Friday, February 8, 2013

Robert Cheffy Scholarship

There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of my former student Robert Cheffy.  I somehow believed that Mr. Cheffy would beat the odds and rebound from his lung cancer, as he had from so many other adversities in his life, but that did not happen. Robert's celebration of life service at Veteran's Village of San Diego was a year ago.  I didn't share my thoughts about Robert at that service but felt compelled to do something to keep Robert's spirit alive in my heart. This spring the first Robert Cheffy scholarship will be awarded at Palomar College, a memorial to a remarkable person who impacted so many people in his recovery journey.

I first met Robert in 2008.  He was a student in two of my classes and later he worked for the AODS (Alcohol and Other Drug Studies) program as a student mentor. Every time I saw Robert he made me smile (even if I was irritated with him) I couldn’t help but turn my lips upward and grin. That was Robert’s trademark: making people feel happy. Robert had a charismatic character and a special gift of seeing the humor in any situation. When I visualize Robert, I see him wheeling his chair around campus greeting students and staff along the way, hearing him use his famous expression, “Don’t trip.” A couple things I learned from Robert during the past 4 years that I knew him.

Robert was devoted to his recovery. He worked really hard and he was brutally honest about his own journey.  Even when he was diagnosed with cancer and was prescribed pain medication, he was conflicted about taking the meds. I witnessed Robert make a “searching and fearless moral inventory”; he was not afraid to discover his liabilities and that willingness resulted in a growing self-confidence that guided him and inspired so many others.

AODS Mentors; Wayne, David, Jacob, Glenn and Robert (seated)

Robert was one of the most resilient people
 I have ever met. He had an inner strength that helped him withstand many of the negative effects of adversity. Robert had spiritual beliefs, which helped him to persist in surviving many challenging life circumstances (including addiction and loss of his legs). Robert had a conviction that his life had meaning. 

He retained that optimistic focus through the last time I visited him in November 2011, when he was still talking about finishing up his degree and working as an AOD counselor. It was incredible for me to witness Robert transform from a struggling and insecure student to become a successful intern and program graduate, and a role model who inspired others as a mentor and friend. 

It will be my great honor to award the first Robert Cheffy Scholarship at the Palomar College Honor's Night event in May.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Thailand Tale: Part Two

December 2012
With 1,864 hairpin turns between Chiang Mai to Maehongson, I always opt to fly. The Nok Air flight was a quick twenty two minutes and  provided breathtaking mountain views. We had no trouble with Nok but some of our traveling  partners did experience canceled flights (if Nok doesn't get enough people on a flight it is delayed until later). I booked the Nok flight online and paid a nominal fee for extra baggage (limit is 15 kgs on Nok Eco).

Clean sweet air and pristine mountain views are the first things I noticed after landing on the small runway in the middle of town. Maehongson (MHS) is tucked in a deep valley surrounded by high mountain ranges and jungle, a land highly suitable for the training of elephants (which happened here in the not so distant past).  

This is my 10th humanitarian trip to MHS since 2006 and each time I come away with a deeper appreciation of this magical, off the beaten path province. To the average farang, life in MHS might appear sleepy and slow with no taxis or Starbucks to be found but plenty of dogs walking down the center of the road. Night life is limited but the evening market never disappoints for delicious snacks and unique handicrafts. People are friendly but apart from the hotels and higher end tourist shops, English is not commonly understood. The weather during our 10-day stay ranged from cool (50's) to very warm (80's) and at times required a light jacket. 

We stayed at the Panorama , a modest hotel which offered a clean room with breakfast and wifi ($20 for two people). Our Toys for Thailand (T4T) bilingual friend Dr. Jaroon Kumnuanta owns the hotel and allowed us to ship our toys and other donations there for distribution. The hotel is in walking distance of banks, stores and the site of our Small World Festival (that's why I stayed there). Some T4T volunteers booked at the The Fern Resort, the perfect jungle hideaway, where Angelina and Brad stay during their sojourns to the area. The Fern is a secluded eco resort a few miles outside of town; I would give it a high recommend. 

Margo, Kru Oy (purple), Sasha, Anouk with new culinary friends in MHS.
Our time in MHS was a nonstop adventure of meeting people and sharing meals (a cup of tea or a bowl of rice, it's all about the informal process of getting to know one another).  Despite the rough windy roads or the MSG laden food I often was subjected to,  I never stopped smiling. I was  delighted to be back on the mountain, visiting our remote village schools once again.  Not once did I have time to open a book or turn on the TV, we were on the go and in demand. Here's a sample of how we spent our days:

Maria at the Long Neck School. 

Sasha and I met with the Maehongson Education Association at Rajabaht University. I patiently observed for several hours as everyone spoke Thai. The group shared coffee/tea, snacks and lunch while discussing the Small World Festival. I smiled a lot, snapped photos and took breaks to walk around campus (where I was greeted by many students who wanted to practice their English with me.)

We drove up to Huay Khan, where our gracious host Kru Oy, Director of the school gave us a tour. The school children were so excited to see us and we relished our time playing with them and taking photos. T4T donated several items to Huay Khan and Kru Oy was most eager to let us know about her new request for toilets. Anouk (a T4T friend) did end up funding the toilet project which was around $600...It's hard to say no to your host's request. 

Sasha and I joined up with our Dutch friends (Anouk and Margo) and visited the Old Tiger School or Huay Suetao. This is the long neck village school where we had a playground constructed a year ago. On this visit Margo provided the school with funds for a school barber shop which will be the first for the village. After we drove high in the hills and distributed toys and clothing to some of the poorest families. I'm was amazed (once again) to see these impoverished people, who live without running water and refrigeration, owning a TV and satellite dish. 

Our trip to the remote Huay Pooling school  was rugged and full of surprises. Four of us made the trip, Anouk and Margo (bless their hearts) bounced in the back of the pick up for 3 hours. During that time we passed only an endless emerald jungle, arriving to find a crimson forest of poinsettia brushes lining the village of Pooling.

In the evening Pooling offers a spectacular night sky but not much else. The young teachers assigned to Pooling usually stay for the two years of their contract and move on.  After the 200+ residential students are feed and dishes washed there is not much to do. We wanted to have some fun with the kids so we hosted a dance, downloading dance tunes from Anouk's smart phone and using the school amp for sound. Despite our best efforts to arouse interest, only a few boys were brazen enough to dance, the other children were too shy (or tired). 

Our evening ended with the female teachers singing karaoke love songs and the male teachers drinking moon shine...after a while that got boring so I went to bed.  Sleeping in the primitive guest hut was a challenge as it was really cold night (4 blankets). The barking deer (and karaoke singing faculty) kept me awake. In the am,  we made our way to the kitchen for breakfast. The teachers served us for coffee and noted that a couple fish were in water earlier but not to worry they were removed. I share this story because T4T is providing Pooling with funds for a much needed water filtration system.  After a tour of the school and updates about their needs, we packed up and headed back making 3 other school visitations en route.

I have reached my 1000 words without finishing the best part of my Thailand Tale: Our Small World Festival. Part Three will highlight that joyous event that bought together 600 Tribal children into one global family.