How long have you been working as a Project Host or Co-ordinator for World Challenge?
Since 2008, when I was first hired by World Challenge to be their Lao In-Country Agent. Paul Harvey, a World Challenge staff member, happened to stay at my then guesthouse business, here in Luangprabang. He made the recommendation and the rest as they say is history!
What type of community projects do you get involved in and where?
Through the years we have tried to do many things and get involved in as many community projects as possible. We had to look at what the communities needed so that they could live their lives in a more independent way.
We therefore focus on three aspects of community needs. We call them the '3 Pillars of Community Essentials':
1. Access to running water – essential for community foundation and sustainability
2. Sanitation – with water this leads to healthy homes and healthy families; healthy children will mean parents can venture to provide more for their home
3. Educational Foundation – we build, renovate and provide the essential learning tools to help the teachers and students
We believe that with these three essentials (and we aim to keep it in that order), we supplement what communities already have; communities can become self-sustainable and less reliant on outside organisations for assistance.
Lao Project Group is under the umbrella of an established business entity called Volun-Tour Laos Sole Company LTD (VTL) based and registered here in Luangprabang Lao PDR. VTL is a social business that was established to focus solely on rural community development through sustainable tourism.
We mainly set our project programmes in the Luangprabang Province area. Luangprabang Province has 12 districts. We currently operate in four: Luangprabang District, Chomphit District, Pak Ou District and Nam Bak District; all within a one or two hour distance from the centre of Luangprabang town.
Why do you enjoy the work that you do?
Being raised in the United States for some 30 plus years and coming back to my birthplace has helped me realise many aspects of what I can do to help people. But overall why I like doing what I do is simple: I enjoy engaging people to help each other as well as themselves.
How do you feel the World Challenge teams benefit personally from their project experience?
For World Challenge participants I feel they gain an invaluable cultural experience. As young individuals they achieve what many donors and supporters may never personally and directly do – and that is to see the faces and receive the gratitude directly from the benefactors of their contributions and participation.
As a team, each one of them can honestly go back home and say to their family and friends that they helped change the lives of an entire community. That says a lot and that is something they can be proud of for their entire life.
How do you feel the local community benefits from the World Challenge teams' work and support?
Words cannot describe how communities feel. They grow and begin to lead a more comfortable life, building on what has been given to them.
They, unlike development from major organisations, will always remember the day the young foreigners came to their village and helped build a water system so they have access to running water, a sanitation system for their homes for their families to lead a healthy life, as well as a school for their children to learn.
Which community project have you been particularly proud of and why?
I would never say I have one particular project that I am proud of because every project has its memorable moments and milestones. From my perspective, it is so rewarding to see each party take away so many lasting memories.
What sort of feedback do you get from local communities following the completion of the project?
From the local villagers, to the Lao government officials, at first they were all very sceptical of our programmes. They did not think the communities would come together, let alone believe that it would work if we welcomed some young foreigners and gave them the tools and supplies to assist a local, needy community. But they’ve been proved wrong and we regularly receive positive feedback as well as requests from other communities to help them.
Do you keep World Challenge teams updated after their work has been done and is that well received?
We do and we hope that everyone from each team will stay in touch. We always want to maintain that contact because we stress that each project undertaken doesn’t last one or two days but a lifetime.
Tom Baul, who is a former Challenger from 2008, has returned to help out and we are now better equipped than ever to stay in touch with school teams and keep them updated on progress.
Do you have a top tip, request or great idea you would like to share with future World Challenge teams visiting your country?
My tips and advice would be for teams or individuals to get in touch with us, learn about what we do and how we do it. Come with an open mind – be yourselves, open up to these communities and share what you know.
You get back what you put in and seek. Don’t expect and assume and, most importantly for projects, students should remember that it’s not about what they want to do and see happen, it’s about them and their communities – the host villagers. We feel that if we can relay this sort of information to teams beforehand, they will be more inclined to become more active participants.
Son Inthachith, Director of Lao Project Group