An Unlikely Foster Father Is Bringing Change to Myanmar
While Myanmar has been standing on democracy’s doorstep since its November elections saw landslide gains for the historically suppressed National League for Democracy party, the new government has decades of sanction-inducing behavior to reverse. The Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Myanmar among the top 20 most corrupt countries in the world. Following suit, the World Press Freedom Index places Myanmar’s press freedom 144th, mirroring its 141st GDP ranking.
But as high-ranking politicians and foreign interests scramble for a piece of Myanmar’s freshly baked democratic pie, countless unsung heroes continue working to make “the tropical East Berlin” one of Myanmar’s long-forgotten nicknames.
One of these unsung heroes is Jim Connor, and he’s a long way from his hometown in Pennsylvania.
When Connor was a teenager in Penn Wynne, Pennsylvania, his disenchantment with America’s public school system inspired him to explore an alternative education.
“When I was 15, I got into yoga, meditation, Buddhism, and being vegetarian, and I realized that life is kind of about being happy,” says Connor, now 43. “I hadn’t been happy, and I found the school system oppressive. I thought there must be some other way of teaching and learning, and I was set to find that.”
After graduating from Evergreen State College in Washington, where he created his own curriculum focusing on holistic childhood development, Connor began seriously considering becoming a foster parent.
“Adoption was expensive, and I started thinking that there are lots of kids who are stuck,” says Connor. “Instead of adopting one child for $50,000, I thought I could travel and take that and support a large number of kids.”
In 2004, Connor founded his NGO, Whispering Seed, and began caring for 25 children of sex workers on a 12-acre farm in Sangkhlaburi, Thailand, 10 miles from the Myanmar border. The children—many born in brothels, where AIDS, abuse, and malnutrition were common—previously had no access to health care or education.
For nine years, Connor cared for these children, and after nearly a decade, almost all were placed back with family members or caregivers deemed willing and able to support them.
Four Burmese children, however, were left with no one, so in January of 2013, Connor decided to move to Myanmar with these children to give them a fresh start in their native land.
For three years now, Connor and his kids, who range from 12 to 21, have lived like a proper family in Myanmar, and he’s turned his efforts to various education initiatives in addition to fighting for paperwork for three of his four children. His eldest received citizenship in early 2013.
“[My three youngest children] can get into government school, but it’s challenging. They’re not eligible for a national registration card, which would give them citizenship, allow them to own property, work, and vote,” explains Connor.
Working to give his children the life they were deprived of in Thailand while sticking to his long-held education values, Connor supports an array of engaging, interactive initiatives, for both children and adults, that take learning beyond textbooks and classrooms.
Through several organizations, such as the American Friends Service Committee, Connor takes monks on international exposure trips to places such as schools, hospitals, and rehab centers as well as microcredit unions to inspire them to spearhead sustainability enterprises in their slowly opening country.
Trained in earthen building, Connor is also facilitating the construction of 13 schools, including a heart-shaped kindergarten, in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State using permaculture, sustainable design, and international expertise.
“We’re teaching locals to develop vegetable gardens, compost pits, water catchments, fruit orchards and the like, which are all part of a school’s design,” says Connor. “We’re now bringing in people from Thailand and Indonesia to teach bamboo treatment.”
Looking to give teenagers the education he once longed for, Connor organizes workshops that expose them to creative, outside-the-box learning methods from around the globe. In November, he brought two international organizations, Play for Peace of India and the Brighten Foundation of New Zealand, together for a three-day interactive education workshop at a monastic school in rural Hopong.
“Jim is so effortlessly able to be a parent, be a friend with children,” says Agyatmitra, a Play for Peace facilitator who spent three weeks in Myanmar working with Connor. “The ease with which everything flows around when he’s with children is inspiring.”
Of all Connor’s projects, the one closest to both his home and his heart is the Sprouting Seeds Learning Center, set to open on Jan. 1, 2016. Located in his home in Kalaw, it is a vegetarian cafe, bakery, and ecoshop, which will be managed by his oldest daughter, 21-year-old Aye Aung.
“I feel excited and happy that I’m going to have my own shop and job,” says Aye Aung, whose specialties range from artisan vegetarian pizzas to traditional Burmese cuisine. “I hope everything goes well and that my shop gets famous.”