  It is refreshing to get a glimpse into the social issues that many Thai people are facing.  After a semester in Kenya where I only studied health and development, I have been craving that knowledge and interaction here.

Earlier this week, I was also able to attend a Needeed event.  Needeed is a new non-profit organization, which seeks to bring together professionals from the expatriate community here in Thailand.  The aim is to have organizations present at monthly meetings and identify volunteer opportunities within that organization. The hope is that expatriates with particular expertise would be able to fulfill those volunteer opportunities.

The meeting was really incredible…after the visiting organization presented, we had a brainstorm session — all 25 attendees.  It was almost magical to watch all of the ideas flying around – not only were there many nationalities in the room (Hungarian, American, Belgian, Australian, French, British), but there were also an incredible variety of different professional backgrounds represented.  There was a woman who had previously been involved in public policy, a nurse specializing in neonatal care, a psychologist doing her masters degree on post-partum depression and PTSD in Congolese refugees, a woman involved in the hospitality business – the list really goes on.  Most of these women are in Thailand because of their husbands’ jobs, and they are all well-educated and have a lot of experience in some professional capacity. Needeed seeks to bring together these untapped talents to make a difference for non-profits.  It truly is incredible to be able to not only experience another “side” of Thailand, but to meet so many fascinating people and explore potential career possibilities at the same time!

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