After settling in Chiang Mai it was time to catch up with our 1st year post-secondary students. I decided I would like to see them in their own space, partly to make sure the standard of the room was OK and partly out of curiousity. It was a Friday night when Ingi and I made our way to visit four of the seven girls who live in the same neighbourhood.

Natjanan (front) and Nittaya in the small room

Although we have a little difficulty finding the address, we finally connect up in the street, near their residence which results in laughter, big hugs and hellos. Ingi and I follow Som Rudee and Natjannan to their room first. Suchada who lives in a different area is in the room when we arrive, more hugs and hellos.  It is a great surprise as we thought she would be unable to join us. All seven of us squeeze into the tiny room for a big reunion.

During our catch-up chats I ask everyone if they like living in the city. The response is a chorus of no’s, but they are quick to talk about how much they’re enjoying their studies. Som Rudee and Jenjira give us an example how they are being groomed to stand and move , as a good Thai hostess would, in their Tourism Program. They all share a little of what they’re doing and are obviously happy with the choices they have made. The rattling of the overhead fan interrupts our chatter but we don’t mind. I’m not sure how the girls sleep with the rattling, but I guess its the rattling or enduring the heat. Ingi notices a table fan that’s not being used.

“It’s broken”, Som Rudee giggles. Ingi decides to take it with us to see if she can get it fixed.

Before long Suchada has to leave to study for an exam the following day. It’s wonderful to see her, even for a short time and I’ll visit her home another day. As we say our good-byes to her I realize how much I’ve missed the girls.

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We head up to Jenjira and Nittaya’s room. Som Rudee and Natjannan’s room is small, Jenjira and Nittaya have a larger room upstairs via another entrance a few steps away. They explain the pros and cons of both rooms. The smaller room is indeed small but quieter with a private bathroom, while the larger room is more spacious but on a noisy street with a shared bathroom. For the small room the girls pay 700 Baht each (about $30.00) a month and 800 Baht each for the larger room. I’m happy to see that these four first-year students live close together for both companionship and safety.  Chiang Mai is a big city.

The girls look thin to me but Ingi reassures me that they have enough money for food. The stresses involved for these small-town girls are challenging and I am reminded of how thin our first group of graduates were during their first year or two of living in the city. There are many extra physical activities and first year students are expected to participate.

Ingi… Ingrid Emm is KLEO’s “Girl (woman) on the Ground”, in Thailand. Ingi  joined the Kleo Group as a volunteer in December of 2014.  She is now officially KLEO’s English tutor and advisor to the high school graduates from Jen’s House who come to live in Chiang Mai for further education. However, for those students who began their 2015-2016 post-secondary studies Ingi is much more than that. She is a friend, a mentor, and a confidant who these young women come to for advice and direction. For students leaving the nuturing nest of Jen’s House after six years, with loving house-parents Tamla and Chai relocating to Chinag Mai is an onerous task. A change filled with uncertainty, made less daunting under the guidance and support that Ingi provides.

Ingi is a CELTA-certified instructor with bachelor’s degree in English Literature, and 6 years teaching experience in Thailand.  She has great communication skills and is an extremely energetic motivator.  Ingi has advanced Thai language skills, and a firm grasp of the  culture and logistics of living in Northern Thailand.

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                    Ingi & 1st year English Major, Janthanee

Last year Ingi ghosted me through mountain villages, refugee camps and dormitories in an effort to increase her knowledge of the Karen people and their unique culture. She did this on her own dime, asking for nothing in return. I asked Ingi to write a letter of interest last year and would like to share some of what she wrote. I believe you will understand why I feel that Ingi’s involvement is a intricate, vital part of the future of Jen’s House and Kleo’s work in northern Thailand.

Ingi with "Unaccompanied Minors in Mae La Ma Refugee camp.

Ingi and I with “Unaccompanied Minors” in Mae La Ma Refugee camp.

“I have been walking beside Coleen since December, learning everything it takes to develop and maintain this beautiful community of love and opportunity that you have all helped to build here.

In a few short months, we have visited villages and dormitories, lived with families and students.  With Coleen’s trust and guidance, I have walked into the lives of so many people, and been accepted into families, communities, and a quiet culture.  I have been welcomed into relationships that take years to build and maintain. This kind of introduction is rare and unique. It’s only the beginning, and I have a responsibility to take them on as my own relationships and develop them with the love and care that she has shown me.

I have learned and experienced the compassion and open-minded listening that comes with community building and relationship nurturing. I have seen the ins and outs of a well-running dormitory and happy home at Jen’s House. I have seen a troubled dormitory at Ban Rai transform before my eyes, after creating a stronger connection with the families and the organization, and by simply listening to the student’s needs and being able to immediately provide them with what’s missing.  I saw the transformative power of hope and opportunity that Coleen and KLEO give.

I have learned to observe, to listen, to silence my ideas until I fully understand the people I am talking to, their needs and desires, the nuances of their culture.”

When I re-read Ingi’s words I want to stand up and cheer! There are few who immediately sense the need and are willing to make the unconditionally committment that is required to sustain what KLEO has built. We are fortunate to call Ingi our “Girl on the Ground.”

Counsellor and friend Ingi with housemother Tamla at Jen's House. Nov. 2015

Counsellor and friend Ingi with housemother Tamla at Jen’s House. Nov. 2015

By the end of our  visit to the girl’s residence I am aware of how well their relationships with Ingi  have developed. The students are relaxed and respectful around her, they embrace Ingi as an Auntie or an older sister.

As Ingi and I take our leave we arrange to meet up again in a few days to help the students write letters to their sponsors. My purpose is clear and I am proud of our work. Jen’s House is a success story!

KLEO is doing an amazing job of providing educational opportunities for the Karen children of Northern Thailand.