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TOWNSHEND — "Thailand? Why would you take students to Thailand?" was the question posed when Florencio Ricohermoso, Middle School Math Teacher at Leland and Gray, first proposed leading a student trip to the exotic destination in Southeast Asia.

Nearly four years later and made possible by a Herculean fund raising effort, Mr. Rico, also known as Rence, led a group of nine students: two eighth graders, five freshmen, two sophomores and two other chaperones from Townshend to Bangkok. Immediately, upon arrival the group, led by EF Tours, diligently explored the countryside traveling north to Chiang Mai, visiting as many attractions and events as humanly possible in a 24-hour period along the way.

One of the students, Jacob Ameden, "felt that the trip was amazing and eye-opening. It really opened my eyes to how sheltered we are here in the U.S. The wildlife was diversified and the people were very friendly, all in all a great trip."

"Having this opportunity to see how life is on the other side of the world with my daughter, Michaela, was one I couldn't pass up," said Destiny Stillwagon. "The food, the people and the overall culture are truly memorable."

Ancient Buddhist temples dating back 1,000 years, The Grand Palace, an elephant sanctuary, crossing the bridge over The River Kwai, the floating market; travelling by bus, boat, train, plane, taxi and tuk tuk, eating deep-fried insects, celebrating the Water Festival and of course, shopping for souvenirs, are just a few of the major highlights of our action-packed trip. However, perhaps most important, was bringing students to The Sparrow Home, an orphanage for children whose parents are incarcerated, and a day-long visit filled with presentations, activities and interaction with the children/students at the K through 6 bilingual school Rence taught at nearly 10 years ago.

The motivation behind the trip is due to Rence having taught and lived in Thailand for about three years. The country has always held a special place in his heart and he has made concerted efforts to visit Thailand frequently over the years.

Possibly the most serendipitous moment and the culminating event of the entire trip would be a meeting with Annie Dieselberg, a native of Townshend and former student of Leland and Gray, who has lived in Thailand for the past 22 years and has been battling human trafficking and forced prostitution in Bangkok for the past 17 years. She heads a humanitarian organization called Night Light, which is dedicated to ending human trafficking by offering the women forced into prostitution alternative paths, council and jobs that help them develop skills and make an honest living.

"When I saw what modest homes people had (some even living in shacks) and the tiny run-down apartments people live in it really made me appreciate what I have here in America," said Alex Urbaska. "Overall, the country's unique environment, scenery, and people are what made this trip a life changing experience."

Talk about a small world. The visit was an uplifting and enlightening moment for students and adults alike. The experience is truly a testament to the fact that the Leland and Gray and Townshend communities may be small in size, but their reach is truly world-wide.


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Image 1 - Pung Waan Kwai Noi Resort, Kanchanaburi

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               left to right: Rence, Andrew, Breaden, Michaela, Siyanda, Jacob G. Jacob A. Zoie, Destiny, Quinn, Alex, Mack

Image 2 - Sukhothai Historical Park, the Ancient Capital of Thailand in the 13th Century. It is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

               left to right: Mack, Zoie, Siyanda, Michaela, Jacob G. Quinn, Destiny, Andrew, Breaden, Alex, Jacob A. Rence

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Image 5 - Sukhothai Historical Park, the Ancient Capital of Thailand in the 13th Century. It is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

               Front Row (L-R): Rence, Siyanda, Jacob G. Zoie, Andrew, Quinn

               Back Row (L-R): Destiny, Michaela, Jacob A., Braeden, Mack, Alex

Image 6 - Sparrow Home, a residential home for children whose parents are incarcerated. We brought school supplies and books and donated money for the kids.

Image 7 - A group selfie with the elephants.

Mack Neal is an English teacher at Leland & Gray Union High School.