Written by Katie Parkinson, TBF volunteer teacher.

As I sit and think back on my time as a volunteer for The Branch Foundation, I find myself staring at a blinking cursor, trying to find the words to describe one of the happiest and most meaningful periods of my life. We all have them—the experiences that become pinnacles of our time here on earth; the ones that make us feel there is some purpose, some deeper understanding to be had in an otherwise random series of life events. But no matter how much we may want to, it is impossible to explain the true impact these experiences have had on us, as we will continue to question and learn from them for years to come. So instead of trying to make sense of all this, I will introduce you to the community I fell in love with and try to share their story as best I can.


On my very first visit to Koung Jor, before I began as a volunteer teacher, I was welcomed by some of the warmest and most generous people I have ever met in my life. A community of several hundred Shan refugees, all living in a camp that was originally meant to provide short-term shelter as their homeland was being ravaged by war. But as weeks turned into months and months into years without a secure home to return to, it soon became the only place in which they could live safely. Although it was a completely foreign environment for me, I felt a genuine sense of comfort while touring the camp, and I knew immediately I wanted to stay. Luckily, the feeling was mutual for Sai Oo, the Education Coordinator, and Sai Leng, the Camp Headman, who made me feel as if I was coming home to a family I had never known.

And so it began. A few weeks later, I returned to assist in teaching a 3-month English preparation course for young adults in the camp who wished to pursue higher education in the future. My fellow teachers, Tai Leng and Gone Seng, were eager to collaborate and together we laid out goals and thought of ways to make the most of my short time as a volunteer. In the end it was conversation that improved the most, as our beginner students confidently engaged in basic dialogues and our intermediate students debated their opinions and shared stories of their past. DSC_0725
DSC_0676 The credit is not all ours of course, as we were lucky to have the most determined and hardworking group of students a teacher could ever hope for. There is Jao Berngseng, who began the course knowing only a handful of words and quickly became one of the most confident talkers in the class; and Sai Tee, who invested all of his time and energy into his education, despite hitting academic roadblocks in the past; and Sai Kawn Khur, who told me of his dream to become an English teacher one day and return home to build a school with his own two hands. While each of my students had a unique story, they all shared an unwavering commitment to working hard on themselves every day in order to become leaders and change makers in the future. I am still processing the many lessons they have taught me, but one thing is for sure—I will always draw inspiration from their courage and resilience.
On my last day at the camp, we celebrated the achievements of each student, and laughed about our favorite memories of the summer. It was not until that day that the full weight of my experience hit me, and I learned how attached I had become to my temporary home and family at Koung Jor. As I sat on the bus to Chiang Mai the next morning, winding through the misty hills of Northern Thailand, I felt as if I had just woken up from the most beautiful dream, wishing I could drift back into it for just a few moments longer. DCIM100GOPRO