Campus Couple’s Volunteer Efforts Continue In ThailandPublished: November 15, 2010
A CSULB couple planted the university banner in Thailand this summer as part of their Medical, Psychosocial and Educational (MPE) Volunteer Program. Paul Ratanasiripong of Advanced Studies in Education and Counseling and his wife, Nop, an associate director of Student Health Services at CSULB, pooled their resources this summer for their fifth trip to the Southeast Asian nation.
MPE’s mission is to provide medical, psychosocial and educational assistance to the poor and disadvantaged villagers in remote parts of Thailand. The couple founded the MPE Program in 2004 and Paul has been its program director. Since its inception, it has served several thousand villagers from more than 20 villages in Thailand including the northeastern corner and the northern border.
“The program name may not be pretty but it describes very well what we do,” said Paul, who first joined the university in 2006 as associate director of Counseling and Psychological Services before becoming director in 2007. He moved to ASEC as associate professor in 2008. “We offer medical help to villagers who live far from Thailand’s capital city of Bangkok. The northeastern part of Thailand is the nation’s poorest section as well as its most neglected.”
Nop is an educator and nurse. Paul comes to CSULB after serving as a clinical psychologist at UC Davis for nine years and as founder of the UC Merced counseling center. He received his Ph.D. from The Wright Institute, a clinical psychology graduate school in Berkeley; and a B.A. in economics from UC Berkeley.
When they visit Thailand, the couple offers a variety of free medical services including health check-ups, pre-natal care, blood glucose testing, minor surgery and reading glasses. “We take care of villagers from the cradle to the grave,” he said. They also bring U.S. volunteers including a nurse-midwife, a pediatric nurse, an emergency room physician as well as pre-med students and local volunteers. “We all meet in the local school that serves as a community center,” he explained. “As farmers, the local villagers have plenty of back aches and knee pains. Their poverty makes food expensive. They grow plenty of rice, but meat and fish are costly. Instead, they eat a lot of salted food and that salt causes high blood pressure. For that, we offer health education.”
Paul coordinates the group’s travel and finances. “I make sure everything flows,” he said. “I obtain medical donations from drug companies. If a particular drug expires in six months, those drugs are often donated to such groups as ours. I also work with wholesale pharmacies to obtain local medications.”
The MPE Volunteer Program is a largely homegrown effort. “Currently, we fund it with our own money,” he said. “We see it as part of giving back to the community. If we pack our lunches and not go out to eat for a year, that can go a long way. It is easy to take for granted in a university setting what it is like to live life in the village with the equivalent of a third-grade education. That makes it more inspiring to see kids in Thailand who want an education and we urge them to pursue that.” The program also offers educational scholarships to help kids obtain at least a high school diploma to improve their chances of career success and reduce the chances of them getting into the infamous sex industry in Thailand.
Feedback from the villagers has been positive. “The kids love it especially,” he recalled. “Local villagers squeeze 30 preschool kids into a small pickup truck to come for the free check-ups.” In addition, the program provides school kids with fluoride treatment, lice treatment, worm treatment, health education, English classes and funding for after-school programs.
The MPE Volunteer Program seemed too good to be true to the villagers at first, Paul recalled. “Strangers giving away free medicine and medical care? We were accompanied everywhere by an armed guard in 2004,” he said. “But after that first visit, the guard disappeared. We earned the villagers’ trust with such simple things as how we treated the kids. When we asked the villagers if we could return, they asked what we needed and how could they help.”
Pre-check-up publicity could be simple but effective. “Our visits were announced on village loudspeakers including the suggestion that the villagers not eat before their check-ups,” he said. “I remember being awakened at 5 in the morning during one visit by the loudspeakers’ announcement that today was the day the MPE Volunteer Program would come. We got up and helped. They’re farmers, so they’re early risers.”
Ratanasiripong derives plenty of satisfaction from his volunteering. “We don’t ask anything from the Thai people,” he said. “It is just the joy of serving and living our lives with a purpose. That’s the exciting part.” In addition to serving the villagers, he also carved out time to help with the health and mental health issues of college students in Thailand through his research activities. In the past two years, he has published eight manuscripts in peer-reviewed journals on health and mental health issues of college students in the U.S. and Thailand.
He encourages other faculty members to make a similar commitment to community outreach. “What looks like a big project at first should be taken one step at a time,” he said. “Do it in small steps. Just make that one phone call or that one connection. After a few phone calls to like-minded individuals, you find people who want to be part of the plan.”