Angels in Isan: A Profile

Meet Brother John Middlewood, a quiet hero of Nakhon Phanom Province. He works actively with North by North East Tours to provide relief aid and volunteers to rural areas in the province. John also helps coordinate the Thailand-Laos-Cambodia Brotherhood's philanthropic activities. The TLCB is an organization of veterans who were stationed in the aforementioned countries during the Vietnam War. Now they are resolved in helping to make a difference in these affected areas.

1. Many westerners live in Thailand, but few live in Isan. Fewer still ever involve themselves so deeply in the local community. Why are you in Thailand, and why did you choose specifically to live in Isan?

I am here in Thailand and specifically in Isan because this is where God has sent me to be. I believe he began preparing me to come back to Nakhon Phanom when I made my first trip here from 1969-1973.

Tranquil Isan

Actually, I wear three hats here in Nakhon Phanom. First, and most importantly, I am an independent missionary serving God in a small mission with about 10 adults and 25-30 children. Our children's mission programs are the most important to me. Second, I am the representative in Nakhon Phanom for TLCB (Thailand Lao Cambodia Brotherhood), and organization made up of about 400 members who are interested in helping children here in Nakhon Phanom. Through this organization, we provide about 70,000 baht in assistance to a variety of programs every month now. We serve 8 village elementary schools and one high school. At the elementary level we feed 30 children each month directly, provide for school clothes, shoes, health needs, school supplies and equipment and other items that will help the children at school. Beginning this year in addition, we provide scholarships for 8 high school students and 8 college students. Without our assistance, it is quite probable that these students would not be able to continue their education. The scholarship program is conducted through the generous support of TLCB members volunteering to accept responsibility for a specific student for one year. To date TLCB has contributed approximately 4,000,000 baht. My third hat is as representative for Omnimed, a group of medical professionals dedicated to providing support to third world countries. This program has been in Nakhon Phanom for a little over three years now. They provide medical teams to treat patients and educate both the local population and health care professionals here. To date Omnimed has contributed approximately 4,000,000 baht and is planning another trip for 2006 will bring in another 4,000,000 baht in assistance.


2. Learning Isan culture & language, eating Isan cuisine, and following Isan customs does not always come easily to a westerner. What, in your long experience, do you find most charming about Isan? What do you find difficult to adjust to?

I have been living according to Thai and Isan customs now for about 40 years. My first wife was Thai, so we took the customs and traditions back to the United States with us. I was also an informal counselor for Thai/Lao students and families for about 25 years while I was living in the Los Angeles area. As a westerner, probably the hardest thing to adjust to is "mai bpen rai" which means, basically, it doesn't matter. I love the Isan people, the safety of Nakhon Phanom, the reasonable prices here and the good feelings I receive from everyone I meet.

"Mai Bpen Rai" Means Never Mind

3. From US Military to becoming a man of God is a big step. Why did you join the ministry?

I was a practicing Thai Buddhist for about 25 years and came to the point of realization that I was not getting anywhere, and in fact, my life was going from bad to worse. I turned everything over to God and since then everything has been going upward. I felt I had a message to show and tell the people of Thailand about Christ and at first expected to be near Chiang Mai. After a year in that area, I felt called to return to Nakhon Phanom, where God also provided me with a second wife.

4. Why help the people of Isan? And how does this fit with your 'mission in life?'

My mission in life now is to try and show other people the love God has given me and to help them understand that God can help them, no matter what the problem. The Isan people took very good care of me 30 or so years ago, and I didn't do a whole lot to help them then but I think I can now. The province of Nakhon Phanom is at the bottom of most of the statistical reports. The children here need help and I want to try and help them improve their future.

5. You have in the past worked with the US veterans group called the Thailand Lao Cambodia Brotherhood (TLCB) on a number of projects providing direct benefit to children in this province. What is your relationship with TLCB? What work have you done together? What do you plan in the future?

I have worked directly with TLCB now for over 4 years, We have worked on a variety of projects, all directed at improving the status of children. We have placed fans in schools (almost 200), we have fed hundreds of children over the past 4 years, we provide desks, chairs, sports equipment, notebooks, pencils, paper, other school materials, clothes, shoes, dining tables, cement slabs for dining areas, etc. We have sent 2 very young students to Khon Kaen for successful heart surgery and now provide opportunities for students to continue their education with educational scholarships. As an independent missionary, I receive no financial support, so all of our funding depends on outsiders helping. TLCB is currently made up of members who are in their 50's, 60's and 70's. I am 65 now. It is hard to say what the future holds for us or the programs here or how long they will continue.

Thanks TLCB!

6. What would you like to do in the future? Any dreams vis-a-vis this grass-roots assistance work?

Current future plans would include a complete, up-to-date computer lab and sound lab for our village high school to include distance learning, computers for the elementary schools. Increasing the number of scholarships available would provide motivation for students who see no way to go beyond 9th grade because of funds. A steady stream of folks wanting to assist in teaching English would be a great blessing. Teachers to assist are needed both in the elementary and high school. We especially need experienced teachers of ESL to teach teachers. Funds to provide materials for villagers to make repairs to school buildings are an important item. Many villagers are willing and able to assist in school projects, but funds are not available to purchase the materials. These kinds of projects also let the villagers feel an ownership relationship in the school.

7. Describe the future you imagine for the people of Isan. Can projects into which you pour so much energy influence this? If so, how?

My dream would be to see everyone in Nakhon who wants to work to be able to work here in Nakhon Phanom and not have to travel to Bangkok or overseas to work. This means drawing businesses to Nakhon Phanom to establish factories, etc. in this area. Some of this is already in progress. The importance of English needs to be stressed, beginning with children in Kindergarten and avenues provided for students to learn and practice English. Funding is needed to allow students to continue education, whether trade school, jr. college or university. This currently is a major factor in this area. Parents need to be educated about the importance of education and encouraged to support their children and take a more active role in school themselves. I believe that projects that will help students benefit themselves are always worthwhile, even though the results may not be seen for several years. Encouragement and faith in a child can make up for a lot of problems and help students to continue to strive when they want to give up. Giving the students a reason to learn will motivate them. Foreigners who come here showing an interest in the students, I believe, is one of the greatest motivators there is.

A Volunteer Helping a Village School

8. What are some of the biggest obstacles your projects face? And what needs are most pressing?

I believe the biggest obstacle to overcome is the "mai bpen rai" attitude mentioned earlier. If Isan is going to improve it will take discipline and responsibility on the part of the people, and that means today's students. The adult population, for the most part, appears to have much the same attitude they had 30 years or so ago. As much as I would like Nakhon Phanom to remain a quiet, little known, out of the way place; for the sake of the children, it cannot remain so. Land is disappearing and parcels passed on to children are becoming smaller and smaller. In some cases there is no land for parents to pass on to their children. The younger generations will not be able to remain rice farmers and expect to raise a family. Many families are already realizing this fact. Attitudes will have to change. First, the importance of knowledge and education being a life-long process must be understood. Second, the ability to think and make responsible decisions must be taught. During my 5 years so I have taught well over 400 students for various amounts of time. I have proven that as attitudes change, children can succeed. The number of students TLCB is sponsoring this year, I believe, is a result of that teaching. We need more of it.

9. What can those volunteering on one of your projects expect to work at? How can they volunteer?

There are a wide variety of projects available for those who are interested. For most short-term workers on site, they can expect to work in classes ranging from kindergarten through grade 12 in high school. They can expect to work from one or two hours a week to 20-30 hours a week, depending upon their desires. They will be working in relatively rugged conditions because all of my sites are located outside established towns. All of our projects are located within a 8 to 40 km range of the town of Nakhon Phanom. They can expect to find very little English at use at the school site but lots of folks that want to learn.

Those interested in English programs should contact North by North East Tours. At least a 2 month lead time is highly recommended. Each individual will be matched to their specific abilities and interests, if possible. Work will depend on individual qualifications.

A Volunteer Doctor Aiding Locals

For those interested in medical work, I would strongly recommend they contact Dr. Kathy Morley with Omnimed in Boston, Massachusetts. Omnimed regularly sends doctors, dentists and optometrists to volunteer their services in Isan. They have been working with me now for over three years and have the best experience in this area. Special requirements and permission must be obtained prior to medical personnel coming into Thailand to work. Lead time on these kinds of projects is 6 months from the time I have all required paperwork in my hands.

Those who wish to make financial donations to help support various programs can contact John Sweet, Director of Assistance through the TLCB website (http://www.tlc-brotherhood.org). General support can be provided. The assistance committee decides what projects are supported by this fund. Those interested in sponsoring specific students need to talk to John Sweet about those projects. In this area we try to match a student with sponsor that is interested. For example, some sponsor college students and some sponsor high school students.

10. Anything else you'd like to say to our readers, John?

Thank you for your patience in reading all this and may God Bless you in all you do.