Hot Seat

Rob Whitelaw

Kickstart Art is a non-profit, community organization that delivers art classes to migrant and refugee children living along the Thai / Myanmar Border. Sounds interesting. Let’s find out a bit more from Director, Rob Whitelaw.

Q

Hi Rob. Welcome to the ajarn hot seat. You have been involved in charity work in South-East Asia for over four years. Let’s talk about a few of those projects first. It all started in 2013, in the Cambodian town of Battambang. What were you up to?

A

I was volunteering on a university volunteering trip at the time. I was part of a team of 16 students who spent six weeks teaching English and working on building projects.

Q

A year later you helped out at the same place?

A

I did yeah, I was the leader of the same trip a year later, responsible for planning the project and ensuring everything ran smoothly.

Q

In 2015, you became involved in teacher training and this sounds like your initial exposure to the Burmese migrant community, right?

A

It was – after university, I began working at Mobile Education Partnerships, an organisation that trains teachers on the Thai / Myanmar border. I worked with them for three years, where I learned most of what I know and use now.

Q

So when you look back at all you have achieved, what really drives Rob Whitelaw, the man? What do you care passionately about?

A

I would say the biggest thing that drives me is continually trying to improve how I design and implement projects. In the work I’m in, there’s always room for improvement, and always a way to run projects more effectively and efficiently. I care strongly about getting the job done, and done well.

Q

OK Rob, let’s get on to the Kickstart Art project. What would you say is its main objective?

A

Our main objective is pretty simple – we work with children in migrant schools on weekly basis to facilitate free expression, creativity, and imagination through art classes.

At its core, Kickstart Art aims to introduce art as a form of fun expression to children who might not have been exposed to it before due to lack of resources.

In certain special cases, we also use art as a therapy tool, as a way to teach life skills and other subjects, and as a way to open dialogue with students.

Q

You work with 15 schools that I assume are located on or near the Thai-Myanmar border. How does a school become one of the lucky ones selected?

A

When a migrant school wants to work with Kickstart Art, we assess the support they currently receive, the number of students they serve, and if they have access to any other extra-curricular activities. We try to make sure that we work with schools that need it most.

Q

You are working with about a thousand students throughout those schools. Typically, how many hours a week would a student spend in a Kickstart Art class?

A

Class times can vary from around 45 minutes to a full morning / afternoon. All of our classes are scheduled in to the school’s weekly timetable to make sure that our lessons don’t disrupt learning in any way. We want schools and students to see art as a part of their overall learning experience, and not as something extra provided by someone external.

Q

I guess one thing that comes into my mind is that children (and adults for that matter) all love art if they have a modicum of talent for it. Art is something that transcends all socio-economic backgrounds doesn’t it? People love to paint and draw.

A

Absolutely, yes! We find that all the time during our outreach projects. We regularly hold events, workshops and art classes, to try to strengthen community bonds in Mae Sot. Regardless of background, people always love to get involved.

Q

You employ three local artists to help the students. Tell us about those guys?

A

We do – our three artists are John Khai, Kyaw Khine and Poe Dah, each of whom are incredible artists. They all have a varied art-training background: John Khai was taught informally in Mae Sot; Poe Dah is a graduate of the Yangon School of Fine Arts; and Kyaw Khine first learnt to paint in Mae Ra Moe Refugee Camp.

Q

Do the three local artists work entirely voluntarily? Do they work at other paid jobs or do they have the opportunity to sell any of the art they produce?

A

Actually no, they are all paid for their work with Kickstart Art. For John Khai and Kyaw Khine, it is their full-time employment, and Poe Dah works three days a week.

Before working at Kickstart Art, they all worked either in other teaching roles, or in the service industry. Without Kickstart Art, it is unlikely they would be able to work as full-time artists, particularly in art education.

They do sell their artwork, which Kickstart Art helps them do by hosting events and online sales.

Q

I bet the artists get a real buzz from sharing their knowledge and ability with the kids though?

A

Oh, absolutely. All three artists are incredibly proud to work as teachers, and love sharing their skills with the next generation. A great part of the creative process is coming up with new and innovative art lessons. We like to keep things fresh every week: we don’t repeat art lessons, so the students stay engaged and interested.

Q

I was watching your very nice YouTube video and there was some great artwork on those classroom walls. How can we buy it?

A

Thank you! There’s now four more videos up with more to come. You can check them out on our YouTube page. If anyone is interested on buying art that’s produced either by Kickstart Art or by our artists, drop us a message either through our website or social media to see what we have available!

Q

Does social media play a big part in promoting Kickstart Art to the world?

A

Absolutely, yes. We’re currently on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and it’s a big part of spreading the word about what we do. Thankfully, because it’s such a visual project, there’s never a shortage of great photos and videos!

Q

You’re running a Christmas fundraiser?

A

We are! If you’re interested, you can check it out at www.generosity.com/education-fundraising/kickstart-art-christmas-fundraiser

A full month’s running cost for Kickstart Art is only 50,000 baht all in, so it’s a really cost-effective project!

Q

So an obvious final question but how can people get involved apart from donations? Are you looking for any willing short-term helpers / volunteers?

Q

We’re always interested to chat to people who are interested in volunteering or supporting Kickstart Art. Anyone interested can send us a message through our website and we’ll be in touch!

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