As I sit here now, reflecting back on the time I spent living with the Ahka in Thailand, I find myself holding back tears. I close my eyes and let the memories come seeping in like running water. I hear the Cicadas buzzing their songs from deep jungle branches. I hear dogs barking and playing. I hear the steady beat of rain as it hits the tin rooftop of the schoolhouse. I hear my students laughing as they shout words in English: “Apple! Monkey! Rose! Purple!” I hear happiness and impoverishment and love, all swirled into a single form. I hear Ahka.

In June of 2013, I left the United States to spend a month teaching English in Thailand. Having spent a significant amount of time in foreign countries, I knew it was wisest to expect the unexpected. My objective was simply: I’d help in anyway I could and I wouldn’t leave unless I was certain I had changed someone’s life for the better – even if only one child. I was excited and eager to contribute.

Upon arriving at the hostel, it took only a few minutes for me to realize how serious the situation was.  We met the girls and became acquainted with their living situations. Indeed the hostel was a great improvement from the houses up in the village, but even still, it provided only basic accommodations and required a steady deal of maintenance from the girls.

I spent the first week getting to know the girls individually. We played games, visited their school, and exchanged culture. Never in my life have I met a group of such wonderful people. They all slept in rusty bunk beds crammed into a single room with only a few fans for air conditioning. They operated their own garden and cut their lawn with hand scissors. They made their own food, washed their own clothes, and performed chores with a diligence far beyond their age. And they never complained. Not once.  I’ve never been so proud and so inspired by a group of children. They were grateful beyond belief. Their love for one another and their positive attitudes overshadowed the financial and sanitary setbacks they endured on a daily basis.

After only a week, I realized how much the hostel meant to them and how much they truly needed the place. They expressed this love in their schoolwork. Despite being less fortunate than the other students at their school, almost all of the girls were at the top of their class. After a long day of school, they returned home, executed their chores, then spent several hours working on homework. There was little leisure time if any at all. Their desire to progress themselves, in face of all their adversities, was unlike anything I’d witnessed in the United States. I was inspired. I knew these people needed my help, but more importantly, I knew they deserved it.

After my first week, I was relocated to a nearby Ahka village where I would teach English for three hours every morning to a group of fifteen students. I lived with a friendly Ahka family only a few minutes from the school. During my first class, I learned everybody’s name and did my best to grasp how much English they already knew. Most of the students knew the whole alphabet; some even knew a few words, but none of them could pronounce sounds properly nor could they write English without it appearing distorted. They were unquestionably shy and timid at first, but even so, I could see a sense hope glimmering in their eyes. They wanted to learn. Not because they had to or because their parents made them, but because they wanted to. I had a lot of work ahead of me.

Three weeks later, as I entered my last week of teaching, it was a drastically different environment than on the day of my first lesson. We had become a family. I loved my class and they loved me. I’ve never seen ten-year-olds so eager to educate themselves. At the end of my lesson each morning, they would beg me to stay and teach more. “Quien, quien, quien!” They would always say. This meant “Write, write, write,” meaning, they wanted me to continue writing on the chalkboard, even after my three hour lesson was completed. As a result, I spent most days lingering around the school grounds, engaging in private lessons when I could. This was all mandated by their personal desires.

On my last day teaching, I presented my students with a quiz to see how much they had really learned. The results were astonishing. Every single student, including my two eight-year-olds, could write sentences in English with completely legible penmanship. They could all, in English, tell me their names, where they were from, their favorite hobbies, and even their favorite animals. My best student, a 12 year-old name girl named Pantit, could write almost two full paragraphs in English. I was a very proud teacher.

Later that day, in honor of my departure, the whole school closed early. My students spent a solid two hours making a grand feast for me. We spent the afternoon eating hot fish and pork. We socialized and laughed and played soccer. Finally, before it was time for me to leave, my class presented me with a hand-stitched Ahka handbag. It was a token of their appreciation. I felt incredibly touched. The kids held my hand and walked me to the edge of the schoolyard. We exchanged hugs and final farewells. They stood waving and blowing kisses as I walked away for the last time. My eyes filled with tears. It was a strange feeling: I had come to teach them English and I had been surprisingly successful, but really, I felt like they had taught me so much more.

The Ahka people have little material wealth and they often have to scavenge for food, but they are kings of compassion. I have so much love for them and I always will.

I hope to return soon.

With love,

Brett Troeger



People think that having the opportunity to volunteer overseas is a privilege, and it really is. Traveling in general, is a privilege in itself, and it is always  a new experience every time.  I did not know a month could go by so fast. My group and I went there with the objective of seeing what help we could be in an Akha tribe village, as well as at the hostel for a group of teenage Akha girls. This hostel gives the girls the opportunity to go to school. Due to their home villages being further away, transportation is difficult and busses do not tread in these mountainous areas. The school they go to is more closer to the city and is mixed with both Hill tribe and Thai students.
The girls I met are some of the most sweetest, kindest, thoughtful, caring, and hard-working people I have ever met in my life. They had touched my heart, and it’s something I will never forget. In Thailand, members of the minority groups (Hill tribes) are often discriminated against. The school I volunteered at is 40% Hill tribe and 60% Thai, and yet in some classes, Hill tribe students are separated from the Thai students because of the personal requests from the Thai students’ parents. Because of this, Hill tribe students suffer most in school. With no education and no one willing to hire them, these people, especially the girls, are the so-called ‘easy’ targets to lure into the sex trade in promise that what they make will help support their parents in the village. This is a problem for poor young Northern Thais living in rural areas, Hill tribes and other native girls in bordering countries such as Burma (Myanmar), Laos, and Cambodia.
Volunteering in Thailand with Winnie Cain to guide this vision, has truly been a one-of-a-kind and humbling experience. I will never forget the impact that the Akha girls have made in my life. I can honestly say they have made more of an impact in my life than I probably did in theirs. If others ever decided to go on a similar volunteering experience, there is no doubt in my mind that when you return home, you will never be the same again. – Laura Gulbranson