Every entrepreneur, whether she is building a non-profit organization or a startup, faces a lonely and underappreciated struggle. April Magazine starts a series giving voice to their work and dreams.
Today we present the Thailand Humanitarian Academic Initiative founded by Rotjanee Daphne Larsen.
The children of rich countries can easily misremember education as a painful chore of calculus and grammatical cases. But it is so much more. For communities and children, especially girls, education saves lives, improves health, grows economies, and creates opportunities. It is good when we are reminded of this.
In Their Own Words
Inspired to give back to her motherland, Rotjanee Daphne Larsen founded a non-profit organization called Thailand Humanitarian Academic Initiative. Rotjanee is a first-generation Thai-American, born to a Thai mother and American father. She was raised in Bangkok and moved to the US at age 13.
Education has been an important element of survival for her mother’s family who came from the rural northeastern farming region of Thailand. When her mother, aunts and uncles were old enough, they would be sent to Bangkok to continue their education in the modern capital city. In 1967 her mother, Dr. Pimonpan Prasertwong, received a Fulbright Scholarship to attend a master’s program at Indiana University where she met Rotjanee’s father, Heath. They were soon married and started a small family in Thailand during the Vietnam War era.
Rotjanee knows the power of education to change lives through improved opportunities and higher pay. Obtaining a chemical engineering degree from the University of Arizona as a single mother gave her firsthand experience. In 2012 she and her husband, Eric, started Thainitiative.org to be a bridge of opportunity for disadvantaged children in rural Thailand. Thainitiative started out focusing on infrastructure improvements at several remote village schools. We also sponsor volunteer English teachers and have funded the salary of a beloved kindergarten teacher in Piangluang village. To date, the nonprofit has raised over $50,000 and helped nearly 10 schools in Nan, Chiang Mai, and Mae Hong Son provinces.
In 2017-2018, Thainitiative extended our work deep into the mountains bordering Laos to a very remote hill-tribe village school at Khun Nam Jon. The primitive road requires 4-wheel drive and it takes nearly 2 hours to travel the 10 km from the main road. It is nearly impassable during the rainy season. Two dedicated Thai teachers care for 55 children from Monday through Friday, living in huts during the week and making the difficult journey home on weekends. These teachers mainly provide hygiene education and Thai language instruction (the villagers speak a hill-tribe language). Students from the neighboring village walk the 2 km to the schoolhouse each day. There is no electricity, but the school has solar panels for limited power and access to clean water year-round. Most of the villagers own small plots and farm rice for subsistence, with a little extra for sale when they have a good crop.
The children go to school mainly to be fed and receive a basic education. To continue beyond 6th grade, parents must send their children to the middle school in the valley below. This requires that they stay in dormitories during the week or endure a tortuous daily commute. In Thailand primary schooling is free but there are no school buses. These poor farmers have very limited, if any, income and most are not able to send their children to the valley school.
Thainitiative has worked with the local district to provide weekly transportation for 14 children from Khun Nam Jon to attend Ban Sawa middle school in the valley. We have committed just under $5000 for a year of transportation and are actively raising funds for this cause. Since we started the project, the government has slowly begun improving the road. Thainitiative hopes to purchase a larger truck and fund a driver to allow more students from these remote villages to attend middle school and beyond.
We are particularly focused on educating girls. Once out of school, girls in these mountain villages have few options. Most become very young mothers with little hope of continuing their schooling. Boys have a slight advantage, but all young people from these rural areas are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. With little education they are easy prey for criminal enterprises whenever they seek employment outside of their village communities. We believe that a strong background in reading, writing, and basic math is the best defense against human trafficking and provides these children with the best opportunities for honest employment and personal growth.
Thainitiative is an all-volunteer organization with friends and agents throughout Thailand. No one takes a salary. Our dedicated teachers, agents and volunteers donate their time and effort on our projects so that 100% of fundraising proceeds can go towards helping the most children. Rotjanee and Eric are at once honored and humbled by Thainitiative’s success so far, as we continue to grow and impact the lives of these most grateful and deserving children.
How You Can Help
You can also share other education startups and spread awareness about the importance of education. Learning and education may one day become a self-evident global right, but until that day, each of us can do our small part to make the world a better place.