Every summer, Narissa Dalla goes to Thailand with her family. They visit her mother's relatives in Bangkok and then stay in her family's timeshare in Phuket, a popular beach town in southern Thailand where her father was born. In the summer of 2005, Dalla got to see a different side of Phuket.
"My dad's childhood friend Saroj said that he wanted to take me and my sister to see what the tsunami had done," said Dalla, who was 16 at the time.
Saroj picked the girls up at their Marriot timeshare and drove them a half hour away to the neighboring town of Khao Lak. The girls were shocked at the scene that lay before them.
"There was wood and debris all over the place," said Dalla. "It looked like no one had helped at all."
Saroj then took the two sisters to see a local school and orphanage that had been opened up by the King of Thailand as part of the tsunami reconstruction efforts. The school is called Rajaprajanugroh, which translates to "mutual help between the King and the people." Made up of several newly constructed buildings it seemed to have all the amenities one would expect.
"But once you go inside, it's completely different," said Dalla.
1200 students attend the school, with 400 of them residing there because they lost their parents to the tsunami, or because their parents simply cannot take care of them. However, only 15 full-time teachers work at the school, meaning that there is only one instructor for every 80 students. In addition, there is only one nurse and one gym teacher for the entire student body.
Dalla and her sister spent the day at the school, taking a tour and visiting with students. Since her sister speaks fluent Thai, they were able to learn that the students were very unhappy there and receive very little adult attention and guidance.
The girls also met with the headmistress of the school, Khun Jan. Dalla expressed interest in returning the following summer as a teacher volunteer, and Jan said the school could certainly use her help. The more Dalla thought about it, the more she wanted to assist the school.
AFTER the summer ended, Dalla started her junior year at Deerfield Academy, the boarding school she attends in Massachusetts. She wrote a proposal to Martha Lyman, Associate Head of Deerfield Academy, suggesting a "Tsunami Project" that would allow a certain number of students to travel to Khao Lak in the summer of 2006 to volunteer as teaching assistants at Rajaprajanugroh.
"I thought it sounded like a good project and she came in with a pretty well thought out idea," said Lyman. "She really put the whole thing together — she had the contacts in Thailand, she researched all the costs … this was one of the first, if not the first, times where a student has actually designed the whole project and then recruited a faculty member to go along. It was a pretty ambitious undertaking and Narissa was one hundred percent responsible."
Dalla gave a slideshow presentation to the student body at Deerfield Academy, detailing the destruction caused in Khao Lak by the tsunami. She invited her fellow students to apply for the Tsunami Project by writing an essay about why they wanted to volunteer.
Sophomore Kaitlin Fobare, 16, decided to apply for the program because she has a strong interest in community service and a desire to travel.
"It just seemed like the perfect fit," said Fobare, who is from Texas.
Twenty-five students applied and Dalla and Lyman selected 5 girls to go on the trip.
"It was actually really interesting because we ended up with girls from all over," said Dalla. "One was from Jamaica, one was from East Hampton , one was from Maine, one was from Texas and one was from North Carolina."
In addition, Deerfield English teacher Shannon Clark accompanied the girls as a teacher chaperone.
THE SIX GIRLS and their teacher left on June 5, 2006 and stayed in bungalows in Khao Lak until June 23. Before returning home, they also went on some sight-seeing tours in Bangkok. Fobare said that in the beginning the experience of volunteering in Khao Lak was "overwhelming." Prior to working at Rajaprajanugroh, the girls did construction work and helped to rebuild homes.
"That was pretty strenuous and difficult," said Fobare.
After a week of that, the girls moved over to work as teacher's aides at the school.
"We worked really long days and it was pretty sad," said Fobare. "There were definitely times when it was hard to keep going."
Fobare recalled one day when one of the girls in her class suddenly began to cry. When Fobare went up to her and asked her what was wrong, she just kept saying "tsunami" over and over again.
"I was just blown away and I started crying too," said Fobare.
She added that the poor teacher to student ratio made it difficult to keep an eye on all of the children.
"In the afternoons we would walk around and find so many classrooms with kids just running around in total chaos," said Fobare.
Teacher Shannon Clark was also struck by the lack of teachers.
"They're just so completely overwhelmed with an increase in student numbers since the tsunami," said Clark.
At Rajaprajanugroh, Narissa Dalla helped to teach the second grade, and also assisted with monitoring the pre-school children.
"It was very tiring," said Dalla. "When I got back to the bungalow at 4 p.m. I would pass out for two hours, but some days we would stay after and help out with extra-curricular activities … I used to play soccer so I spent a lot of time playing with the kids after school."
IT WAS during these sweaty soccer games that Dalla first found out about the water situation at Rajaprajanugroh.
"After soccer, the kids would take showers in this basin," said Dalla. "It's disgusting."
The basin is filled with contaminated water that is rarely changed. The water simply become filthier and filthier as the weeks wear on, forcing the children to bathe in a tub of germs. Not surprisingly, serious skin diseases are rampant.
"It's really terrible," said Fobare. "Every single day they use the same water, so it's not only dirty, but it's like a breeding ground for bacteria."
Dalla also discovered that the children are only rationed three small cups of water a day — even worse, their rations are dispensed from a canteen filled with contaminated water unfit for consumption. She and her friends would watch in horror as her students drank the polluted water everyday.
"The kids definitely seemed like they were dehydrated," said Fobare. "I would have bottled water and we would be outside playing and they would always want it ... they would have this one little cup of water that the teachers would pass around to all the students. It was so sad."
When she asked Jan about the water situation, she was told that there simply wasn't enough money to build a shower system. Dalla decided that she had to do something.
"Jan said they needed $10,000 to build a shower system, so I decided that I would go back to Deerfield and try to raise the money for next summer," said Dalla.
Having also witnessed the results of the contaminated water system, Dalla's classmates were eager to help. Since their return, Kaitlin Fobare has started a foundation to collect money.
Dalla will start her senior year at Deerfield Academy in September. She will spend the year helping to raise money for a shower system, and is handing the reins of Project Tsunami to Kaitlin Fobare. After she graduates, Dalla will travel to Khao Lak by herself to volunteer as a teacher before starting college. She hopes to major in International Development.
DALLA has lived in McLean her whole life, and said that seeing the living conditions in Khao Lak really opened her eyes to her own good fortune in life. It also helped her to forge a connection with her Thai heritage.
"I never really appreciated the culture until the summer of 2005," said Dalla. "Before that we would always go and just stay in a nice hotel and never see that side of Thailand … it's been a really good experience and I learned a lot about myself. I guess felt responsible for these children in a weird way."
Dalla's father, who is half Malaysian, half Indian, grew up in Phuket in poverty, and lost his parents when he was 12. Despite these hardships, he came to American and studied at Columbia, eventually going on to work for the World Bank. He is currently retired.
"I think I have a soft spot for the kids because of my dad and how he grew up," said Dalla. "The volunteer work helped me to embrace my culture."
Dalla said her mother is also thrilled that her daughter is becoming so involved with her roots.
"She is really excited for me to learn more about Thailand," said Dalla.
Kaitlin Fobare describes her volunteer work in Khao Lak as "one of the best experiences of my life."
"I learned how lucky I am, and I learned not to sweat the small stuff," said Fobare. "I also learned how to push myself more. I've always been able to push myself physically, but this time I had to push myself emotionally because people needed me to help."
One of Dalla's favorite students is a 9-year-old boy named Mos who she believes could go on to be as successful as her father.
"He's so smart, and he worked so hard for his age," said Dalla. "He really wanted to learn English. During recess he would come to me and ask me to teach him English instead of playing sports … he could do so much with his life if he wasn't there."
Mos lost his father to the tsunami, and frequently told Dalla that he missed his father and wanted to go to America. Before she left at the end of June, Dalla gave Mos a small key chain, and he wrote her a letter in Thai that said "I miss you, hope you're doing OK."
"When I hugged him goodbye I told him that it wasn't goodbye forever because I would be back next summer," said Dalla.