GoAbroad Interview

Evelind Schecter - Co-Founder & Director of Finance & Operations

Evelind and her husband, Mike, started Warm Heart Worldwide in northern Thailand to help children who have nowhere else to turn. The area’s population is largely made up of Thailand hill tribes and refugees that don’t have a place in Thai society and have very few opportunities – many don’t even speak Thai. Affectionately called Paaw Lin or Big Boss Lin, by the locals she works with, she now lives full time in northern Thailand and specializes in the financial side of running the organization.

Evelind and her husband Mike with some Thai children

How did you first become involved in international volunteerism?

We started Warm Heart in 2008 with our Thai Partners and a bunch of volunteers, mostly college students or recent graduates. We were able to hire a core Thai staff, but all the outreach and PR/Communications had to be done by the foreign volunteers. The first year we had volunteers of multiple ethnic backgrounds (South America, India, Panama).  Since then, we’ve had volunteers from over 25 countries.

What inspired you to start Warm Heart?

We (my husband and I) had always wanted to start a program to give underserved kids a safety net and possibly apprenticeships. We tried to start a program in the U.S., but hit too many obstacles.

What made you decide to move to Thailand and live there full time?

My husband ran a program in Northern Thailand with American students and a group of young people from the Mekong Youth Network (seven languages; very interesting translation network that the team set up). We met our future Warm Heart Partners and decided to do some due diligence to see if we could make it work; that was in June. We visited Phrao (a small town north of Chiang Mai) over Thanksgiving and met with the local government officials to see what their priorities were for the district and if they were interested in us coming to work there. My husband took a year sabbatical from his University and with the volunteers mentioned above, set out to listen to the community and see what needs were unmet. I continued working for another year and a half to support the organization.

Your organization provides help to the families of the hill tribes of northern Thailand, a population that is too often forgotten. What makes their position or plight unique?

Many are the indigenous ethnic groups or refugees from over the centuries (and still coming from war zones), but have not been able to make a go in Thai society. Many of them were nomadic and lost their livelihood when the Thai government shut down the poppy industry, sourcing opium and heroin. The hill tribes were allowed to stay on the land, but had to scratch out a living from steep hillsides in remote mountain villages. Many are “stateless’ - not Thai, not citizens of neighboring countries; they are left without any legitimate citizenship.

What drew you to help this population rather than working in a different organization in Thailand?

We work with both Thai and ethnic minorities. When we started out, the need was for education and ways to increase incomes for the families of the children in need. Most Hill tribe villages have a one room school house through six grade or no school at all. If they are lucky they live with relatives in the valley near the school. Others lived in “children’s homes” that the parents paid for, but the children were poorly cared for. The district started shutting these homes down and we found a group of children from one of the hill tribes in the district where our land is located, that needed a safe place for their kids. We went from five kids the first year to 18 in the second year after an Army commander in a remote village on the Burmese border needed to get kids out of the line of fire and away from jobs in the drug trade.

Your volunteer placements are truly unique because often times the volunteers create them themselves. If they can show you the benefits and needs of a project, Warm Heart will bend over backwards to help them achieve their goals. What are two of the most interesting projects your volunteers are developing right now?

We’ve extended our micro-enterprise product line to include bracelets that can be made by our neighboring villagers, including the elderly and disabled in our public health program. A volunteer from a college in the U.S. had started his own NGO to educate people about human trafficking and wanted to learn about working in a non-profit and to teach people to make bracelets that he could use for fundraisers for his organization and Warm Heart.

Another volunteer brought equipment to do water testing for pesticide and heavy metals run-off. Others worked on our Biochar project – making activated charcoal out of field waste such as corn cobs. It’s used to make fertilizer, eliminate smells, and get heavy metals out of the earth. It’s “carbon negative”  meaning it puts carbon back in the ground.

What is your greatest success as an organization?

We have become part of the community and are the “go-to’” organization for local village headmen and leaders when there is a problem they need help solving – like clean water supply or mobility aids for the disabled. We don’t have much money, but can bring resources to assist from international organizations like Engineers Without Borders and Wheels of Hope that raises money from around the world for container loads of mobility aids for the elderly and disabled.

I understand your family has grown extensively over the years. How many children have you adopted?

We have four adopted children, who are now grown up. We had about 20 “foster” children – children of refugee families that needed a chance to catch up and college students that needed a safe place to live and thrive when their family safety net disappeared.

Warm Heart is much more than a children’s home in Thailand. The surrounding communities, especially the hill tribes in the area, look to you for all kinds of support and depend on you in emergencies. What is one of your most intense or perhaps favorite memories of a time Warm Heart was called upon to provide this kind of support?

We have a young woman that we have known for five years – since she was a teenager. She has been HIV positive since birth, her parents died and she was raised by her grandmother. She has been very angry at her lot in life and has been up and down (leaving school, getting married, divorced) and in and out of the hospital. Last spring we thought she might die from TB and pneumonia. We invested in oxygen tanks and carted her and the tanks back and forth to the hospital and the refill station. At one point we told her we would not pick her up and take her the hospital unless she stayed long enough for the doctors to figure out what was going on with her.  Dhe did stay and has since recovered and has become a spokesperson for a couple of organizations helping young people in her situation.

You’re not known as Evelind around your organization in the northern hills of Thailand. You’re more often called P’Lin. What does the nickname mean and how did you get it?

I’m called Paa Lin (Aunt) Lin by the kids and P’Lin by the staff. The P’ or Paa is a sign of respect as I am older than all of them. ‘Lin” is much easier to pronounce than Evelind.

If you weren’t living in the beautiful green hills of Thailand, what do you think you would be doing right now

Hard to say.  Few job prospects in the current US economy, so would have had to find some other way to re-invent myself.

What is the best part of life in Thailand?

It’s beautiful and I enjoy being part of the community.  Our kids are a puzzle and a delight - figuring out what each one needs and seeing the results as they settle in and flourish.  I love working with the womens groups in our micro-enterprise programs - seeing their craft and sharing in their lives.