Last week I took the opportunity to cycle around Vientiane with Thouni (28), a Communications Officer at Village Focus International. We set off from their office and followed part of her favorite running route along the Mekong river, and beyond. The further we cycled out, the purer the scenery became. That also applied to her story, which started off as a relatively normal story but got really serious and really grabbed me in the end.
The majority of the foreign volunteers that I had met so far obviously developed their desire to help other people in poorer parts of the world over the years. As they grew older they became more aware that the wealthy life they are living back home isn’t as common as it initially appeared to be. In that light, the story of Thouni is absolutely remarkable and feels, at least in my opinion, predestined.
Thouni left the farming life in Laos when she was only 10 years old. She moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota in the United States and although she doesn’t remember much about her youngest years in Laos, she certainly does remember the whisper of her grandmother: “Come back home when you finish school”. And so she did.
Approximately 130 students a year are eligible for a scholarship provided by the Wallin Education Partners, but driven by her ambitious character she was awarded the scholarship in 2003. She also received an internship at Wallin Educating Partners during her college years, the same organization that provided part of her funding to study in an accredited university. After graduation in 2008, Thouni applies for an internship at Village Focus International (VFI) based in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, which she uses her skills to help assist an organization in her country she could finally prove her skills in her country. She returned to the US after two and a half years in Laos, but in October 2013, she answered her string of calling for home and came back to Laos to work full-time for VFI.
VFI is active in about 200 remote and vulnerable villages where it emphasizes and supports local leadership, decision-making and ownership, in both Laos and Cambodia. Today, the organization runs three distinctive programs:
1. Land & Livelihoods Program: educating locals to become successful farmers;
2. Healthy Villages & Local Leadership Program: empowering local people to take control of the most fundamental issues of daily life;
3. Protection & Empowerment of Women and Children (PEWC) Program: an anti human trafficking program focused on the prevention, protection, and rehabilitation of trafficking victims from communities along the Mekong.
Thouni kind of became an all-rounder within VFI but when I asked her which activity she feels most attached to she says it’s the Shelter Project, without doubt. The Shelter Project lies within the PEWC Program and is mainly about operating a Shelter for young women and girl survivors of trafficking in Pakse, Southern Laos. The goal is to protect and empower the survivors through a program of personal care, education, training and social support.
I visited the welcoming Shelter shop in Pakse myself and found myself surrounded by a variety of unique handmade products such as scarfs, purses, wood carvings and other handicrafts, all produced by survivors. Generating work and income through the marketing of handicrafts is just one perfect example of how VFI provides this group of people with skills to realize their potential and create a path to re-integration. Thouni is closely involved in assisting the PEWC program to help survivors of trafficking.
Helping the survivors of trafficking is one of the main reasons Thouni loves her job. “This job is about changing lives. Knowing that the energy of a well motivated team is going to bring about positive change keeps me motivated. It would be hard for me to make that difference in a regular job.” Her passion for this work is further confirmed by the main role she took in successfully organizing the charity event “Run Laos Challenge” to raise funds and awareness for the Shelter Project.
Run Laos Challenge was the first ever ultra marathon relay hosted in Laos where three women (1 Lao national and 2 Lao-Americans) successfully ran a 130 mile (209 km) course through Laos in just 3 days! “People were skeptical about the event. They thought it was only to get attention and the runners would’t last. That made me even more proud when all three girls finished with just blister, when the local media picked it up and sponsor goals were met.”
When I ask Thouni about her future ambitions, she seems focused on expanding the Run Laos Challenge. “I want to make this event international, it would be great if people like you in near future would take part of it (smiling)”. Being a marathon runner myself I think there is great potential for such success. I have met many people who want to help charities and get involved but only very few (can) commit themselves in the long term, so then an easy accessible running event could be a great option.
Do you want to make a big change with just a small effort? Only $5 pays for one survivor of human trafficking to attend one small business training course. See how you can get involved.
Village Focus International is registered as a 501(c)(3) organization in the United States, as a charitable organization in Hong Kong, and as a local NGO in Cambodia (and pending registration for their local partner – Our Village Association– in Laos). Beside individual donations it also receive funds from international foundations such as Terre des Hommes.