Lauren Dekleva
Lauren Dekleva
Thailand 2017
S̄wạs̄dī! My name is Lauren Dekleva, and I am traveling to Chiang Mai, Thailand where I will intern with Urban Light, an anti-trafficking NGO that restores and empowers boys who work in the red light district. At Urban Light, I will teach ESL classes, lead life-skills workshops, assist with social media marketing, and support case workers.

In brief – my first two weeks at Urban Light

It’s difficult to know where to begin, because the last few weeks have been such a whirlwind!

On Tuesday, June 11th, I officially began my internship at Urban Light. My first day began with a short ride in the CCT van, and when I got to the Urban Light Youth Center (ULYC) a little after 10am, the staff was just starting to arrive (that’s something to note about the culture in Thailand – everyone runs on “Thai time,” or anywhere from 10-45 minutes late. As a person who is perpetually late, it works just fine for me!). When Alex, the founder of Urban Light, arrived, she conducted an orientation for me and discussed the history of Urban Light, introduced me to the staff (there are 11 people on the staff, and besides Alex, they’re all Thai!) and the other current intern Zuzu, went over my tasks and responsibilities, and informed me of the daily schedule.


Each day, the staff and I arrive around 10am, and it’s usually pretty quiet at the center until noon, when lunch is served. Everyone eats together family style, and you know when it’s ready: the boys come up to the office saying gin kao, gin kao (let’s eat!). After lunch, it’s time for workshops, lessons, games, programming, or anything to interact with the boys and keep them engaged. So far, I’ve played UNO with them (they love UNO soooo much! One boy in particular would play all day if you’d let him!), and a few games of ping pong. So far, there hasn’t been much programming – Alex was telling me it’s difficult to get a consistent program rolling, because the boys usually won’t participate for long unless it’s really fun and interesting. Around 4pm, things quiet down again until the center closes at 5pm.

Of course, this schedule is not a hard and fast rule (with the exception of lunch!). Since the ULYC is a drop-in center, every day is different. Some days, it’s loud and crazy with boys everywhere – playing games and guitar, watching movies, and listening to music. Some days, all they want is a hot meal, a shower, and a place to rest. Being adaptable, flexible, and able to tune into their moods and needs is key.

So far in my internship, I’ve:

  • shadowed Zuzu, the other intern. She’s awesome, and we get along really well. She’s also great at engaging the boys, so I’ve learned a lot from watching her. For example, the best way to interact with the boys is a delicate balance of persistence and doing your own thing. Sometimes, if you want to involve a boy in a lesson or activity, you have to enthusiastically pester him and take charge of the moment until he’s engaged. Other times, it’s best to relax and do your own thing: start an art project or play the guitar, and eventually, if they’re interested, the boys will join you. Again, it’s all about learning to read the situation!
  • helped Zuzu with her greeting card project. Right now, we’ve just finished designing and painting holiday and greeting cards with one of the boys. We’re planning on selling them to generate income for Urban Light.
  • started to build relationships with UL’s participants through games of ping pong and UNO and my favorite, a guitar/ukulele jam session! It’s definitely taken some time for the boys to get used to me, but I’m starting to earn their trust. Every time they ask me to play a game or listen to music, it’s a little victory. One boy even insisted on walking me part of the way home this week!
  • began brainstorming and implementing the social media part of my role. I’m enjoying coming up with ideas for content development and generating awareness online, and am so excited to use my communications experience in this way. Alex and I have also started talking about her ideas for a social enterprise project, which I’ll start assisting her with soon.

I’ve learned a lot so far. But, as one would expect, there have also been significant challenges and moments of discouragement as well. However, even though I’ve felt lost and inadequate at times, I’m trying to give myself the space and grace to settle into the role. And truly, I have such an incredible support network here! The staff at UL and CCT are amazing and have done so much to encourage and prepare me.

My biggest challenges so far have been:

  • the language barrier. Oh yeah. This is definitely top of the list. For one, it’s difficult to form relationships with the participants at UL when you can’t communicate clearly.  I want so badly to connect with them in a meaningful way, but I need to learn more Thai. I’m trying not to get discouraged because I know it’s a process and every day, I learn something new. I’ve made flashcards for words and phrases, so I can say hello and thank you and how are you? and what’s your name? I can even play UNO in Thai! And there have been funny moments too. On my third day, I said hello to a boy in Thai and he responded with “you say that a lot...” (Zuzu translated). I was bummed for a moment, but he was right! And it motivated me to learn some new phrases.
  • my name. Turns out, Lauren is really hard for the boys to say. So, I’ve started introducing myself to them as Lo, one of my nicknames back home.
  • finding my niche. Since, I often can’t use words to engage the boys, I have to figure out other ways to interact. Painting is good, and so are UNO games, but as I mentioned, I recently played music with a few of the boys and it was a blast! I just played along on a uke while they played guitar and sang in Thai, and it was great. So, maybe that’s my niche :) To be determined.
  • the greeting card project. I’m seeing firsthand some of the challenges of workforce development social enterprises! For example, we were on a schedule to get the cards done by a deadline, but the boy who worked with us had a lot of important things to worry about, so it was tricky to find the time to work on them with him. In addition, it was hard to communicate, given the language barrier, exactly what we wanted the cards to look like, and then to give feedback and edits after the fact. But, it all worked out, and we ended up with some beautiful cards to sell. He is super sweet, great to work with, and a very talented painter.

One last bit – I’ve had some other adventures the past few weeks! I visited Pai (a hippie/expat village in the mountains), went to Mukata (mostly a local place that has Mongolian-style bbq), shopped in a local mall (and realized how much more expensive the markets can be), tried to speak in Thai at the market (before realizing it didn’t matter because I couldn’t understand people’s responses), took a Thai cooking class, and found a way to stream the new Game of Thrones season with my roommates at the volunteer house.

My first week in Chiang Mai

After about 36 hours of travel, I touched down in Chiang Mai. After months of preparation, it was incredibly surreal to actually be in the city. I was definitely a bit nervous when I arrived, but after a weekend of adventuring around the city, catching up on sleep, and getting to know the other volunteers, I began to feel right at home. I began on Monday with an orientation with Wad, the executive director of Cultural Canvas Thailand (CCT), and a few other new volunteers. We went to a cute coffee shop and drank Thai tea while he welcomed us to the country and discussed the program and our accommodations. He also talked about the incredible things to do in Chiang Mai and Thailand, which got me very excited for all the exploring ahead!

My placement with Urban Light begins today (or tomorrow, depending on where in the world you’re reading this), so in the meantime, I’ve been volunteering with CCT’s organization, Art Relief International (ARI). CCT/ARI partners with organizations and schools all around Chiang Mai to provide art workshops and activities. The purpose of each workshop depends on the needs of the recipient. CCT/ARI truly covers a huge spectrum, doing everything from creative English lessons with young temple school students to music/art therapy projects with adults with disabilities. You can read more about their programs on their blog.

After a brief orientation on Tuesday, the new ARI volunteers and myself jumped right into assisting the other volunteers with their workshops. On Wednesday, we made paper plate jellyfish at Hope Home, an orphanage for children with disabilities. I paired up with a boy who has cerebral palsy who generally only has motor control over his feet. He was very sweet and had a great sense of humor. We had a lot of fun as he painted his jellyfish (and occasionally some of the other children!) with his toes. On Thursday, we went to a temple school, Baan King Kaew, where the students made popsicle stick puppets with us until their parents picked them up. Each student chose from a list of ten jobs (doctor, dancer, police officer, etc.) to base their puppet on, and then had to write the English word for it on the stick. They seemed to enjoy the activity, but the language barrier definitely made it challenging to communicate. On Friday, we went to another temple school, Wat Pa Pao, and had the students create an island scene using English vocabulary. In the afternoon, we did an art project at Healing Families, an organization that provides a space for adults with disabilities to learn, grow, and have fun. They’re also a social enterprise, weaving clothing to sell to support the organization! For our art project, we each painted a piece of a larger portrait to put together at the end for a full picture. The people were very kind and affectionate, and had a lot of fun designing their own piece of the puzzle.

Volunteering with ARI for the week was a great introduction to Chiang Mai and the wonderful work taking place here. Some other interesting lessons of the past week included:

  • The language. I knew Thai was a tonal language, but didn’t know exactly what that meant until my first Thai lesson. Essentially, the inflection you use when pronouncing a word (medium, high, low, rising, or falling) changes the meaning of the word completely and IT IS SO HARD. There was about two seconds at the beginning of the lesson, when our teacher had us sing “doh re mi” to find the medium tone, that I thought “oh! Tonal is like singing! I can sing! I’m gonna be fine.” NOPE. I was terrible. It is so hard to hear the pitches. Literally, you can say the same word, but the different tones change the meaning entirely. For example, the Thai word glai with a medium tone means far, and glai with a falling tone means near. One tonal mistake could lead to a substantial miscommunication!
  • The wai. This is how Thais respectfully greet or thank each other in Thailand. To wai, put your hands together in a sort of “prayer” position, and bow your head. The angle that you bow and the placement of your hands (forehead, nose, chin, or chest) varies depending on who you are greeting. The highest level of respect is shown to the Buddhist monks.
  • Which side of the road? In Thailand, they drive on the left side of the road, which has been quite an adjustment for me!
  • Pricing. The US dollar is strong in Thailand, so compared to American prices, things are really cheap. However, I’ve already started “thinking like a Thai person” and bargained for lower prices or decided against purchasing something because it cost 100 baht (the equivalent of about $3).

All in all, it’s been an amazing first week in Chiang Mai. I am so excited to spend the next six months here, absorbing the Thai culture. In addition to all the learning, I’ve gotten a Thai massage (it was actually rather painful... they do not hold back!), pet a tiger, ziplined through the jungle, shopped at the night bazaar, got sick from eating raw vegetables, got sick from riding in a car up the winding mountain, got sick from riding in a van through the winding city streets, talked with a Buddhist monk, finally saw Wonder Woman in the cinema (with Thai subtitles), went to church on the back of my friend’s motorbike, visited some amazing temples (including Wat Phra That, the temple at the peak of Doi Suthep mountain. My Thai teacher said if you haven’t visited Wat Phra That, you haven’t been to Chiang Mai! We went at sunrise, and it was absolutely stunning.), bought a Thai cell phone, made friends from all over the world, ate several kinds of incredible Thai food that I’m still learning to call by the correct name, used the “hot water machine” in our volunteer house to shower, and lived without air conditioning in a very hot and humid climate. I am loving it here and can’t wait to begin my work at Urban Light today. I’ll check back soon! Kawp koon ka (thank you) for reading!

Getting ready to go!

Let’s do this thing!

สวัสดี ค่ะ! <— That, pronounced Sa-wat-dee ka, means hello (and goodbye!) in Thai. Sa-wat-dee is the actual greeting, and ka is the suffix attached to indicate gender. Females use ka whereas males use krab. Additionally, Thai, as one of the oldest Easter Asian languages, is monosyllabic and tonal. The entire meaning of a word is different based on which tone – high, mid, low, rising, or falling – you use. And all of this comes into play when just giving a greeting! It’s clear just from scratching the surface that the Thai language is unique, complex, and is going to be a challenge to use, but I’m looking forward to learning.

Saying hello is just one of the many things I’ve learned as I’ve prepared for my journey abroad. Other tidbits: you can contract very scary-sounding diseases like chikungunya and Japanese encephalitis from contact with mosquitos; you have to mail your actual passport across the country to apply for a visa; and I can, in fact, squeeze all of my possessions into a four-door sedan (I recently made the drive from Nashville to Albuquerque).

To catch you all up to speed, I depart on Wednesday, June 28th (in just 8 days!) to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I will be working with Urban Light, an organization that provides life-changing services to young male victims of human trafficking and exploitation in the region. I will be serving as the full-time Education, Advocacy, and Social Marketing intern. As such, I will be assisting the organization with services and advocacy by teaching English and conducting life skills workshops, managing and maintaining UL’s social media accounts, fundraising, and helping case managers.

The last six months have been filled with tons of general life transition. In December, shortly after I received the Lumos Award, I graduated from Belmont University with a BA in Social Entrepreneurship. In January, I began working full-time in communications at Social Enterprise Alliance, an organization that seeks to equip and empower social enterprises across the United States. And last week, my life in Nashville came to a close (for now!) as I said goodbye to my home, my dear friends, my church, my beloved Chagos, and my team of girl bosses. My dad and I packed up my car and drove across the country to my hometown of Albuquerque, NM, where I’ll be until I leave.

On the preparation front, I’ve booked my flights, downloaded Memrise’s Thai course, volunteered in an ESL classroom, bought way too much travel gear on Amazon (like, do I need six packets of oral rehydration salts? Stay tuned to find out, I guess!), and started reading books like “Working at the Bar: Sex Work and Health Communication in Thailand.” I’ve gotten all the necessary vaccinations, navigated the process for my volunteer visa, ordered foreign currency (the Thai baht) and photos of friends and family, learned how to avoid mosquitos, and stocked up on contact lenses. In short, I am ready to do this thing!

2017 has been completely crazy so far, and it’s about to get even wilder! But through all the uncertainty and insecurity that comes with transitioning into “the real world,” thinking about this journey has always made me feel more like myself than I’ve felt in awhile. I’m sure I’ll have moments of fear and thoughts of what the heck made me think I could do this, but at this point, I feel nothing but excitement and joy. I cannot wait to learn and grow, make new friends, haul my camera and ukulele across the world, serve an amazing cause and organization, focus on my life’s purpose, and learn what it means to truly depend on my faith. I’m even looking forward to the hard stuff: fumbling my way through conversations in Thai, times of loneliness and solitude, and dealing with situations that put my strength to the test.

I can hardly believe it. I’ve been working towards this adventure my entire life, and now I’m actually here, standing on the edge of the unknown, about to dive in.

Stay tuned!