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For Lwin, increased travel and attention to Myanmar underscores the mission she set out to achieve with the Studer Trust. Most children in rural areas don't make it past primary education; many villages don't even have their own middle schools. Students drop out because they're unable to travel safely to neighboring villages for continued education, or they begin to go to work with their parents at a young age.
"We have no basic infrastructure," Lwin says. "We have no proper software. And because of the poor education in the past, today even we would like to hire teachers, but there are not very many educated or graduated people that we can hire. Some of them never received proper teacher's training."
The Studer Trust has tried to ease those problems. Over the years, the organization has funded teacher salaries and built three bridges to provide safe passage for students between villages even during the rainy season. When Cyclone Nargis devastated communities in the Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008, killing more than 138,000 people and destroying some 700,000 homes, the Studer Trust responded by raising 545,156 Hong Kong dollars—about $70,300 U.S.for the relief effort. The money funded construction of 100 homes, 177 fishing boats, one pier and a footpath in the region. Lwin says she collected an additional $10,000 from Missoula donors after holding a fundraising event at China Woods home furnishing store.
"It is very important for me, knowing that the place where I live also supports my work, trusts our work over there, and are willing to support the Burmese people," Lwin says.
- photo courtesy of Glenn Wood
- Preschool students at Pauk Par play with a crochet bowling set and other plush toys made for them by Missoula’s Peaceknitters. The group’s next project is to knit hats for the children, who commute to school each day by boat.
Lwin sees the situation in Myanmar improving. Obtaining permits and dealing with local authorities used to be the Studer Trust's biggest hurdles; Lwin says she was once interrogated for two hours during a work trip by officials she felt were simply holding out for a bribe. Political tensions and corruption are gradually easing, and Western tourists like the Woods are flooding into the country. But that transformation is raising new challenges, both for Myanmar's still-developing infrastructure and for the Studer Trust's effort to improve a rural education system made up of relatively untrained and inexperienced teachers and administrators. Lwin says those educators demonstrate strong passion, but they often have "no more than 11 years of basic schooling."
In other words, as her country enters a new chapter on the international stage, her work has become increasingly pressing.
Lwin doesn't talk much about the personal toll Gautschi's death had on her. Her follow-up trip last fall was the first since the accident.
They were close, though, she says, a friendship easily summed up in a photograph of Lwin on the Studer Trust website. She's smiling, her arms wrapped around Gautschi's chest outside one of the Studer Trust's schools. Gautschi towers almost two feet taller than her, decked out in sunglasses and a baseball cap, a camera hanging around his neck. He's laughing.
What Lwin will say is that Gautschi left his organization in good order. He meticulously arranged for his private account to continue paying the Studer Trust's administrative costs, and his friends and donors have offered their ongoing support. It is difficult, Lwin admits, due to Gautschi's role as their sole fundraising liaison. He'd dedicated the last decade to improving education for thousands of children throughout Myanmar and China, she adds, and his "indomitable spirit" will be missed. His death left the organization in the hands of Lwin, her co-director in China and the rest of the Studer Trust team. It's now their labor of love as much as it was his, and Lwin says they all intend to see his work completed.
- photo courtesy of Cho Cho Lwin
- Peter Gautschi established the Studer Trust in 2002 to help improve the state of rural education in Southeast Asia. Gautschi paid all of the Studer Trust’s administrative costs himself to ensure that financial donations went entirely to construction projects.
"Even though he's not here anymore, we're still continuing," she says.
Lwin is hopeful that the Missoula community can continue to support her endeavor, as well. To that end, she recently checked in with teachers and Studer Trust personnel to see what need western Montana could contribute next. She's suggested that locals help her collect 70 backpacks for poor students—half for girls, half for boys, all between the ages of 6 and 13.
This month, the Studer Trust is primed to break ground on the last piece of Gautschi's vision: A teacher training center in Mandalay, which Lwin says could be up and running by July. The project marks a shift in the organization's ongoing mission in Myanmar. The Studer Trust decided last year to stop actively seeking new schools to work with, and opted instead to redouble its efforts maintaining the 60 schools it already helps. Lwin feels refocusing on the quality of the educators in those schools—particularly the strength of their English language instruction skills—is a critical step in continuing Gautschi's devotion to better the lives of Myanmar's younger generation.
"English is the one subject that we would like to promote to our students, because English teaching in our country is really bad," Lwin says. "Pronunciation, grammar, everything. So we would like to get native English teachers."
Lwin's life changed dramatically after that first trip to Ohn Chaw with Gautschi. She credits her good fortune to the education she received, but that remains out of reach for so many others. Lwin only hopes that the opportunities she's opening up for students back home will strengthen Myanmar's future. So far, she's encouraged by the results.
"Most of the students also, because we have been doing this for almost 10 years, some of the students, when we helped them in 2006, they are already in first year in university or something like that," she says. "A lot of students, they go back to their villages because they said, 'Okay, Studer Trust helped us. Now it's our duty or responsibility that we should give something back to the community.'"