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Children of the Golden Triangle

by: Submitted photo, Sharon Starr, left, and Lynn Wintermute get the kids started during art class at the Children of the Golden Triangle Center. Wintermute said she was “absolutely flabbergasted” by the children’s artwork.

When it comes to receiving inspiration to do good work, it is hard to beat lots of love.

That is what Lynne Wintermute and Sharon Starr of Lake Oswego got every day from 500 kids at the Children of the Golden Triangle Center in the Chang Ri Province of Thailand.

They were still glowing from receiving that love when they returned to their homes in Lake Oswego after their 17-day Rotary trip in February.

'They would rush to the volunteers, give them hugs and say 'I love you,'' Wintermute said.

'At the beginning some little boys would only shake our hands,' Starr said. 'But soon they would be hugging us.

'I did not see one kid beg, complain or get in a fight. They were so happy - they were singing all the time.'

These are children who desperately need love and joy in their lives. They are members of the Akha Tribe, one of the seven Hill Tribes of Thailand, and certainly the poorest and most illiterate tribe of that group. Their way of life, even their existence, is being threatened.

Deforestation has devastated their land. They have no education or medical services. Their food supply is diminished. They are located in a remote area, with the closest village an hour away from the center. When rains come, the road to the village is impassable.

Yet the Akhas have much greater problems, such as their land being taken away.

'They're a peace-loving people and don't fight back, which is both a plus and a minus,' Starr said. 'They can easily be taken advantage of.'

'It's a tough life,' Wintermute said. 'They're forced back into the hills. Burmese or Thais will take their homes, and they're frightened to death to go back.'

Even worse is the problem of sex slavery, especially for children.

'Children are often abducted into sex slavery,' Starr said. 'Their parents are powerless. They don't know where they are. Children are taken in a van to a place where men are waiting for them.'

The sex trade is illegal in Thailand, but laws are not enforced. Starr said that it is estimated of the nation's population of 62 million people, 2 million of them are in the sex trade.

The two women took many photos of their journey, and one of them was especially evocative. It shows a woman standing in an Akha village. She is 44 years old, but she looks 70.

Yet as sad and grim as this situation is, Wintermute and Starr say the condition of the Akha people is not hopeless, and the Children of the Golden Triangle Center is a big reason why.

The center is located in an area known as 'The Golden Triangle,' a place where the nations of Burma, Laos and Thailand meet. The Triangle was the scene for drug smuggling for many years, and dangers still lurk today.

'The children are told not to go wandering into the woods,' Wintermute said. 'Dogs guard the training center.'

The center is very rustic. Starr described it as 'sort of a five-star refugee camp.' She only saw one real toy in the entire center. It was a small wooden boat.

But the center is a place of love, joy, learning, and most of all, hope for the future for the Akha Tribe.

'School is their way out of poverty,' Starr said. 'They speak the Akha dialect and they can't speak Thai, but they can't go to school until they learn Thai.'

'These children will be able to go back to their villages and improve the quality of life after they've been educated here,' said Wintermute. 'They really value their education because they know it's changing their lives. This will absolutely change a whole generation.'

Wintermute was stunned when they saw how much the children learned and did at the center.

'They're trained to do so much,' Wintermute said. 'They can sew, cook, build, read, they can do medical care. They've had all kinds of amazing training we wouldn't think of doing with our own kids. They do all of the cleaning and the cooking at the center and they love it.'

To Wintermute and Starr, the most amazing thing of all done by the children was their art.

'They are so happy, so loved, so loving, and it comes out in their artwork,' Wintermute said. 'Many of the pictures reflect their villages. I was absolutely flabbergasted by their work. They didn't need directions. They just wanted to go!'

'They were so glad, so delighted to get to draw pictures,' Starr said. 'Not a single picture was somber or depressing. I'm not an art therapist, but I know that's a good sign.'

When Starr and Wintermute first heard about the children's center they found it a little hard to believe.

'One of the things Lynne and I wanted to do was see it with our own eyes,' Starr said. 'It sounded so improbable. We came away total believers.'

The saga of the center began 12 years ago when an Australian architect named David Stevenson went on a vacation to Thailand. He encountered a rag-tag group of children who were trying to make it from a city, where they had been badly abused, to their home in the mountains.

The children were sick and had no money, so Stevenson tried to help them. But everywhere he tried he was turned down. Still, the children would not leave him because they had found someone who would feed them.

'He quit his job, he started the center, and now he's been there 12 years,' Starr said. 'He married an Akha woman named Osa and that was his lucky day, because she speaks Akha, Thai and English.'

Wintermute and Starr contributed in things they were experts in, like teaching and financial help. They were also asked to contribute in areas they had no expertise at all.

Wintermute was roped in as a dental assistant, which was quite a job, since many of the children had never seen a toothbrush before.

'They had me checking teeth for cavities with a flashlight,' Wintermute said. 'If a tooth looked black in the middle, that was a problem.'

Starr relied on her brain in her 44-year career as a banker. But at the children's center she relied on her brawn when she helped hoist vermin-infested mattresses into a trucks to be taken away.

The two women had time for adventure, too, such as riding elephants.

'The only time I had been on an elephant before was at the Los Angeles Zoo,' Starr said. 'But that didn't prepare for this. It was downhill, uphill, over rivers.'

Wintermute treated a large group of children to a luxury - lunch. She took 31 of them out a meal that came to a total tab of $28 for 'mounds of food.'

Leaving all that love behind was difficult.

Wintermute admitted, 'I cried when I left. I would go back in a heartbeat.'

Both women intend to return. Good Rotarians that they are, they are determined to see that the Rotary project to build toilet blocks (one of the center's biggest needs) is successfully completed.

Local people do not have to accompany Wintermute and Starr to Thailand in order to help the children of the Akha Tribe. In June the Lake Oswego Rotary Club will be sponsoring an art auction of the children's work on June 16, the Saturday before Father's Day.