Like many people who've had a good and long life, photographer Fred Stockwell of Ashland wanted to give back. But he wanted to do it in direct ways, where he's actually getting the basics of survival to desperate people and not just writing a check to a charitable organization.
During his world travels, Stockwell stumbled upon the Karen people of Burma. Three-hundred-fifty of them had fled political persecution during that nation's long civil war and set up life across the border in Thailand, where, for sheer survival, they dig through a garbage dump looking for things they can eat or sell, and struggling for access to basics such as food, water and medical care.
Giving up his plans to relax and retire in low-cost Thailand, Stockwell set to work scrounging up essentials, such as a 2,000-liter plastic tank to hold and dispense clean water — thus preventing much disease — for only $300.
It's the women and children who, because of cultural tradition, do most of the work. They dig through the dump using sickles on the ends of long poles. They salvage wire and sell it for 20 cents a kilo, sometimes making a dollar a day.
"They're very hardworking, and we do what's impossible for them to do," he says.
One problem, which may seem minor to us, is that sickles break and they cost $3 to replace, a large sum to the Karen, and require a dangerous trip to town to buy new ones. In his pickup truck, Stockwell takes care of this journey and the expense.
"The sickles are considered weapons and are illegal. If they are alone, they will get stopped (by troops). I supply security. If they're in my truck, they're safe." On regular trips home to Ashland, Stockwell gives talks, shows his poignant photos and raises money from the community, finding a ready hive of helpers at Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, where three volunteers, Eileen Chieco, Barbara Goldfarb-Seles and Ron Resik formed the new board of directors of Eyes to Burma. Chieco took on the job of creating it at as a 501c3 nonprofit to aid fundraising.
They raised more than $10,000 during their first presentation at the Unitarian Fellowship and need to raise about $1,850 a month to meet the villagers' needs for water, clothing and medicine.
They are dedicating their efforts just to survival issues, says Goldfarb-Seles, with "a vision for a better life" being something in the future.
"It's really bad in Mae Sot (the village around the dump). They are a forgotten people," says Stockwell, who is back home doing fundraising presentations in the valley for a few weeks. "They're smart, intelligent people. I love them. They deserve better."
Stockwell, 66, lives in Mae Sot in what can only be called a grass shack. He wakes up every day with a new set of challenges, including teaching first aid and running a clinic in his "office." He searches for health professionals, usually from the West. He recently found a Scandinavian dentist and put her to work in the village. No one gets paid, he notes, including himself.
During his presentations, Stockwell carries a crude sickle and a pair of tiny rubber boots — vital for children who would otherwise be walking around the dump on glass, germ-ridden worms, infectious needles and other medical junk.
"The boots only cost a dollar, and they're very useful in the long rainy season," says Stockwell, who uses them in his pitch for donations.
The fact that donations go directly to afflicted populations and don't support any salaries or administrative overhead of parent organizations has made donors more eager to open wallets, says Goldfarb-Seles.
"There are so many problems in the world," says Chieco. "This is one way to directly help a group of vulnerable people. People have been very inspired (by Stockwell's presentations). It really touched our hearts."
"I've had a really good life and done a lot of things, always feeling that one day, I needed to put back," says Stockwell, a native of London and a middle-school dropout who has inventively made his way through life in many lines of work. "You can't just keep taking. I found Mae Sot by mistake. I really didn't know what to think. It seemed they needed a bit of help. So many things can be taken care of with just a little bit of help."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.