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Thailand Trip Touches UT Students

Published: May 23, 2012
Garrett Hetrick ’12 and Lindsey Pavlick ’13 enjoy their first elephant ride in Thailand.
Garrett Hetrick ’12 and Lindsey Pavlick ’13 enjoy their first elephant ride in Thailand.
From right, Lindsey Pavlick, McKay Ellis and Chanel Vanzant teach English to Thai students.
From right, Lindsey Pavlick, McKay Ellis and Chanel Vanzant teach English to Thai students.
The students who attended the PEACE Volunteer Center’s alternative break trip to Thailand to volunteer in an orphanage came back to Tampa with a similar takeaway – happiness can reside in the simplicity of life.

“It really put into perspective what is important in life and how easily distracted we are by stuff,” said Caitlyn Guthrie ’12, who graduated this May with degrees in English and government and world affairs. “It showed me how beautiful people are when they share everything they can with you. Our hosts were the most generous people I have met in a long time, and their openness has taught me many lessons about leading a happy, positive, change-making lifestyle.”

From May 8 to 19, the 13 students and two staff participants engaged with the orphan children at Baan San Fan Orphanage about three hours south of Phuket. They tutored English in the local school, which will help the students pass a national test on the language. They planted 150 trees at the orphanage, helped with gardening and maintenance of the home, including building a concrete driveway. Chris Gottlick, coordinator of intramural sports, played soccer with the children every evening and helped clear the overgrown soccer field with some rustic tools.

“Without a doubt, not only were our students able to make an impact on the Thai kids, but our students came back impacted by the kids,” Gottlick said.

Nick Chmura ’12 is an early riser who anticipated spending the pre-sunrise hours reading. By 5:30 a.m. though, the orphan boys in the house would be awake and ready to do their chores before heading off to school.

“When I was their age it was hard for me to crack a smile before 10 a.m., and they were doing it while completing chores at 5:30 a.m.,” said Chmura, who graduated this May with a degree in finance. “Seeing children, who haven’t seen their parents in years, smile and be happy was inspiring. At UT I got to be pretty consumed with my personal growth and what was best for myself. I forgot about the importance of giving back, and I plan to be a more diligent and responsible giver in the future.”

Lindsey Pavlick ’13, a PEACE volunteer coordinator and public health major, said this trip made her look at her life with a new perspective and appreciation.

“Some of the children we worked with had lost their homes, families and friends from the tragic Tsunami of 2004, yet they continued to wake up every morning with huge, beautiful smiles on their faces,” said Pavlick. “This community showed me that one needs to appreciate every day at the present moment and to never take life for granted.”

Highlights of the trip included the weekend excursions the UT students hosted – rare opportunities for the orphans. They swam in a waterfall in a Thai national park, visited the Tsunami Memorial, witnessed National Geographic -type natural beauty, kayaked and took bamboo rafts to see a 250-million-year-old cave and rode elephants, many for the first time.

The money UT students spent for the elephant ride was donated back to those in need in the village by the local excursion operator. The experience germinated discussion by the UT students as to the benefit the financial impact the group was making on the village contrasted by the ethical question of using the elephants for tourist rides. It was a memorable part of the trip – Nikita Hernandez ’13 was picked up by the elephant’s trunk at one point in the day – and engendered deeper reflection among the students.

“It’s not just about going and doing service. There is a lot of processing that goes on,” said Tim Harding, associate dean of career development and engagement, and the other staff member on the trip. Harding was encouraged by the internal conflict the students experienced that resulted in engaging, student-generated conversations. “How can you have that in the classroom without them experiencing it firsthand?”

Chelsey Ptak ’15, a criminology major and PEACE alternative breaks coordinator, said Thailand opened her eyes to a different way of life.

“Throughout the week there, I became fascinated with the culture and the Thai people,” said Chelsey Ptak. “Experiences like these change your perspective, and I tend to come back home with a larger sense of confidence, and a greater desire to expand my volunteerism.”

The simple moments were some of the most striking, like looking for seashells on the beach or wandering through the open-air markets through tables of squid, prepared foods like curry fish wrapped in banana leaves and exotic fruits like mangosteen, durian and rambutan, described by Harding as a strawberry with tentacles.

“It sort of summed up the entire experience,” said Guthrie, of blowing bubbles with the children one carefree evening. “The beautiful green mountains, the lush yard, the sunset and a truly beautiful moment when random people's lives crossed paths and found common ground in something simple and happy. It was really a reminder of how wonderful it is to learn from children, who you normally wouldn't view as teachers.”

Heather Ptak ’12 led the trip with Lauren Ridder ’12 as student coordinators of the alternative breaks program. Ptak said the trip was a year in the making. Language barriers, vaccinations and the details of a trip to Asia were more intense for this trip, but Ptak said the extra effort was worth it.

“It was extremely rewarding to see how the participants jumped right into taking advantage of every opportunity from learning Thai, to teaching English, helping around the orphanage and engaging in conversations with the children at Baan San Fan,” said Ptak. “They call Thailand the land of smiles and it’s true, you wake up with a sense of peacefulness and calm around you. These experiences through alternative breaks always bring me back to who I am and my passion for service.”

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