Karissa Leong's Trip to Thailand

This past summer, I was thankful to have the
opportunity to travel to Thailand for my Summer of Service
through the Siena College-Albany Medical College Program in Science,
Humanities, and Medicine. I spent a total of six weeks serving with an
organization called Friends for Asia at two different sites in Chiang Mai, the
largest city in Northern Thailand.

For the first five weeks, I volunteered at the Doi Saket Children’s Home,
which is home to around 30 kids. The kids vary in age from 1 to 18-yearsold.
All of the children come from small villages in the mountains and sadly
many of them are orphans. They are sponsored to live at the Children’s
Home during the school year so that they can attend the city schools and
receive an education.

Every day, I would take a local bus to the Children’s Home before the
kids returned from school. While waiting for the kids to come home, I would
help the house mother prepare dinner. This usually meant washing, peeling,
and cutting enough vegetables to feed 30 hungry kids. I was more than
happy to help with the cooking because preparing dinner for over 30 people
is definitely not an easy task.

When the kids arrived from school, they would immediately run up to
me and give me hugs. They were always so excited to see me, and they
craved love and attention. Many of the younger kids did not speak any
English and I could not speak any Thai, but we learned to communicate
through charades. I was very impressed with how responsible the kids
were. As soon as they got home, they would take off their school uniforms
and hand wash them for the next day. They would then sit down to do their
homework. I would usually help them with their English and math
assignments.

Although it was nearly 100°F every day, the kids still wanted to run
around and play games like hide and seek, soccer, and volleyball. I would
also bring them arts and crafts as well as some simple games like Uno. No
matter what kinds of activities I did with them, their favorite thing was
definitely taking selfies on my phone. At the end of the day, we would all sit
down to eat a traditional Thai dinner together. After dinner, I would help the
kids to wash all of the pots, pans, and dishes from dinner before leaving for
the day. As I was leaving, the kids would give me hugs and say, “I love you. See you tomorrow!” which were their favorite English phrases.

Leaving the Children’s Home was bittersweet, but I spent five weeks
with the most loving kids I have ever known. I am extremely fortunate to
have had the opportunity to play, laugh, and learn with them. I will never
forget the memories I made. Every time the kids remembered something I
taught them, laughed, or even just smiled was equally rewarding.

For my sixth week of volunteering, I lived at the Maetaman Elephant
Camp. The camp cares for about 70 elephants who were rescued from
poachers or given up by their owners. I was responsible for my 8-year-old
elephant, Iko, for the entire week. Every day, I had to bathe her in the river
at 6 am and 4 pm. I was also responsible for cleaning her stall and feeding
her over 200 pounds of food each day. When I was not with my elephant, I
helped to cook lunch for the 400 tourists who visit the camp daily. In the
afternoons, I helped to make sure everything was in place for the shows
where the elephants could showcase their talents. Their talents include
anything from painting to handstands to soccer.

Serving at the elephant camp was a completely new and unique
experience for me. I loved being there and being surrounded by such
magnificent animals. Working with the elephants was fulfilling in a different
way than helping people. Although it was only for a week, I am so happy
that I could care for the elephants and show them love and affection.
Before I left for Thailand, I was nervous because I had never traveled to that
part of the world before. I could not speak the language, and I was
unfamiliar with the traditions and customs. I went with an open mind and an
open heart, and the experience was well worth it. Of course it was difficult at
times being so far away from home in a foreign country, but I was able to
spend six weeks giving while also growing as a person. The people that I
met and the friends that I made will always stay with me.

I am incredibly grateful to have had such an outstanding experience. Without
HOBY, it would have been difficult for me to step so far outside of my
comfort zone. Over the years, HOBY has empowered me and helped me to
build the confidence that I need to make a positive difference whenever and
wherever I can.