Brittany Chiapetti - 2014 Program Participant

Volunteer petting an elephant in Thailand

Brittany’s first meeting with Mana, a female bursting with an amazing personality

Why did you decide to apply for an international program in Thailand?

This program really stuck out to me because of the conservation and educational aspects it had involving Asian elephants. I would be helping more than just the community; I would be able to be a part of helping those who cannot help themselves. I would become a part of something bigger than myself.

What set GVI’s program with elephants apart from other volunteer abroad opportunities when comparing programs?

This program collected data to show that man-made herds of Asian elephants can coexist. They did more than educate tourists and locals and they did more than just help the elephants. They provided scientific evidence to show that yes, elephants can be placed back into the forest with various individuals, and they can thrive in this setting with these individuals. They also openly perform health checks on the elephants twice a week. The final factor setting this project apart from others was its rural setting; it was amazing.

Describe an average day on your program.

I would wake up pretty early each day. If I was not going on an elephant hike, I was going on a biodiversity hike, or off to help at the nursery. My host family cooked me breakfast in the morning, so after getting ready I would grab my breakfast and head down to our base hut. Here I would have breakfast and then be off on my adventure for the day. Hikes would last a few hours, and often we would have our lunches in the forest. Upon returning from our hikes we sometimes had time for a shower before any afternoon events.

Afternoon events really varied from day to day. Most of the time we could teach English at the school, do some environmental beautification, work around base, participate in cooking classes, or complete data entry. Evenings would be spent with my homestay family hanging out, eating, and just enjoying each other’s company.

What kind of caretaking tasks were involved in volunteering with elephants?

Health checks were performed on the elephants twice weekly. Staff, volunteers, and Mahouts all took part in these health checks. On a semi-regular basis volunteers were allowed to feed fruit or treats to the elephants which helps their physical wellbeing, as well as their mental wellbeing.

Volunteer petting a water buffalo in Thailand

Brittany was happy walking back from Top Shop when she got to get this close to one of the water buffalo

What was it like living with a tribe in Thailand?

Living with this tribe, the Koren People, was more than amazing. Their culture fascinated me. They were so appreciative of the earth and life itself; it was nice to be around. They are very family oriented and kind people. They live simply and work around the cycle of the sun. Honestly, I loved their simple way of life. I loved not wearing shoes indoors. I loved the sleeping and sitting arrangements.

It was great learning some of the ways they use to cook and being able to help. My host family was more than willing to reach out to me and help me learn anything I was interested in. They helped me to learn their language and I helped them to learn mine. Being gone a year now, I still think about them a lot and look forward to returning to see them next year. The people, as well as the elephants, are unforgettable.

What was your favorite activity outside the normal day-to-day schedule of your program?

My favorite activity outside of our schedule was hanging out with my homestay family and the other volunteers. Getting to know everyone was one of the most amazing parts of my experience. We were free to play games, talk, teach, and learn from each other. I remember hanging with the two young girls in my home doing each other’s hair and giggling. This time really allowed us to learn about each other’s personalities and cultures.

What was the most memorable part of your experience?

The most memorable part of my experience was one day on a hike a male elephant had just been introduced into one of the herds with three other females. He was really touching one of them all over with his trunk, so we were collecting a ton of touch data. All of a sudden he stuck his trunk in the female’s mouth or something and she let out a roaring trumpet and came flying down the hill away from him, but where we happened to be. Two Mahouts instantly jumped in front of her where she stopped dead in her tracks. She then proceeded to walk around them and go down the hill slowly. The one staff member and other volunteer I was with, as well as myself, all had jumped up and ran away. We had an adrenaline rush of a life time. But, to see these Mahouts and this elephant interact the way they did showed me the trust and respect they all had with each other. It was truly an amazing sight to witness. Knowing their trust and respect is one thing, but to see it all in a situation like this is just aweing. A few days later this same herd was hanging out eating and they were trumpeting left and right. It was incredible to witness and be around.

Taking a break while hiking in Thailand

Taking a break with the Mahouts after a killer hike up the mountain!

What was the biggest challenge you faced in Thailand?

Bugs. Bug spray does little good, so itch cream became my best friend. I recommend pants and thin long sleeves, as well as some itch cream just in case!

How did the GVI staff support and guide you throughout your program?

The GVI staff was very relatable and open to hear what we had to stay. If I had any questions, I did not hesitate to ask because I knew they were there for me. They were really clear with all the safety precautions on the project, which was beneficial. I was doing a qualitative research study on the elephant’s auditory vocalizations while I was there and all the staff helped so that my research would be as accurate as possible. My research was an area that all the staff and volunteers helped me on. Some of the staff had done a lot of biology research themselves and were great with giving me insight on do’s and don’ts.

What advice would you give to others interested in GVI’s elephant program in Thailand?

Come open minded and ready for a new experience. It is a rural location, a special culture, and an amazing opportunity. You will gain the most out of this experience if you have an open mind and are willing to try new things. I do recommend bringing itch cream for bug bites. Otherwise, just come and be happy. This opportunity will open up many others for you and will allow you to have a new perspective of life. You will learn a lot, have a ton of fun, and make some great friends.

Friends that became like family

What makes Thailand such an incredible location to work with elephants?

The forests make Thailand an ideal location to work with elephants. There is so much canopy cover that the elephants do not get too incredibly hot, nor do we when hiking with them. 

How has volunteering abroad impacted your life?

Upon my return I had so many new opportunities. I was able to host events at my university and around my community all advocating for elephants and sharing my experiences. I was asked to be the keynote speaker at Western New Mexico University's Academic Symposium. I became an active ambassador for GVI, and that itself is great. Because of my experience and personal attributes I was given a scholarship to attend NCCWSL, a national conference for college women student leaders.

We grow at the edge of our comfort zones.

Being in Thailand, 8,000 miles away from my home, put me at the edge of my comfort zone and really allowed me to grow and to learn new things. I learned more about myself, our world, and the lives within it. I regret nothing and look forward to returning to the village of Huay Pakoot next year!