In 1990, a young Richard Worsley travelled to the forested fringes of northern Thailand. The 19-year-old Briton volunteered his services to the Karen people, teaching English and installing clean water systems. He stayed six months. Though brief, the experience left a profound impact on Richard. Once home, he urged his mother, Penelope, to someday offer a hand to the Karen people, as well.
Richard died in a car accident in Germany in 1996. Three months after his death, the Karen people dedicated a water system to him in Huay Kong Po, a village of 200 near the border with Myanmar. According to Karen folklore, “Good men don’t die. They stay in the stars to guide us.” Whether one puts stock in mythology is beside the point: long after his passing, Richard continues to influence the Karen villages of northern Thailand.
Penelope finally visited the region in 1999. Almost immediately she felt the same warmth and gratitude of the locals that had so greatly inspired her son. After meeting Salahae, a community leader who had worked with Richard, Penelope discovered the two shared a vision. With the help of a fundraiser in the UK, the Karen Hilltribes Trust—or KHT—was set up in Richard’s memory in 1999. Since then, More than 500 volunteers have followed in his footsteps, working on projects geared toward the sustainable development and well-being of S’gaw Karen communities in Mae Hong Son.
The KHT is now led by a former volunteer, William Harden, who works with Salahae and a team of Karen staff in Thailand. Distinguishing this non-profit from others in the region is its tight relationships with local communities. In order to affect lasting change, the KHT sets up projects designed and run by the local Karen. Volunteers are sent from the UK to help carry them out by working on construction projects and teaching English.
The goals of the KHT are based on three pillars: improving health, increasing access to education, and securing better livelihoods. To date, the KHT has helped to provide clean water for 50,000 people—and this where 40 per cent of the province lacks a supply of clean drinking water and no adequate methods of waste disposal. In fact, since the first clean water system was installed in Huay Kong Po, there have been few, if any, signs of malaria, a disease still highly prevalent in hilltribe villages. The KHT has also delivered 30,000 blankets and 40,000 mosquito nets, irrigated 5,600 rai of farmland, and ensured that 767 children can travel to school each day.
By giving financial support for the purchase and use of 23 school buses, improving dormitory facilities at schools, and providing meals for those unable to afford them, more and more children in remote areas now enjoy access to primary and secondary education. In tandem with other local trusts, the KHT has also provided scholarships for universities and continued higher education.
Currently, two-thirds of Karen farmers live below the poverty line, an unsustainable figure by any measure. Much of this is due to poor irrigation systems. While the KHT has helped to construct water systems that can withstand even the most disastrous floods, part of its programme sees education as a means of self-improvement, a key to unlocking new opportunities to make a living. In effect, the KHT helps the Karen from a variety of angles, and all thanks to their bond with the communities—one forged and felt by Richard Worsley decades ago and carried on in his absence.
How to Get Involved
The Karen Hilltribes Trust partners with trusts, foundations, and community groups in Bangkok. It is a registered Thai foundation, so donations can be received in Bangkok. The KHT urgently seeks new contacts to aid its work. Get in touch by e-mail at [email protected] To find out more about the group or donate, please visit karenhilltribes.org.uk.