Sarah and I made a very special trip today to Jen’s House, located approximately one hour’s drive outside of Chiang Mai. Who is Jen and why was this trip so special? Let me back up a bit to explain.
In December we met Coleen Scott and her husband Bob while visiting with some other farangs (foreigners) on our little laneway in Chiang Mai. Coleen and Bob are from Ottawa and come to Chiang Mai each winter, but their purpose here is much greater and more noble than to simply escape the frigid temperatures of Canada’s capital. It is as much a personal mission as it is an annual holiday. Coleen first came to Thailand in 2001 with her daughter Jenny, and while trekking through the mountains became acquainted with the Karen hill tribe people, an ethnic group living in the mountains of both Myanmar and Thailand. Coleen and Jenny were instantly captivated by the simplicity of their lifestyle and the kindness and love they displayed. They also saw first-hand the challenges faced, in particular the lack of education. Jenny immediately decided she wanted to work with the Karen (this is the Anglicized spelling and the emphasis is on the second syllable).
In 2003 Jenny died tragically, but Coleen somehow summoned the strength to overcome her grief and find a way to capture her daughter’s spirit in the form of Jen’s House. It is a home for 24 girls and boys from the Karen hill tribes who live there while attending school in the local community. The kids are aged 12 to 17 and we were lucky enough to meet many of the students as well as several who have graduated and have gone on to university. Coleen and Bob received generous donations but also used their personal funds to build the house.
The paragraphs above do not do justice to the entire story but I’m hoping it has provided enough of a history for you to appreciate the compelling reasons for our visit.
On to our visit.
Jen’s House is about as basic a structure as you will find. It is by no means a North American style dormitory with private rooms, comfortable furniture and well-equipped kitchen. No, the girls all sleep together in one room on simple bunk beds. Actually, the girls mainly use the beds for storage and sleep on the floor. The bathrooms are outside and contain squat toilets and the students must shower using a bucket. The house recently received a donated couch but it’s doubtful that any of us would permit it in our homes given its dilapidated state. While these conditions may sound somewhat primitive, it was all by design. Coleen felt strongly that the students feel at home and the emphasis is on community and opportunity as opposed to luxury and materialism. Coleen makes it very clear that her goal is not to “save” kids or “improve” their lives. She and the KLEO organization offer the opportunity for these kids to achieve a higher education than they would be able to do within their villages. The hope is that these students will use their education to help preserve and improve the Karen culture.
Sarah and I both felt an incredibly positive energy throughout the day. The kids, although shy, were welcoming and respectful, with the most incredible smiles. They performed their chores, completed their schoolwork, and prepared our lunch (Coleen insists on the kids accepting responsibility), all the while giggling like the most contented children in the world. Once again I am amazed at how happy people can be while having, from a westerner’s materialistic view, so little.
A truly inspiring day.