Local effort seeks to ease suffering on the Burmese border

Why should we care about Burmese refugees living on a garbage dump thousands of miles from the Rogue Valley? This is a good question since we are faced every day with news of people in faraway lands struggling against horrific conditions. The bad news can seem overwhelming and often leaves us feeling that there is little that can be done to alleviate suffering in the world. And then we hear about Fred Stockwell, who has been called a one-man Peace Corps, and we feel hope.

Two years ago, we heard Fred Stockwell talk in Ashland about the garbage dump community that he has devoted his time and energy to for the past five years. Fred is a former Rogue Valley businessman and photographer who found his true mission in Mae Sot, Thailand, which borders Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Initially, the now 67-year-old didn't go there to help anyone. His plan was to retire and take it easy. But the sight of children eating waste, of people suffering from an array of medical problems, and of general malnutrition and lack of education moved Fred to take action. He felt a moral obligation to help this community of about 350 men, women and children who struggle to sustain themselves by scavenging for recyclables in a garbage dump.

A group of us who heard Fred speak that day were so moved by his devotion to these desperate people that we felt we had to do something to help sustain this important, selfless work.

Fast-forward to today: Eyes to Burma is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose sole mission is to raise money so that Fred can provide clean water, food, first aid and clothing — essentials we take for granted — to those living and working at the dump. Since this is a nonprofit run entirely by volunteers, every dollar raised goes directly to assist the Mae Sot dump residents. There are no fancy cars, meals, hotel rooms or administrative costs paid for with donations. When funds fall short, Fred dips into his limited savings.

After about five years of meeting the basic survival needs of this forgotten community, Fred is now able to think about longer-term goals that might offer the children a way to escape their demoralizing conditions. Fred has returned to the Rogue Valley for two weeks to raise awareness of these people who need our help, and to ask for ideas in finding financial support from foundations, businesses, religious organizations and individuals willing to listen. There is a list of his presentations on the website www.eyestoburma.org. We invite you all to meet Fred and hear this story.

We volunteer our time because we are so grateful to Fred for the work he is doing. Which of us is prepared to spend our days in a foreign country amidst garbage, especially in monsoon season?

Which brings us back to the question: Why do we care?

Here are our reasons:

These are human beings struggling to move beyond atrocities witnessed in Burma and make a life for themselves. We know Fred's deep commitment to this work and we appreciate that donations directly fund lifesaving projects. Eyes to Burma is on a scale such that every donor makes a difference and can see direct results. And, we are all aware that problems that may be thousands of miles away can end up on our doorstep.

Fred emphasizes that he gives the refugees a hand up, not a hand out. We want to provide a hand up to Fred through a variety of small fundraisers going on right now in our valley.

We do this because it's the right thing to do.

Eileen Chieco, Ron Rezek and Barbara Goldfard-Seles are the directors of Eyes to Burma. They can be contacted through the website www.eyestoburma.org or by calling 541-727-2676.

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