Hard work with warm heart

Chapel Hill teen spends his summer toiling and teaching in rural northern Thailand

schandler@newsobserver.comNovember 4, 2012 

COURTESY OF PAMELA A. MOFFATT

In East Chapel Hill High School’s Social Justice Program, junior Jacob Moffatt has gotten used to learning about perspectives beyond “just the people who won in history,” as he puts it.

But his trip to northern Thailand last summer let him see firsthand how people live in a world very different from his home in Chapel Hill.

For six weeks, Jacob and his mother did volunteer work for the Warm Heart Foundation in rural Phrao valley, an area where terrain and distance often mean buses can’t reach children to take them to school.

As part of its mission to improve lives through education, health services and microenterprise support, the foundation – founded by longtime friends of the Moffatt family – runs a facility to house children during the week so that buses can reach them and they can have a place to study and socialize.

Jacob spent most of his time in Thailand doing “a lot of physical labor” to build more housing to accommodate more Phrao valley children. He also helped set up a library and taught English on weekends.

The hard work was tiring, he said, but it wasn’t a hard decision to spend his summer sweating.

“I love to help people,” he said.

Doing physical work alongside native Thais was especially rewarding, he said, because of the closeness it brought.

“That kind of just created a bond in a way that no other work can really do,” he said.

It also was a quick way to overcome the language barrier.

“That’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed doing the physical labor,” Jacob said, “because it was easier to overcome that language barrier because you could just point, and laugh, and stuff like that.”

Eventually, of course, he did pick up a few Thai words, but he learned far more than that.

“It was definitely eye-opening to see how really deprived this area was in northern Thailand,” he said. “It’s a very poor community, and it’s very rural – it all depends on how the harvest goes. If the harvest doesn’t go well, they’re just kind of out of luck. It was really interesting to see all that coming from a more developed country.”

Jacob said he’s grateful for the opportunities he’s had to travel outside the U.S. and outside of Western cultures, and he’s very aware of the effect such exposure has had on his worldview.

“You get kind of trapped in this sense that everything is nice and good in the world and you don’t have to worry about anything,” he said. “But, in reality, everyone needs to help out.”

For the near future, Jacob said he plans to do more helping out closer to home, perhaps with local fundraising projects for the Warm Heart Foundation. And as he weighs his career plans, he’s listening to his head as well as his heart.

He’s interested in science, citing biology as one area of interest so he can “try to create medicines or something like that.”

His reasoning there is similar to his line of thinking when he decided to spend six precious weeks of summer in Thailand: “Because I’ve always had an interest in trying to help out people.”

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