Service-learning group makes good
on promise of community kitchen © March 9, 2012, Norwich University Office of Communications

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Students help villagers build an outdoor kitchen in Pha Chan, Thailand. The project is the culmination of several years of planning.

“What you are doing is great,” said our fearless guide Suvannee, “but the villagers have had this happen to them before. Many universities have come to visit, promised to do something and then left without ever coming back.”

Little did the people of Pha Chan village in Thailand know the Norwich University Visions Abroad team had lofty goals and an inexhaustible enthusiasm to see them through to completion.

In January 2010, the first of three groups of Norwich students to visit Thailand returned to the Northfield, Vt., campus of Norwich University, the country’s oldest private military college, with both a newfound sense of global awareness and stalwart resolve to return in exactly one year.

And we did return, much to the surprise of villagers. We also wowed them with plans to teach English classes and design a community kitchen. Pha Chan village is exemplary in terms of its water management system, and villagers host a barrage of guests from nearby villages to as far away as students from Montpelier High School in Vermont.

The chefs in the village, however, must cook for guests under a tarp on the edge of the woods without a proper workspace or convenient food storage.

The collaboration and hard work in the weeks between December 2010 and January 2011 in the village exceeded all of our expectations. We left in high spirits with incredible memories and plans for a beautiful new community kitchen stowed in our luggage in the form of notes, sketches and final drawings.

But the year leading up to December 2011 departure was fraught with unforeseen challenges for the group that would see the kitchen finally come to life. While we were communicating from 9,000 miles away about building materials, cost estimates and itineraries, nearly the entire country of Thailand experienced a devastating flood.

It was an exceptional feeling of togetherness that transcended cultural, religious, linguistic, social, political and economic barriers.

Knowing first-hand the effects of such a disaster after Tropical Storm Irene, it was clear that this would impact our trip indefinitely. Doubts arose concerning insufficient funds as the price of materials skyrocketed due to accessibility issues within the country.

There was no way, however, that we could get this close to finishing such a heartfelt project we had all become so emotionally invested in without seeing its completion. We raised money tirelessly and before we knew it, we were meeting our host families for the first time, munching on sticky rice for breakfast and getting our hands dirty on the work site.

It wasn't long after we raised the first column that we were inscribing our names and handprints in the stucco on a finished kitchen—a permanent reminder we will forever feel a part of the village and we will never forget our personal experiences with this project. We had all shared something remarkably powerful. It was an exceptional feeling of togetherness that transcended cultural, religious, linguistic, social, political and economic barriers.

When we left in January 2012, we were no longer trying to convince the skeptics of the small, rural village that we cared enough about them to return. We were instead saying goodbye to our mothers who made sure we were showering and that we were warm enough at night. We were saying goodbye to our little brothers and sisters who taught us new words and showed us how to hunt for crabs. We were saying goodbye to our dads and mentors who taught us how to lay bricks and mix concrete.

We were also saying goodbye to some amazing cooks who now have a beautiful new community kitchen.

Needless to say, this trip has shaped the perspectives of everyone who participated. NU Visions Abroad is one of the major programs at Norwich offering these kinds of transformational life experiences. Since 2004, this club has also traveled to the Cook Islands, Vietnam, Tanzania and Nicaragua.

Applications are available for the December 2012 trip to Nicaragua. Stay posted for applications to the Spring 2013 trip to Haiti as well as other future trips.

Gina Fantoni is a junior in Norwich University’s undergraduate Architecture program from Derry, N.H., who joined two NU Visions Abroad trips to Thailand. This story originally ran in the Northfield News on Feb. 16, 2012.