Penelope in northern Thailand
From North Yorkshire to Thailand
By Tim Dale
A personal loss led Penelope Worsley to create a charity that's bringing new life to the Karen people of northern Thailand.
Eighteen years ago Penelope Worsley's son, Richard, spent part of his gap year installing clean water systems and teaching children, with the Karen hilltribes in northern Thailand. The six months that Richard spent in Thailand meant so much to him that when he returned, he told his mother, that one day, she must try and do something to help them.
The hill tribes of northern Thailand
Much of the population of northern Thailand is composed of ethnic groups commonly known as 'hill tribes'. The Karen group is the largest numbering around 400,000 in Thailand, whilst a further eight million live over the border in Myanmar.
The tribe's history can be traced back to the twelfth century, it's believed they originally came from Tibet. They mainly live in the more remote mountainous areas, west of Chaing Mai, and are subsistence farmers living in small villages.
Richard went on to join the British Army, but was killed in a car crash in Germany in 1996. Three months after his death, the Karen people dedicated a water system to him in a remote village.
Penelope Worsley first visited the country in November 1997, to follow in the footsteps of her son. After seeing first-hand some of the great adversity which the Karen people face on a daily basis, she was inspired to help. The Karen Hilltribes Trust, dedicated to Richard's memory, was born in 2000.
Penelope admits that trying to create a new charity is tough, "It took a terrific amount of work. I had a background in fundraising but it was still an uphill struggle." As well as establishing the charity here in the UK, she also had to convince the Thai authorities of the merits of her proposals to set up a foundation in Thailand.
The Karen people live in remote villages and experience extreme weather conditions which can leave villages cut off for weeks during the rainy season. The villages are often many miles from the nearest hospital or secondary schools and there is no public transport. Many villages rely on the rivers for drinking water which leads to high levels of typhoid and other water borne diseases.
The aims of the Trust are simple, to enable the Karen people to help themselves. as Penelope explains, "We concentrate on areas that the Karen themselves say they need support with. We have three main aims; improving health, increasing educational opportunities and helping the Karen improve their incomes in a sustainable way." Penelope is keen for people to realise that the Trust isn't about just raising money or imposing their view of what the Karen people need, "We work alongside the Karen on projects that they believe will help. We want the Karen people to have more control of their lives."
Since the charity's creation, they have raised over £1.5 million. They are working in more than 300 villages and each year they send out 50 volunteers. Penelope says the volunteers come from all walks of life, "They may be students on a gap year, retired people or people wanting a career break." Volunteers raise the money for their time in Thailand themselves and, whilst in the country, are mainly employed working in schools and helping to build clean water systems.
The Karen Hilltribes Trust began with the tragic death of Richard Worsley, but Penelope has created a charity that is giving hope and new life to many.
last updated: 04/11/2008 at 15:44