Seeing is Believing: A Look at a Volunteer’s Experience in Myanmar, Part I

While I was visiting Myanmar a few weeks ago, I met a teacher working at a school in Yangon. He told me an inspiring story about his a service learning component to his school’s curriculum, and the profound interactions his students had during one field trip to a school for the blind. The story left a deep impression on me. Those of us who work full-time in philanthropy each have our own motivations for why we do what we do. Every once in a while, it’s nice to be reminded about how the work we do impacts the lives of individuals. (Names have been omitted to protect the author and organizations inside Myanmar.)

I started working in Yangon shortly before Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar’s southern coast in May 2008. I work for a small school in which all of the students are Myanmar citizens. My students have excelled in their high schools and are now trying to earn scholarships to study abroad. They intend to come back after studying abroad to participate in civil society and help develop their country. An important part of our academic program is experiential learning in the form of field trips, service learning, and internships. My job is to coordinate service learning and internships. For the academic year which just began my students will volunteer once a week at local organizations.

In years past, students have volunteered at health clinics, monastic schools, NGOs, and other CBOs. The students’ responsibilities have included translating, teaching, data collection and input, and writing articles, among other responsibilities. Part of the curriculum is a weekly service feedback session in which students reflect on their service experience, help each other to solve problems at their service sites, and try to meaningfully integrate their experiences with the academic component of the program. This final part has proven the most elusive because the nature of each student’s work is so different from every other student. To address this problem, I’ve limited service options this year to working with young children. This way there will be a common theme around which curriculum can be oriented.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve taken field trips with my students to several very different schools so that they can make an informed, well-reasoned decision about what service site they would like to volunteer at this year. This entry will be the first in a series of entries in which I write about the schools that we visit and my students’ reactions to the field trips. By doing this, I hope to provide the reader a sample of the wide spectrum of educational settings which young children in Yangon find themselves and also to give concrete illustrations of the transformative effect that service learning can have on students in Myanmar.

The first school that we visited was a Christian school for blind children. The founder of the school is an inspiring man. He lost his eyesight, an arm, and the partial use of his other hand after an accident in his high school chemistry lab. In a society with few resources for people with disabilities, his recovery was slow and painful. He suffered from extreme depression and at one point attempted suicide. It was at this time that he found God and decided to dedicate his life to helping others who are blind. He founded the school several decades ago and has since worked relentlessly to expand and improve the facilities.

Outside of this school, there are few educational and vocational opportunities for blind children in Myanmar. Families and communities with blind children in Myanmar do not have access to information and resources to help these children learn mobility and orientation in order to become independent and productive members of their communities. Many blind children in Myanmar spend their lives confined to their houses without ever learning basic mobility and orientation and never attending school. In this school, by contrast, blind children from around the country find a loving, supportive community where they are taught mobility and orientation skills and ultimately learn to even navigate the complicated bus system in Yangon. There is regimented program in which the children gradually become more independent and confident from the day they arrive at the school until they are finally able to take care of themselves and explore the city on their own.

Some graduates of the school have even gone on to become students at the University of Yangon, earning degrees in various fields and often returning to teach at the school. This school now serves several hundred blind children and adults. The majority of the adults residing there are former students who now work at the school in various capacities. Many stay because of the strong sense of community and solidarity and because they want to give back to the school.

Author: Wesley Hedden

Seeing is believing: A look inside a blind school in Myanmar, Part II

Seeing is believing: A look inside a blind school in Myanmar, Part III