Last summer, McLean native Narissa Dalla and five of her fellow students from Massachusetts boarding school Deerfield Academy spent three weeks volunteering as teaching assistants at Rajaprajanugroh — an orphanage and school in southern Thailand. This summer, Dalla returned to Rajaprajanugroh with her mother and her brother and was delighted to see that it was a vastly changed place from the one she left last year.
“The school is doing so well and it was great to be back,” said Dalla, 18. “When we drove up I didn’t even recognize it because it looked so different. Apparently, the King has been donating a lot more money to the school. The water system seems to be back on track, and the whole area seems to be rebuilding.”
Dalla, whose mother is Thai, first discovered the orphanage during a family vacation to Thailand in the summer of 2005. Rajaprajanugroh was founded by the King of Thailand to provide a school and home for children orphaned by the December 2004 Tsunami. Dalla was so moved by the plight of Rajaprajanugroh’s children, that she founded the “Tsunami Project” upon returning to Deerfield Academy for her junior year of high school.
"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 had actually designed the whole project and then recruited a faculty member to go along,” said Martha Lyman, Associate Head at Deerfield Academy.
TWENTY-FIVE students applied to participate in the Tsunami Project and Dalla and Lyman selected five to accompany Dalla and Deerfield English teacher Shannon Clark on the trip. During their stay the girls helped with construction and acted as teacher’s aides at the school. Dalla and the others were horrified by the children’s squalid living conditions and lack of clean water. The girls made it their goal to return to Deerfield and raise money for Rajaprajanugroh.
Kaitlin Fobare was one of the girls who accompanied Dalla on the summer 2006 trip to Thailand.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” said Fobare. "I learned how lucky I am, and I learned not to sweat the small stuff.”
Dalla, Fobare and several other students fund-raised in a variety of ways over the course of the past school year. Dalla said their Easter egg sale was particularly successful.
“A student could buy an egg and send it to a friend with a personal message inside,” said Molly Muller, one of the Deerfield Academy students who traveled to Thailand with Dalla the previous summer. “A few of the other ‘Tsunami Girls’ and I sat outside of our dining hall and sold these eggs to people on their way to meals.”
Muller she knew she wanted to help with fundraising efforts after returning from her 2006 trip to Thailand.
“After working with the kids there, and seeing the condition they were living in, I knew I needed to try to make a difference in their lives,” said Muller. “I have always been handed things, and I really feel like because I have been so fortunate, I need to help those who are in need.”
Dalla said she and the other girls were able to collectively raise approximately $2,500.
“Kaitlin raised about $1,000 by herself at home in Texas,” said Dalla. “We were able to contribute to a security guard fund and to individual children's funds. Most of it went to Mos so he has money when he leaves school.”
Mos, one of Dalla’s favorite students from the previous summer, lost his father in the tsunami and frequently told Dalla that he wanted to move to America.
"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."
Dalla was pleased to discover that her favorite student had not forgotten her.
“It was so great when walked in and Mos remembered me,” she said.
Dalla would have liked to have stayed at Rajaprajanugroh and volunteered this summer, but family obligations and a job as a tennis instructor at Madeira’s Camp Greenway prevented her from having the time to do so. However, she will start as a freshman at the College of William & Mary this fall and hopes to continue her Project Tsunami efforts there.
“But right now, all they really need is teachers,” said Dalla. “I’d like to maybe start a project at William & Mary, or if not, do fundraising for teacher’s salaries. Most of their teachers right now are still based on volunteers, but either way I want to go back. I think I’m going to go back every year.”