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I work for Seventh Generation, one of the founding members of the Whole Planet Foundation Supplier Alliance for Microcredit, an alliance of like-minded companies who provide funding for microcredit projects worldwide. So when I had the opportunity to begin working with Whole Foods in my current role, I was thrilled to begin working with the Whole Planet Foundation as well.
It's the mission of Whole Planet Foundation® (WPF) to empower the poor through microcredit in communities that supply Whole Foods stores with products. Whole Foods sources products from more than 100 countries around the world. The poverty in many of these countries is overwhelming, but through microcredit loans poor women in many communities are able to create or expand home-based businesses and lift themselves and their families out of poverty.
Each year, Whole Planet Foundation (WPF) invites members of the Supplier Alliance to go into the field to visit microcredit clients (3 cities in Thailand, in this case) and see how a simple investment in their lives has generated abundant results and prosperity for them and their families and villages. This was my first big international trip (and certainly my first time to the other side of the planet!), so I wanted to share a bit of what I saw and experienced while I was in Thailand.
The most incredible experience from my trip was my time spent with the microcredit clients. We drove into these villages and as we did, what I saw out of my window was some of the most beautiful landscapes I had ever seen - which stood in stark contrast to the abject poverty in which many of the villagers live. As we unloaded in the first village, I wasn't sure what to expect. We unloaded and what I saw was that we were guests of honor for the day! We filed into the community building and the village leaders and credit clients shared stories with us about how the investments they had received had been used and how their lives had been changed. Some of the women had been able to invest in beads and as a result were making beaded crafts that they were then able to sell in local markets or in the large weekend market in Bankok. A few of the clients had been able to move into farming (and several of us were able to eat their rice and bananas - delicious). One woman had built a loom and had begun weaving silk into cloth. Regardless of what category of commerce they were engaging in, the common thread was that they were now able to manage their own small businesses and the resulting income was beginning to change their lives.
Some other stand-out experiences include:
The FOOD! I had read horror stories about people falling ill while travelling, so I packed a bunch of Clif bars and braced myself for the worst. However, the food was amazing! While the restaurants we ate at were great, the best food I had was prepared for the team by our local hosts. The rice and fresh vegetables and curries were delicious - and I even tried a new fruit. It opened up and tasted a little like a fleshier version of a grape inside - yum! Tamarind and lychee were also new favorites.
The HIKE! On our last day in Chiang Mai, we went as a team on a hike up to a village. The hike was quite an adventure, through cornfields, across thatch bridges and logs. It got even more exciting when we discovered that the road we were supposed to walk along had washed away in the recent rains! So we hiked along (and sometimes THROUGH) the river to an incredible village on the side of the mountain to meet some of the most gracious hosts I have even encountered.
The SILK! I have to be honest - I had never given a moment's thought as to how silk was made. In one of the villages we visited, one of the clients not only wove incredibly beautiful fabrics from silk, but also made the silk herself. They raised the silkworms (yellow pods), harvested the silk, washed and dyed it and then wove it on a massive loom that they had made themselves. Talk about scrappy ingenuity!
The ELEPHANTS! I can't begin to tell you what a wild experience it was to see elephants "out and about" (read: not in a zoo). We saw a few walking along the side of the road - and I even got to climb atop one of the villager's pet elephants.
The FRIENDS! I wasn't sure what to expect when I signed-up to travel with a group of people I had never met before. It really felt a bit like freshman orientation week before you go off to university. We shared some incredible experiences together and became "thick as thieves" by the end of the week.
Thailand is truly a developing nation, a place where families live in simple huts (which are often on stilts) with livestock milling around. It is a place where even the locals won't drink any running water they have access to and bathrooms are... rudimentary at best. They live very simply in most of the country in what most Americans would consider impoverished conditions. However, the work that WPF is doing (supported by an entire network of suppliers, stores and customers) is changing lives.
What I saw that was the most amazing (and what I still see when I remember my trip) is the hope in the eyes of the adults and children - something that really resonated with me as a parent. These are people and parents who were not sure how they would be able to care for their families. Now they have businesses and are able to sell their wares and improve the quality of life for their families. These mothers and fathers were grinning ear-to-ear as they told us (through translators) about the changes that had taken place in their families and villages and their hope for even better futures for themselves and their children. The children looked at their parents with smiles as we were introduced to them which really added another layer of richness to this experience. There is no greater treasure that can be bestowed upon a child than the gift of hope - hope for a better life and maybe even more opportunities.