Gratitude and Action Over Guilt and Distractions


Just some of the kids visited in Myanmar.

Alison Howard, Web Designer

On January 8, 2018 I felt an immense amount of guilt and anxiety walking into CVS.

Just a few days prior I had been frantically searching for a final box of Clotrimazole cream because I had a four-year-old boy with an extreme case of Scabies and I knew the Gentalene cream which is more common in Myanmar was too harsh for his young sensitive skin.

Now with each step I take there is an array of discounted, high end and package deal products to aid almost any wound, illness or discomfort one could have.  

As I took a deep breath and reminded myself that no one is born able to choose their living circumstances, I began to remember the phrase that helps me continue to preserve, “Use your privilege to build on the privilege of others.”

Clean water, organized class curriculums and basic health care are things many of us can’t fathom not having. The headmaster of Grace Orphanage in Okkan Myanmar stated how he’s “earnestly prayed every night for a year for water that doesn’t give his children diarrhea and infection.” Despite this, for some taking a shower or going to the doctor is a chore rather than something to be grateful for.

I’d also like to note although I despise homework assignments as much as the next person, a project-based learning environment with teachers offering individualized help is unheard of to many across the world.

In a recent article entitled “The Education Deficit” published by Humans Rights Watch organization shared that “around 124 million children between 6-15 years old have either never started school or have dropped out, compared to 122 million in 2011. An estimated 24 million girls may never enter school.

The data above is related to underdeveloped countries around the world. The large figure can be extremely difficult to digest as humans best feel empathic reactions on an individual level, making it easier to disregard altogether.

In many of the orphanages I have visited across Myanmar the monks and teachers have already done a great job establishing a school for children whose parents are unable to support them. They are typically only taught Myanmar language, basic mathematics and science without any importance placed on ways to end the core issues plaguing the underserved areas.

Each year I attend the Student Action Volunteer Effort (S.A.V.E) medical missions and I see the strengths and the weaknesses of the aid we provide. It is great that we are able to treat hundreds of children who have never had an “annual check-up,” but our project does not have many ways to implement long-lasting solutions.

 Some that I feel are most important include an education focused on comprehensive health and hygiene, all-inclusive history, and career counseling.  

For this reason, Elaiza Villegas, Madeline Marmion, Samantha Rodriguez and I travelled over 8,000 miles in April to teach skills we could acquire to target specific needs of the children. In an effort to combat the spread of fungal infections, germs and scabies we taught hands on proper hygiene habits.

We made it a point to visit each orphanage for at least two days to reinforce what we taught and show the children how much we care for each of them individually.

Every morning we’d brush our teeth with countless intrigued children. We one by one washed every child’s hands, face, and head and then asked them to show us what they learned.

We were told by one of our translators that us washing the children’s heads was a “luxury” to them because they rarely do it themselves. We saw this when on the second day children wanted their heads washed by us even if they didn’t have ringworm or a wound on their head.

Many of the children have ringworm on their scalp because the teachers use one razor to shave all of their heads, so we made sure to teach them how to properly sterilize metal and that it should be done in between every child.

Much of the work we did targeted physical health, however, we wanted to include emotional health in our teachings as well.

At the beginning of each day all the children would either sit or stand in rows and we would repeat positive mantras and kind words. Some included I am strong (a-shi-deh), I am brave (yeh-deh), and I am beautiful (hla-deh).

Monks live in an effort to reach enlightenment, so they restrict themselves of many pleasures in life. Because of this, small children growing up as a novice monk or having monks as their caregivers, lack the warm feelings produced from receiving affection and reassurance from those they look up to.

Aung Myo Win expanded on this, because every Burmese buddhist male is required to practice as a monk at least twice in their lifetime, he knew how difficult these children’s daily lives could be. Monks are expected to be meditating before sunrise, walk for hours through villages asking for donations, and comply to over 200 rules. However, every monasteries code of conduct slightly differs.

At first I viewed this as being too extreme, but when traveling it is important to try to understand and appreciate what is different instead of look down on it.

I am constantly bewildered by questions asked of me like, “why do you spend your vacations in those third world countries?” or “how do you cope with what you see over there?”…

I spend my vacations immersing myself in beautiful countries with cultures vastly different from my own. I cope because it is real. Over “there” doesn’t mean anything because it’s still happening. Yes, it might be hard but the rewarding feeling of knowing you did what you could will always outweigh what some may think would be depressing.