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Lak Paek Primary School
In Laos, north of Luang Prabang, lies the small, poor village of Lak Paek. Its people are from the Laotian ethnic group Khmu - settled agriculturalists who practice slash-and-burn farming. Rice is their staple crop and there are many varieties, all of them glutinous. Other crops include corn, bananas, sugar cane and a wide variety of vegetables. Hunting, gathering, trapping and fishing supplement their predominantly vegetarian diet. Some Khmu keep domestic animals, but these are used for sacrifices more often than for food.
While on a trek in 1999, we became acquainted with this village and the Lak Paek Primary School. At this time the school consisted of four rooms in a dilapidated concrete-block structure, replete with tin roof and doors that were rotting away. The school's four classrooms held some 120 children in five different grades. Smooth-planed half logs with legs pounded into the dirt below served as desks and seats. On the day we first met them, the children - who customarily spoke their native hill-tribe language - were learning formal Lao.
Four poorly dressed teachers, one of whom was missing an arm as a result of an encounter with an unexploded landmine, staffed the school. The teachers are irregularly paid a meager salary (which is always in arrears) and barely make enough to feed themselves. Because of this, they are forced to spend significant amounts of their time farming or in other activities that will supplement their livelihood. As a result classes are held for only a few hours each day .
During our visit the amputee approached us, and in his halting English, asked us if we could help the school. Though we could easily tell how poor the school was when we first entered, his words gave us pause. We looked around and began to realize that some 120 students lacked even basic writing utensils, notepads, paper, and text books. Each of the four classrooms had broken chalkboards - the only instructional tools the teachers had! The children loved to play ball of some kind, but had no playground, toys or equipment for even the simplest activities. That year, from a sparse market in Luang Prabang, we were able to buy rattan balls, badminton sets, nets, and soccer balls for the children. And we promised we would be back again to help where we could.
Lao PDR is one of the poorest countries in the world. An estimated 50% of the ethnically diverse population of approximately 5 million live below the poverty line. After decades of war, it is only now that economic development has resumed. Officially, primary education begins at age six and lasts for five years. Nonetheless, many students in the village of Lak Paek cannot finish even the 5-year primary education: the highest dropout rate occurs at grade three. Reasons include the need to look after younger siblings and helping the family with food-gathering activities like farming, hunting and fishing.
Our visit prompted us to take what action we could to assist and support the School. We decided then that our goal would be to launch an effort that would assist the school by acquiring school supplies for the children. In 2000, Northwestern Middle School in Clark County, Ohio, mounted a drive and more than one hundred pounds of pens, pencil, pencil sharpeners, calculators, chalk, notebooks and paper were collected. We also accepted supplies from interested individuals and bought many ourselves.
Jerry and Debbie Brichacek of Drumright, Oklahoma, provided the postage costs to mail the supplies to Master Sergeant Roger Coe (USAF) who was then part of the Joint Task Force searching for the remains of missing service men and women in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Through his local resources, he was able to get the supplies shipped by train from Bangkok to Vientiane, Laos. Through his connections with Lao Aviation, the official airlines for Laos, the packages were flown to Luang Prabang, and stored at a modest hotel known as the Manoluck. When we arrived in Luang Prabang that October we took the supplies to the school. Some of the supplies were distributed among the students, and the teachers kept the remainder for future distribution.
Even though the Asian transportation of the goods had been provided for free, the mailing costs made this an expensive process - and we knew we had to find a better way. We began to explore the surrounding markets and the markets in Vientiane, and found that we could purchase many of the supplies locally, and while not of the same quality, we could buy much more for the amount of money that we spent. Since that initial shipment, we have returned each year and purchased the annual school supplies for the children, their playground toys, clothing and other gifts for the teachers. We have also bought supplies to keep the school in a better state of repair, such as material to repair the roof, and new doors. We have also purchased desks and tables for the teachers and some cooking pots and water buckets. Dr. Marvin Pflaumer of New Carlisle, Ohio, has supplied the teachers with eyeglasses.
In 2004, because of the generosity of Anne Pflaumer of New Carlisle, Ohio and Joan Brichacek Wilson of Wichita, Kansas, we were able to purchase enough children's literature books in Vientiane to start a small library at the school. Virtually all of these materials are paperbound editions and will not last long - but it is a start. Doctor Warren Wingate and his wife, Tina, were good enough to donate enough toothbrushes for all of the students and teachers. William Wharton of Dayton, Ohio, purchased all of the playground toys for the year.
There is one tiny thread of electricity running into the village from an upstream water-powered turbine generator and some of the villagers are able to have a single electric bulb in their home. The amputee teacher had one such electrical outlet and one electrical plug. This year Ruby Thompson of Atoka, Oklahoma, donated a small refrigerator to that teacher. Because all meats, fruits and vegetables are harvested just prior to use, the village has no need for mass refrigeration as we know it. Instead, it will be used by the entire village to store medicine and other perishable items. We sincerely thank all of those that have assisted us in our efforts.
World Threads' goals for Lak Paek Primary School are:
World Threads is not a qualified charity within the meaning of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, but merely a small organization seeking to better the lives of the students and teachers at Lak Paek Primary School, and ultimately improve their village life.
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