Rural Training Center, Thailand (RTC-Thailand)

It's the Cause, Not the Cost

Oct 01, 2006

The RTC-TH and ESSI held a pre-trip orientation for the Thailand Winter 2007 volunteer trip on Saturday, 30 Sep 2007. Eight volunteers are firmly committed, another 6 are yet to decide, and there are 3 new prospects. ?“With just 3 more firm commitments, we can qualify for a discount on the international air,?” reported Saifon Lee (RTC-TH Co-founder). ?“We are prepared for a maximum team size of 20.?”

One of the key items of concern was the trip price. Fuel costs have driven up prices on just about everything worldwide. As a result, the cost for the 2007 trip is coming out to be $2400 (depending on the final air ticketing) if the volunteer team is 10 or less. This is about $500 more than the summer 2005 trip.

While the cost increase is not welcomed, a random survey of commercial tour packages still bears out a fundamental contrast in trip prices. The RTC-TH and ESSI are not commercial tour operators and function as non-profit educational organizations. Gregory Lee?’s rule of thumb for all international group trips he planned (since 1995) is to keep the total package costs to about $100 per day (including the international round-trip airfare). This is a tough standard to maintain especially with a small group size of 10 or less. Just look at the pricing for commercial tour packages to Thailand for the January 2007 season. While some prices look close to the RTC-TH / ESSI price, keep in mind that they are shooting for groups of 20 to 30. Their commercial standing and larger volume gives them leverage for discounts and combined hotel / airfare packages. The RTC-TH is operating from outside the industry as a retail consumer not a wholesaler.

Company # days Price $ / day
RTC TH / ESSI 21 $ 2,400.00 $114.29
Tour Company 1 12 $ 1,499.00 $124.92
Tour Company 2 13 $ 1,740.00 $133.85
Tour Company 3 10 $ 1,465.00 $146.50
Tour Company 4 8 $ 1,279.00 $159.88
Tour Company 5 8 $ 1,495.00 $186.88
Tour Company 6 10 $ 1,899.00 $189.90
Tour Company 7 7 $ 1,599.00 $228.43
Tour Company 8 24 $ 6,855.00 $285.63

Self-selection has always been a key factor in the success of RTC-TH and ESSI activities. The main draw to the RTC-TH volunteer trip is the cause, not the cost. Consider the motives for taking a trip. Fundamentally, a commercial tour operator is in business to make money. The commercial tour operators aim for vacationers (though more are creating packages with an environmental theme). The RTC-TH is not a business, so profit is not a motive. As a community-based environmental education organization, it operates at a grassroots, direct people-to-people level, striving to engage and empower people to help improve themselves and others.

One of the central ideas of the RTC-TH is ?“mutual respect, mutual benefit.?” The US volunteers have a better standard of living and can better afford to make the international trip to Thailand. The Thai volunteers have a lower standard of living, but relative to their conditions, provide what they can afford to the project effort. Mindful of basic cultural differences, the RTC-TH provides an opportunity for these two groups of volunteers to interact and learn about each other. At the same time, they join together in an environmental education effort. Everyone derives benefits from the encounter, and it is a positive environmental impact when people move toward more environmentally friendly actions and sustainable practices.

REEEPP (Rural Environmental Education Enhancement Pilot Program) began as a ?“giving back to the community?” effort by Saifon Lee, Co-founder of the RTC-TH and former Program Director of ESSI (Earth Systems Science, Inc.). ?“If it wasn?’t for the basic education I got at Na Fa Elementary School, I wouldn?’t be where I am today,?” says Saifon. It is difficult to predict the future, but back then, she never imagined her present life. Her basic studies led to high school, a scholarship that enabled her to go to University. Her degree in Political Science eventually led to a job as a Chief of a Subdistrict Administrative Office with the Royal Thai Ministry of Interior. That?’s where she and Gregory Lee met in 1999 when he organized and led a volunteer project for the Los Angeles Geographical Society. That project was the first full-blown field test of his community-based environmental education model.

?“The RTC-TH is not a job as much as it is a way of life,?” reflects Gregory. ?“No one gets a salary, so there is no incentive to get rich or to make money by being in the RTC-TH. We just live it---eat, drink, breathe, think, and act environmentally friendly and sustainable practices 24 / 7. You don?’t have to be a fanatic about it. The intensity level can range from mild to hard core. The key is to do it consistently. Most importantly, it has to come from the heart, and it must be fully integrated within you?….heart, mind, and soul so to speak.?”

The home stay component of the project gives volunteers a chance to really see, hear, taste, feel, and smell the real rural Thailand. This is juxtaposed to a journey back to Bangkok with stops at more developed sites for tourism (e.g. Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, both UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites) and other cultural sites. But even then, the RTC-TH favors sites with more direct people-to-people connections (e.g. Bangsai Arts & Crafts Support Center and Arts & Craft Village, and Koh Kret). Purchasing arts and crafts goods in these places puts the sales in the pockets of the artisans rather than commercial business. (The detailed itinerary has been posted in the PDF section the website.)

Volunteering and traveling with the RTC-TH is an exceptional value for your money. In most cases, a vacation is money spent. With the RTC-TH, the value added dimension is the personal return on your ?“investment?” in the cost of the trip. The warmth, friendship, and personal connection with the students and families are immeasurable. It is hard to tell what effect all this will have on the lives of these young students. ?“I didn?’t begin to study the basic ABCs until high school. I can?’t help thinking what my life might have been had I been able to study English earlier in school,?” commented Saifon. ?“I studied English in university because it was required. I never thought I would actually use it for anything. Then in summer 1999, out of the blue, I got notified by the Thai government that some American volunteers were being sent to my rural subdistrict. That was the very first time I ever spoke to a foreigner. So now, with REEEPP, I try to complete the circle by helping my teachers help these younger students.?”

There is evidence for ever widening circles of influence. Erika Rodriguez took her young son Andy to Thailand for the summer 2005 REEEPP effort. During that time, Andy was exposed to the Geographic Systems Model and the Recycling Game. When he returned to LA to resume school in the Fall, he encountered a class assignment to make up a board game. Inspired by his experience in REEEPP, he made up a recycling game of his own, complete with rules. ?“He had to make up his own game, but he learned the basics of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle from the REEEPP activities in Thailand. He got an A for his project,?” reported Erika. [Note: Andy is now 6 years old, but has be actively involved with ESSI / RTC-TH for about 3 years, tagging along with Erika whenever she volunteered for activities.] ?“It?’s very much a family oriented program. I enjoy being able to include him with all of the volunteer work in ESSI and the RTC-TH,?” said Erika.

Progress is being made and the effort continues. The RTC-TH welcomes youth of all ages to volunteer to help advance environmental education. The Winter 2007 trip has room for about 8-10 more volunteers. Enrollment is open until 3 Dec 2006, but the earlier you can firmly commit the better the chances for being part of the Jan 2007 team. Detailed information and application are in the ?“Preliminary Winter 2007 Trip Information Packet?” found in the PDF section of this website. A detailed itinerary is also posted there. Complete the application form and send it with a $200 non-refundable deposit. Trip price is $2400, double occupancy. FFI: rtc2k5@gmail.com

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