“Doctor.” “Engineer.” “Swimmer.” “Nurse.” “Teacher.” “Football Player.” After the children warmed up to me a little bit, they took turns answering my question of what they wanted to be when they grow up. They all spoke softly but confidently, in English. I was visiting an orphanage near Insein, a small suburb of Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar. It was only my second day in the country, but I knew it would stand out.
I was there not as a tourist – it’s not an orphanage that allows travelers to come visit – but as a member of the Sundara team. Sundara is an organization with presence in India, Uganda, and Myanmar that takes soap from hotels and recycles it into new bars to donate and introduce hygiene programs where they are needed. In Yangon, much of the soap collected goes to the orphanage in Insein and is distributed throughout the neighborhood once it’s recycled.
This orphanage felt more like a family. When I first arrived, the children were pretty shy around me. I didn’t get the impression from walking around Insein that many travelers come to visit, and I’d imagine they don’t see many people who look like I do. I did not know much Burmese – just “hello”, “thanks”, and how to tell a restaurant that a meal was good – so I told them my name and asked their names and ages in English.
I told them I came from the United States. I held my hands in a sphere and pointed to where the United States would be and where Myanmar would be, to demonstrate that I’d come a long way to see them. Eventually they started asking me questions – important ones that I had to think about, like “What is your favorite flower?” and “What is your favorite sport?” I’d answered “running” for the last one, hoping they wouldn’t fact check me somehow and find out I’d only run twice in the last year.
We made new soap that day out of soap that was donated from hotels in Yangon. Think about when you go to a hotel for a night. You probably use the bar of soap to wash your hands three or four times and then check out. Most likely, you’re not taking that soap with you and it is thrown out. Hotels that work with Sundara donate that soap so that it can be recycled. Already just with that, Sundara is doing two things – reducing the amount of soap that ends up in landfills and providing it to those in need.
That morning, I saw the soap-making process for the first time, which is quite simple once there’s a good amount of donated soap to work with. First, the used bars are scraped of any outside parts that would have at some point touched skin. They are chopped into tiny pieces, cleaned (just to be extra sure) with sanitizing solution and water, and then placed into a bar press where the pieces are molded into a bar of soap. Sometimes flower petals or coffee beans are added for scent purposes. The bars that are created are dried in the sun, then chopped down smaller to make them more manageable for small hands.
The bars of soap are donated to schools, orphanages, medical centers, and more. Hygiene programs are introduced, and children are taught to wash their hands properly and given recommendations on when they should be washing up. The operation in Myanmar is newer and smaller at this time than the operations in India and Uganda. There, the bars of soap are also used as an incentive to have parents bring their children in to medical centers to get vaccinated or for the students to attend school everyday. Also elsewhere, underprivileged, local women are provided dignified jobs to manage the soap workshops.
Part of my job while I was in Myanmar was to meet with hotels. I met with many hotels in Yangon and Mandalay, some who were already donating soap to Sundara and some who were eager to get started. I also spoke at a Hotel Association Meeting in Mandalay in front of what seemed like 200 hospitality workers and a few members of the Myanmar Ministry of Hotels and Tourism. Being the only foreigner in the room and the first one to speak was a unique experience for me.
In Mandalay, the soap is donated to a monastery school that I had the pleasure of visiting. Every student attends for free, with hundreds living at the school, some who were displaced because of fighting in other regions in Myanmar or because of 2008’s Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster to ever hit Myanmar. Free medical care is provided to students and their families. Vocational programs include a woodshop, a sewing workshop, and a hospitality program.
The last Saturday I was in Myanmar, I attended a donation event with Chatrium Hotel Royal Lake Yangon and my other Sundara friends. Chatrium Hotel donated soap and tissue that was recycled from their leftover newspapers in the lobby to a monastery school outside of Yangon. Sundara demonstrated how to make soap and we all reviewed with the children how to wash our hands properly. I took tons of photos and videos that I hope to turn into something for Sundara, but I also took time to just hang out with the children.
Not a lot of the kids spoke much English, and I never learned much Burmese, so we just kinda chilled, saying “Hello! Mingalabar!” and giving each other peace signs and thumbs up. When I sat down on the floor, kids would rush over to me, grabbing my arm and having me point at posters on the wall, indicating for me to read the English words, which would make them giggle. They played with my ponytail and my jewelry and wanted to see what was on my camera and phone. I showed them Snapchat, using whatever filters were available that day, which they absolutely loved. Hearing their laughter to seeing their faces as puppies, deer, and bees was unforgettable.
I was already emotional knowing that I was leaving that week, but this event gave me an overwhelming feeling of joy. It was the same joy that I felt when I was in the Dominican Republic volunteering with the women at the paper recycling co-op, when it really hit me that this is what I should be doing with my life, at least at this moment. While I was with the children at the monastery school, I recognized the fact that I never had and never would have felt any amount of happiness close to this with any successes in my banking career. And getting confirmation that the biggest risk you’ve ever taken seems to have been the right decision (at least for your heart) is huge.
I’m so thankful for having this opportunity with Sundara and with Myanmar. I have many more ideas and much more work for this organization to do. I hope to stay involved and to experience their operations elsewhere.
> For more on Sundara or to donate (please donate!), please click here.
> For more posts about Myanmar, click here.