We bumped, bounced and maneuvered our way through the steep mountains of northern Laos. Clinging to the single dirt track that wound around and around the peak, we even found ourselves above the clouds which had stubbornly remained in the valley that morning. Deeper we ventured.
ChildFund Laos had promised us an “off the beaten track” experience and we all agreed they did not disappoint! Each new kilometre we travelled I found it hard to fathom where we would possibly find a village in this isolated terrain, but seeing the occasional passerby served to remind us that life is not only present but thriving in this remote part of the world.
Crouched between the mountain peaks we found our destination. Bigger than I had expected, this ChildFund partner community is home to almost 1,000 people with many more dispersed around the hinterland. We passed many neat wood homes as we made our way to the local school where we were to meet the village authorities.
New to ChildFund Laos` support, we were told that many of the people who live here have had little experience with foreigners. This quickly became evident as we wandered through the village with the community leaders. Every few metres our convoy grew, with kids and adults alike curious to get a closer look at the strange-looking foreigners with their funny noses.
We were warmly welcomed into the family home of the village head. With lunch packed away in our bags, it came as a surprise that his family had kindly cooked a big feast for us to all enjoy. Our party was a mix of English, Lao and H`mong speakers, yet language hardly seemed a barrier as we shared a delicious meal of chicken, pork, soup, vegetables and rice all sourced from the local area.
We were honoured and very thankful for this experience. Though, despite our best intentions, none of us could quite stomach the thought of eating the chicken foot that had been offered to us as guests of the village! Lucky for us, one of the community leaders was only too happy to take on the responsibility.
After lunch we headed back to the primary school where we had the opportunity to meet some of the children. Three young girls, who reminded us of little penguins in their big warm ChildFund jackets, were already waiting for us. It wasn`t long before more children started to gather outside the school fence, curious but not yet brave enough to make the journey past us to their waiting friends. We watched with amusement as one by one they would run from their hiding places across no man’s land (otherwise known as the school yard) to the safety of the school and their peers.
They may have been nervous to begin with but the school yard quickly transformed. Seventeen-year-old Andrew, who aspires to a career in soccer coaching, took the initiative to locate a soccer ball. He resembled the Pied Piper as a group of soccer-mad teens followed him into the yard. We were all impressed by the way Andrew used hand signals and demonstrations to help improve the boys` kicking styles. Once goal practice was done, a game of soccer followed.
At the same time Robyn, Isabel and Phil began what became an activity-filled afternoon. They started with Velcro ball, which amazed many of the children who had to put all their might into detaching the ball from the Velcro. The team followed this up with tunnel ball, over-and-under, copy-cat and, finally, elastics. Squeals of joy could be heard all over the school yard.
Jen, an early childhood educator, was quick to spot the shyest children who preferred to watch the others play from the sidelines. From her experience working with young children for whom English is not their first language, Jen knew patience would be the key with these kids. Equipped with Aussie marsupial puppets, it was wonderful to watch as Jen slowly achieved her first smirk, which changed into a smile then giggles and laughter.
After we had all said our goodbyes to the children and had a chance to catch our breath, we walked to the new preschool, located just behind the primary school. This was a pretty special moment. Together, the Laos Discovery participants raised over $14,000 towards the construction of this new preschool the first preschool ever in this community.
At present, children under five have no place to go while their parents work in surrounding fields. Toddlers are often left with older siblings who mind them. As a result they are not stimulated and development milestones are not met, and their older siblings are unable to finish school. The school principal told us that about 100 infants will attend the preschool once it is completed in July. It is truly incredible to think that our Laos Discovery team helped to change the lives of these families forever.
ChildFund Australia would like to say a huge thanks to the Laos Discovery team for their wonderful efforts in fundraising to help support the construction of the first preschool in this community, and to everyone in the community who made them feel so welcome.