Martin Walsh is the man behind the very successful Dragonfly operation. He currently has two major projects going – one is placing volunteer teachers in remote village schools and the other is fund-raising for tsunami orphans. Worth a chat I think.
Martin, welcome. We did a hot-seat interview with Rob Donnellan some while back. You both work for Dragonfly, but just to clarify – who's the boss and who makes the tea?
Rob and I co-founded Dragonfly together quite some time ago now, and we've always shared responsibility quite well. We are very different characters from one another, Rob's got more enthusiasm than just about anyone I've ever met - and he gets thing done. This is great when starting out on your own, because we really needed that boundless energy when starting Dragonfly. I'm much more careful and considered (most of the time), and that probably comes from being the oldest member of the team by some way. When things do come to a head with colleagues I always try the old, "when in Rome do as the Romans" so, as I'm oldest...
We've talked about Dragonfly in the past, but let's go over these two projects that are well worth hearing about. Firstly, you are recruiting and placing volunteer teachers in schools that can't afford to hire Western teachers. How many schools are involved and where are they?
At the moment we work with around 25 schools but that number is growing all the time. Mostly they are Mattayom schools as the volunteers are not very experienced and find it easier to deal with older children. We work with schools from all over the country, although at the moment they are mainly based in Issan. This is where we set up our office originally, because we believed it was somewhere that really needed the help. As time has gone on though we have sent volunteers farther afield. A few examples are Nakhom Phanom, Ubon Ratchathani, Loei, Kalasin, Nakhon Ratchasima, Rayong, Surrathani and Changmai.
What kind of teacher are you looking for?
As we are recruiting volunteers we can't really be too picky, especially as there are always far to many schools and never enough volunteers to fill all the placements. The upside of recruiting volunteers though is that they really have the right attitude. The lack of experience can be overcome quite a lot by the enthusiasm they show. Volunteers often tell me they have set up extra curriculum activities, either coaching English or computers and even sports clubs after school. They are often the only foreigner in town and need to integrate into the local community so they need to be willing to get involved in everything not just school. Patience and flexibility are my two catch phrases that I mention as much as I can to volunteers when they first arrive, I don't need that to anyone who's worked in a Thai school before do I?
Just out of interest, how did you qualify the schools and make sure that they truly couldn't afford a teacher? (is that a fair question?)
Yes, that can be a bit tricky. When we first set up Dragonfly we contacted literally hundreds of schools, and we came up with a shortlist of schools that we thought suitable. The requirements we ask for are that a school has never had a foreign teacher before, that they have at least one teacher can speak good English and at least one person at the home-stay can also speak English.
Readers in Bangkok and other big cities may be asking "surely all schools have at least one English speaking teacher, otherwise how can that school teach English?" The sad reality is that at a huge number of schools we visit, not even the head of the English department can string more than a few words of coherent English together. The school itself pays nothing for the volunteer, they provide accommodation (usually with a teacher's family) and most meals, the school budget covers that usually.
Quite often the director of the school asks if the volunteer can stay with them. Sometimes it's a student's family so it varies from school to school. I usually visit the school myself and check out accommodation and facilities at the school. All schools we talk to claim to have no money, and after visiting for a while it's not too difficult to tell the ones with some money and which ones really are running on a shoe string. We do occasionally make exceptions and send a volunteer to a school that obviously has a little money but that's only if the school really is trying to do the best they can for their students and really care about them but can't get a foreign teacher.
Teachers will actually pay to teach then?
Don't choke on your Som Tam guys but yes, people will actually pay to teach in Thailand. The amount we charge is about 320 GBP for the most popular placement we offer. That may sound loads but anyone that has ever run a business knows just how many different costs there are in running one. We send our volunteers to Koh Samui for training and then we place them in a school. Sounds simple doesn't it but believe me it's a whole load of work. That's why if you check out other organisations, they charge around 4 to 5 times for almost exactly the same thing. We are interested in getting as many volunteers over as we can, so charging ridiculous amounts isn't our thing.
Now I'm interested in how schools view and treat a volunteer teacher compared to the teacher that's earning 30-40K a month?
I know lots of paid teachers in Thailand, and have heard a few stories. My own experiences weren't too bad actually but there are far too many complaints to read about on the ajarn forum. Many of those are not genuine complaints and are just pure whinging. Sorry but I think quite a few people just don't realise how easy their lives are and bitch so much about petty things I don't really have the time for them. The side I see of Thai schools is Dragonfly volunteers having the times of their lives. We have had people breaking down in tears when they have to leave and more than a few volunteers tell me about their plans to return long before they've even left.
As I mentioned earlier most volunteers are the only foreigners around. This means they often become very involved in local community and before long have huge extended families taking them to dinner, on trips, nights out and treating them like Kings and Queens. It's very rare that a volunteer is unhappy with their circumstances. I can only say this is because of the genuine warmth and generosity of the Thai people. That may sound like a cliche but my own experiences keep confirming it to me. I can't recommend enough to people living in the big city, to get out and see the other side of Thailand. You'll be pleasantly surprised.
Let's move on to the second project Martin. You are fund-raising for tsunami orphans. You've got a great website that gives lots of information. Give us an overview of the project.
It was another member of Dragonfly that decided we should get involved and try to help out. Jake, with no experience at all, did an amazing job of fundraising and within a few weeks of the disaster he had raised well over half a million baht. We went to Ban Neam Kem, the village worse affected by the tsunami around February last year. The idea was to visit local schools, run activities for the children, and donate the money to the schools.
After speaking to the schools we found they had quite a lot of funds already, and our money wouldn't go too far. So we spoke to teachers, NGOs and the head men in the temporary shelters and found certain individuals that had fallen through the safety net. These were children that had been orphaned or very badly affected by the tsunami, they had no voice, no way to tell the world what was happening to them. So in the end we decided that we would support them through school, up to Mattayom six and then try to assist them with getting into university or employment. During this time we keep in constant contact with them, giving whatever support we can. The project has been a great success and now we would like to add more children to it, so we are trying to raise 5000 GBP / 350,000 Baht which would support another 8 children, for 3 years each.
I looked at the kids stories (those that are currently studying in the program) and you couldn't fail to be moved could you?
After spending time with these kids it's really put a lot of my problems into perspective, I think most of us have a pretty easy life most of the time, and we have so many options even if we are not always aware of that. These children really are at the mercy of strangers, they have little or no family left, no financial support, except the little they get from us and no options. That's why we want to help them to help themselves, and an education may be their best chance of that.
So you're going to travel through 12 countries doing fund-raising and all sorts. How long is it going to take you?
I'm hoping to spend no more than 3-4 days in each country but it may take 2 months or even longer to complete the trip. The fundraising tour is called The-12-Not-Quite-Herculean-Labours-of-Dragonfly (and Friends), catchy title huh? The idea is that you can challenge me to complete a task in each country, so far I will be performing a ballet dressed in Mikhail Baryshnikov style leotard, in or outside the National Theatre in Latvia, depending on if they let me in or not. I will then be driving a go-cart, with wheels made of cheese down the highest peak in Holland. So if anyone out there has a task, there are 10 countries left to challenge me in.
The challenge should take no longer than 2 days to complete and not involve expensive equipment. I also need your help, in each country I will need a guide/translator/camera person to help me. If you live, or know anyone that lives in any of the countries along the route that may be interested in helping, it would be very much appreciated. The route is, starting in Laos, China, Mongolia, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Holland, Belgium and France, I hope to have a fundraising party in England when and if I make it.
What problems do you envisage on the way?
It really depends on the challenges, I hope to have them finalised in the next few weeks so I can start preparing for them. As far as the travelling itself goes I'm actually really looking forward to it, although I am a little nervous, it's quite a big trip on local land based transport only, I won't be doing any flying. I hope to get a little local media coverage in each country along the way as that will help me raise awareness and it'll be good for me as I might get a few free nights of accommodation and lifts out of it. The biggest problem will be communication. Getting a bus to the right destination is one thing but trying to convince a non English speaking Latvian to get his prized ballets dancers to give me lessons, and put on a show will be another thing entirely, I'm definitely going to need good translators.
Is the fundraising gaining momentum or is it difficult to really create the awareness?
When we did our first fundraising project we had international media making things very easy for us. This time we are using every contact we know to try and spread the news of this project, it's only been going a short time but the signs are looking good. I will be sending out a regular newsletter to let everyone know about how the project is going, and people are sending this to their friends and family so more people are sending in ideas, contacts, words of support and money.
What about you Martin? Have you always been this super fund-raiser kind of guy? You're doing marvelous work.
Thank you. I think it's something that has happened as I've got older, I'm starting to realise the value in trying to help others. I'm certainly no Mother Theresa, and I couldn't say it was totally selfless work, I do get a lot more satisfaction working with Dragonfly than with anything I've done in the past, and I feel happier in general. I could never imagine doing a 9-5 again but who knows.
What other causes are you passionate about?
We work with the Duang Prateep foundation, they are based out of Klong Toey slums in Bangkok. They set up an emergency shelter in Ban Nam Keam for the children made homeless or orphaned by the tsunami, which is where we found some of the children in our project. Duang Prateep run a shelter for drug addicts, they take them out of the cycle of living in slums with no work and money and take them to the countryside in Chumphon. There they provide training and emotional support to get these people back on their feet. Another project they run is for abused and exploited girls in Kanchanaburi. Some of the children have been sold by their families or trafficked from neighboring countries into the sex trade. Duang Prateep do an amazing job of teaching all of these children to give peer support to each other thus building a real sense of family, something missing from most of their lives. The people that run it are fantastic, they really do dedicate their whole lives to helping these people. if Dragonfly can help them in any way we can, we will.
What about the future for Dragonfly? What's in the pipeline?
Dragonfly has slowly but steadily been growing since day one, and I hope it will have a bright future. There are really 5 people involved in getting it up and running and many others that have played a part, both big and small in helping it progress. We have grown into a family of sorts of our own, and I can't see myself anywhere else at the moment. As for the future we will be running a new project, starting this summer and hopefully on a regular basis from then on. The project is teacher training and English lessons for Thai teachers in the provinces. Anyone interested in donating a few days to help out should contact me directly.
I'm sure many people will be interested in donating or volunteering their time. What's the best way to get in touch with you?
Through our website you can contact me by using the contact us page, or email me directly at email@example.com. We are always in need of an extra pair of hands and with our new teacher training project, experienced teachers are really needed.