A hundred children crowd into the one-room schoolhouse at the edge of the jungle in western Thailand. The bamboo school sits on stilts at the end of a dirt road that winds through vast fields of corn. Looking west from the schoolhouse steps, you can see where the land turns hilly on the boundary with Burma. The children who attend Maw Tha Lu School walked down from those hills with their parents, illegally crossing into Thailand.
They are here to escape the violence and poverty stemming from 60 years of civil war in Burma’s hill country. Standing outside the school, you can hear the music of the children chanting their lessons.
New York high school science teacher Douglas Hollinger ’87W (MS) was here. He spent two days at Maw Tha Lu School last July, accompanied by four high school students from New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Hollinger supervised the students as they installed a solar electrical system, making use of what they’d learned in his class on alternative energy at Pavilion High School.
As result of their work, the 50 children who board at the school can study after sundown. Most of the children are years behind; with lights to read by, they can begin to catch up.
Doug Hollinger ’87W (MS) was working at a cardiovascular laboratory at the Medical Center after he graduated from SUNY Potsdam, but he knew he wanted to put his majors in biology and chemistry to other use.
“My objective was always to be a teacher,” says Hollinger, a native of the Rochester area. “I’ve always been interested in teaching.”
Hollinger, who graduated with a master’s degree from the Warner Graduate School of Education in 1987, has also made teaching excellence a hallmark of his career. He’s won several accolades, including being recognized twice—in 1995 and in 2003—with the Warner School’s Award for Excellence in High School Teaching.
Also a regular participant in a science teacher education program called PARTICLE, founded and directed by Kevin McFarland, a professor of physics and astronomy at Rochester, Hollinger has taught at Pavilion High School in Genesee County, about 45 minutes southwest of Rochester, throughout his career.
“It’s been more than 25 years, and I’m still enjoying it.”
Hollinger had other reasons for bringing his students here last summer, the third he has spent along the Thailand-Burma border. When he’d first come in 2006, he had simply hoped to see a bit of the world while building alternative energy systems with a Thai nonprofit group called Border Green Energy Team. But what he found along the border has transformed his life.
“I look at life completely differently now,” says Hollinger.
Before visiting Thailand, Hollinger had read about the brutal treatment of Burmese villagers caught in the fight between Burmese soldiers and ethnic rebel groups. But meeting people who had fled made that war real to him.
“When I saw people whose limbs were blown off by landmines and parents whose children had died of malaria, that’s when it really hit me right in the gut,” he says. “That’s when I knew I wasn’t finished there. I knew that I needed to bring my students there so they could see what was going on in that part of the world.”
This summer he plans to lead his fourth group of students—two Pavilion students and two students from Goucher College in Maryland—to the same border region, where they will spend a month providing solar-powered electrical systems for refugees and the native people of the area.
The trip is part of what has become Hollinger’s larger mission: not only to build solar and mini-hydro systems along the border, but also to introduce his students to a place of suffering that most know nothing about. He wants them to hear the stories of some of the estimated 2 million people driven here by extreme poverty and by what some have called the “slow-motion genocide” of the ethnic peoples of the Burmese hill country.
Ethnic minorities have for decades resisted the military junta that rules Burma (officially known as Myanmar), and the Burmese army has used brutality to control not only rebel armies but also civilians. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have documented that the Burmese army has routinely forced villagers to work without pay, raped women, and stolen rice, chickens, and cattle. The soldiers of the military government require civilians to risk maiming or death by serving as human landmine sweepers.
The army also burns villages: In Karen state, in the hills visible from Maw Tha Lu School, Burmese soldiers burned or forcibly emptied 3,200 villages from 1996 to 2006, according to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, an international relief agency. The burning continues, and soldiers often plant mines to prevent families from returning home.
“I did know there were human rights violations going on in Burma, but I had no idea of the scope of the crisis until I saw a refugee camp and saw people begging in the streets in order to live,” says Hollinger. “I was deeply affected by what I saw at the border, and I felt that my students needed to experience the same thing.
“I thought: Here is an opportunity for young people to come to the Third World and get their hands dirty working side by side with other kids their own age from another culture. I wanted them to realize that there’s a completely different world out there and there are much more urgent concerns than getting the newest iPod with all the latest gadgets on it to replace the iPod you’ve already got.”
Kristin Lemley, who graduates from Pavilion this spring, decided to go to Thailand with Hollinger last summer after hearing from the previous year’s group “how it was the best experience they’d ever had.”
Lemley helped install the solar panel that stands just outside the Maw Tha Lu schoolhouse. She dug postholes alongside the three other Americans and three young Thai technicians from the Border Green Energy Team. She installed wiring and helped instruct the teachers and older students about the physics of the solar-powered system and how to monitor and maintain it. After the work was done, the Americans blew bubbles and threw Frisbees with the children, who range in age from 3 to 15.
Head teacher Saw Ler Mu says the school had been using a diesel generator to run lights for three hours each evening so the 50 children who live at the school could study. The lights illuminate the classroom and also an open-sided bamboo building with a leaf roof where the children unfold their straw mats to sleep. Their parents can’t come to get them each day because they travel to find work. The children come from several ethnic groups: Burman, Karen, Pa’O, and Arakanese. The majority are Karen, and so the children study the Karen language, along with Burmese, Thai, and English. They also study history, math, science, and geography.
Although the Thai government generally tolerates the illegal migrants who fill menial jobs in Thailand, it doesn’t provide schools for the children. Migrant schools get funding from a patchwork of nonprofit groups. Saw Ler Mu says the solar panel saves the school 1,200 Thai baht each month on diesel fuel. That’s about $35 that could go toward the $86 monthly salary for a teacher.
At a camp that’s home to about 37,000 refugees, Hollinger’s group visited 20 Burmese refugees who exchange e-mail with 20 students at Pavilion. Hollinger isn’t sure what they chat about—probably the usual teenage preoccupations, he says.
“But it’s American teenagers talking to Burmese and Karen teenagers,” he says.
Lemley was surprised that the people she met seemed joyful despite their difficult lives. Still, she once began to cry when she considered the situation of the children who have left Burma.
“They’re not wanted in their home and they’re not really wanted anywhere,” she says. “I had to compose myself, because I didn’t want them to see.”
Back home, she says, “I try to tell people when I can that there’s something wrong in the world and people can try to fix it.”
Before leaving for Thailand, Lemley and the other students collected $5,000 to pay for the solar systems through a series of fundraisers. Lemley borrowed money to pay for her trip, and she’s working at a local deli to pay off the loan. She says the trip motivated her to apply to college as an engineering major.
“If I can do anything to help change the lives of people who don’t have anything, it will be all I can ask for in my life,” she says. “I feel really accomplished with my life already. I feel I can only go further from this point.”
Austin Moag was one of three students who went with Hollinger to Thailand in July 2007. One of the group’s projects was to build a solar backup system for lights in an operating room at the Mae Tao Clinic, which provides free medical care to 100,000 migrants each year.
A few days later, the power failed at the clinic, and surgeons there lit the operating room using the photovoltaic system. “How great it was that we were doing something that was useful,” he says.
In the evenings, Moag and the other students spent hours talking with Hollinger about what to do with their lives.
“We were all in limbo. We had a lot of dinner table conversations. Mr. H. was always stressing the importance of doing what is going to make you happy.”
Growing up on a 1,500-head dairy farm, Moag had considered being a veterinarian. He’s now a freshman at Cornell University studying industrial labor relations. He plans to attend law school and study immigration law. He says Hollinger gave him confidence.
“He doesn’t make it explicit, but he lets you know you can do whatever you want to and what you set your mind to, and he’s going to be there for you,” Moag says.
Hollinger’s students learn the skills they need in Thailand in his course on alternative energy. Hollinger explains: “They know enough about basic physics and electricity and photovoltaic technology to help build systems. They feel empowered to know that there is a way to perhaps make a difference.”
They might even help to protect the developing world from some of the political, economic, and environmental problems facing the United States, says Hollinger.
“I’m fascinated by the idea that by bringing solar power to remote locations in the Third World, one might help populations to leapfrog past the dependency the industrialized world has on petroleum, energy imports, and other environmentally toxic resources.”
During this summer’s trip, Hollinger plans to install a solar energy system at a migrant school on the Thailand-Burma border. Many of the 98 students there are children of house cleaners and workers in the local cattle market. Hollinger learned about the school when he went to “quiz night” at a Mae Sot bar called Thaimes that caters to westerners in town to volunteer for some of the many nonprofit groups based there.
The bar’s owner, a 26-year-old woman from the Philippines named Anna Malindog, established the bar as a nonprofit to fund the school. The school’s Burmese name, A Lin Young, means “shining light.”
Thirty of the students are boarders, separated for long periods from parents who work in Bangkok factories.
“They’re like orphans,” says Malindog. “They don’t have anyone.”
The school is so far off the power grid that installing power lines would be tremendously expensive. A solar system will allow Malindog to hook up a computer and offer vocational training in computers. She wants to ensure that when Light School students grow up, “they don’t have to be migrant workers and be abused.”
Hollinger has founded a nonprofit group called the Global Youth Service Team to raise money for his work.
“I spend most of my time when I’m not teaching trying to grow the Global Youth Service Team.”
Publicity about the Thailand trips has generated interest from groups seeking solar systems in other countries, including Ghana, Liberia, Vietnam, and Haiti. When he retires in five years, Hollinger plans to work full time running the nonprofit.
“I’m hoping to grow Global Youth Service Team into a much larger philanthropic organization,” says Hollinger.
Former student Moag says he hopes to return to Thailand to help Hollinger finish a documentary he’s making about alternative energy in the border region. Moag scheduled his trip home from Cornell last Thanksgiving so he’d have time to speak at a local Rotary Club in hopes of raising money for future projects.
He says that Hollinger is popular at Pavilion, where Moag’s class dedicated the 2008 yearbook to Hollinger. And there’s a Facebook group composed of students who admire the teacher and his work.
Says Moag: “He’s kind of an icon at Pavilion.”
Freelance writer Cathy Shufro teaches at Yale University.