Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (29)

Meditation training for school children.

My dearest Sombath,

Today is Father’s Day. Many people are sending messages of love and appreciation to their Fathers and Grandfathers. So, I too want to wish you a very happy Father’s Day.

Sombath, you have been such a well-respected and beloved father/uncle figure to so many young people in Laos. Many of them who have been associated with the youth development programs you initiated in PADETC remember you so well. You have made such a great contribution to their growing-up years.

Teaching children about different plants.

I recall you always said the Lao youth are the future of Laos – how the Laos develops will depend on how well the young will be guided to chart their own lives and help build the lives of others in their families, society and the nation. You also said it is difficult to only expect the school system and the prevailing political structures to help young Lao to utilize their innate intelligence and creativity to their full potential – the reason being that the school system and political structures are only interested in control and in shaping the young according to their set agenda and ideology. Such control, you said, would actually stifle the potential of young generation. You told me that there should be more space and more opportunities for the young to discover themselves and to nurture themselves to become not only good and compliant citizens, but to become good and compassionate individuals for Laos and for others.

To do this you decided to make full use of the approved status of PADETC as a training center to train young people, focusing not only on hard skills but on soft skills which stressed inculcating values, such as kindness, compassion, and respect of all living things as a starting point. For this reason you developed a range of youth-centered activities based on participatory and tested psychological principles of sharing, listening, and practical life skills appropriate for different age groups. You worked with educators, youth counselors, community elders, and drew deeply on your own life experiences and knowledge of an ordinary Lao steeped in Lao rural life, Lao culture, and Lao traditions, and practices, and you came up with a range of activities and programs for young people who come to join your activities in PADETC.

Over a span of more than 20 years, hundreds of young people between the ages of 10 to 18 learned so much from the youth development activities initiated under PADETC. These activities were mostly held on the grounds of PADETC Office where groups of children came together every weekend to learn value-based leadership skills and other practical life skills which were not taught in schools. They became youth leaders and they went into schools to lead peer-to-peer learning and non-formal education activities with other children of their own age levels.

During school vacations, the youth leaders also went to the communities to learn from the community elders about the community’s history, culture, and their special ethnic traditions and food and crafts practices. From such interactions, the young people learned to be more appreciative of the diversity of Laos indigenous wisdom, cultures and practices. In such open and non-threatening situations, the young people from different backgrounds were able share many common challenges and problems they face. Collectively, they brainstormed and came up with practical and doable ways to address their common fears and hopes. They also exchanged different communication strategies to get support from their parents, teachers and elders. Through such participatory sharing and listening the young learned to build better bonds with their friends, family and community.

In addition, PADETC also stressed the teaching of appreciation of nature and the diverse ecological systems of Laos. Many young people interested in environmental issues became environment youth champions and led activities in schools and their communities to start garbage collection centers to separate waste into organic and non-organic waste. Organic waste was made into organic fertilizers for use in school and home gardens, and non-organic waste like plastic and paper waste were sold to recycling centers. The youth leaders also explored the natural environment through jungle walks and documentation of the natural plant and animal life, and learned to appreciate the diversity and the richness of Lao natural resources. Together with the local communities, they identified community forests that needed protection and agreed with local authorities on principles on forest use and measures to protect the forests from illegal logging by outsiders.

They also learned to enrich themselves spiritually and mindfully through youth meditation programs in the temples and in schools, led by well-trained monks and nuns. Many also joined other youth enrichment camps on topics and issues of their own choice and then moved on to form their own youth groups to continue their learning and practices. These and many of the youth activities you initiated were truly innovative and ground-breaking for Laos. They deeply touched the lives of many young Lao, as well as their teachers and adult facilitators.

Since your abduction more than 10 years ago on 15 December 2012, many other these programs have ceased operation under PADETC. However despite the unfortunate termination of PADETC’s programs, what you did have continued in many different ways through the young people you trained. Many of the youth leaders trained by PADETC have graduated from university and have found work inside government offices and international development agencies. Some have started their own development organizations and have continued to work on youth and community development. Many have continued to use or adapted your training curriculum and activities in their work. Many also spoke about how important the value-based and spiritual-based training they learned from their days with PADETC. When I hear this, I am comforted that your influence has not disappeared but it have continued.

So Sombath, on the occasion of Father’s Day, I think you should be proud of your contribution to the lives of so many young people in Laos. When I meet them they continue to refer to you lovingly as “Loung Sombath” or “Uncle Sombath”.

You may be disappeared unjustly, but it has not erased what you did and your dream of building a better world for Laos, especially for the young.

Love you always, Shui Meng

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