Seeking Wisdom Through Service: A Week at Yaowawit School


This year I along with new teaching partner Bridget Rowe returned for a second year to southern Thailand for a weeklong visit to Yaowawit, a school established for tsunami survivors in 2006 and now inclusive of disadvantaged children in Phang Nga Province.  Last year’s trip was certainly a success (see a blog entry here about this trip).  However, my personal goal this year was to increase student reflection.  Last year’s journal writings were adequate, but relatively uninspiring in comparison to other service-learning experiences.  Oddly, it felt as if the experience was “too positive;” the happy, family-like environment of Yaowawit didn’t seem to provide that “disorienting dilemma” starting point in comparison to orphanage experiences in China or Mother Teresa’s homes in India.  I asked if the resourceful program directors at Yaowawit could provide some off-campus experiences with Burmese communities that might generate more discussion on the trip; however, this was not a practical option. So, as I prepared for the trip, I continued to think how to increase discussion if there didn’t seem to be that much to really talk about.

I wasn’t worried about the basic itinerary, knowing how much students enjoyed the activities last year. In the morning we would join English classes being taught by longer-term volunteers from Europe.  In the afternoon, students would work on the Yaowawit farm, building a fence; play with the children; paint a mural; or contribute to the documentary of our week that we hoped to share with other schools in the region.  Our trip would also include a number of outings with the children to nearby beaches and temples.  (To see an article that was eventually published in a Thai newspaper about the week’s activities , click here.)

Perusing my bookshelves the night before the trip, Cynthia Bourgeault’s The Wisdom Way of Knowing leapt to my attention.  I had recently been quite taken by Cynthia’s teachings, and thought perhaps it could help me in guiding our daily reflections. In retrospect, this was the missing piece.  Drawing from Cynthia’s book, I created the following “lesson plans” for reflection that guided our group meetings through the week.  Excerpts from student writings included below reveal that ideas introduced from this book helped them to make sense of their service experience at Yaowawit.  Student reflection and satisfaction increased significantly compared to last year, and I believe this has important implications for social conscience instruction.

Day 1 Meeting (Saturday, March 3)

On the flight from Phuket to Hong Kong, I asked the 21 students on the trip to respond to three questions:

1)    Why did you choose this trip?

2)    What service activities have you participated in at HKIS/elsewhere?

3)    What do you want to learn about yourself this week?

After arriving in the late afternoon at Yaowawit School, the students had a couple of hours to begin to interact with the children.  During our meeting after dinner, I outlined how I wanted to frame our personal growth for the week.  Drawing upon American philosopher Ken Wilber’s theory (which I’ve described in more detail here) I asked students to draw a square with four quadrants.  I then defined each quadrant in this way:

“Q1 is your interior self.  This quadrant involves your values, hopes, and ideals, and the place from which your true identity emerges.  This week I hope you can explore both wisdom and beauty, both quadrant one activities, through our time at Yaowawit.

Q2 is your exterior self.  These are all the things you will do at Yaowawit this week. Take a moment and write down an ‘action highlight’ of your first afternoon.

Q3 is the interior group.  It is all about connections and relationships between ourselves and the children, as well as within our group.  How have you begun to make connections and relationships on day 1 of our trip?

Q4 is the exterior group.  For the purposes of this trip, I’ll define this quadrant as our connections to the world beyond this mountain in the Thai rainforest.  So, this week we hope to make a video of our experiences and write and article for the Thai newspaper, “The Nation,” so that we can get the message out to the wider world.  What initial ideas do you have so far about how we can apply what we will learn this week at Yaowawit to the wider world?”

Who am I? Why am I here? Wisdom and beauty, as it relates to values and ideals.
All the week’s activities
Relationships with HKIS students and teachers, relationships with Yaowawit students; cultural identity.
Larger sociopolitical systems off-campus; other international schools in Asia, the Thai public.

Borrowing an idea from a journal article I had read (Diessner etal, 2006), I closed the meeting by asking for two volunteers to look for beauty  – whether it be artistic, moral, or natural – and to share their reflections at the next meeting.

Day 2 Meeting (Sunday, March 4)

I began our second meeting by explaining that I was quite confident that our group will feel quite satisfied with their quadrant 2 and 3 experiences this week, and that quadrant 4 would occur through our video, article, and ongoing connections with the school.  However, the goal of our meetings was to search for wisdom and beauty in quadrant 1.

I then explained, “Cynthia Bourgeault, who has two grandkids at HKIS, claims that wisdom can be found if we follow some guidelines which she describes in her book, The Wisdom Way of Knowing.  I want you to respond to this quote in your journals from Cynthia’s book:

Awakening the heart . . . is an unlimited process of making the mind more sensitive, focused, energized, subtle, and refined, of joining it to its cosmic milieu, the infinity of love (p. 100, quoted from Kabir Helminski’s book Living Presence)

First, respond to the quote.  Second, do you have a sense so far that your experience here at Yaowawit is awakening your heart?”

On Monday we were going to take the students to a beach away from the school and have dinner at a local restaurant on the way back, and so wouldn’t have time for a meeting.
Day 4 Meeting  (Tuesday, March 6)

By Day 4 we were in the middle of the week of a great time at the school.  I felt that we had made progress towards our goals of gaining wisdom and recognizing beauty.   I continued to draw upon Cynthia’s book, asking students to copy down this quote from page 9 of The Wisdom Way of Knowing:

We are knee-deep in a river, searching for water.”

I then continued:

“We as privileged people have many opportunities to grow personally, such as our week here at Yaowawit, but the big question is how can we take an awakened heart back into our Hong Kong world.  Is it possible to find wisdom that will enliven our hearts and change us into better human beings? I have found that contrary to popular belief wisdom is not hidden from sight.  We are searching for water, not realizing we are knee-deep in a river.  To find the path towards an awakened heart – to find the river we’re standing in – it is necessary to bring the body, mind, and heart into balance. We need to explore more of ourselves to find the river.

So, here’s my question I want you to respond to in your journals tonight: Are you finding a balance of mind, body, and heart here at Yaowawit this week?  If yes, Cynthia says you are on the path to awakening your heart.  If no, please let us know what we can do to help you find that balance.”

Day 5 Meeting (Wednesday, March 7)

We had our meeting after lunch on Wednesday, since later that evening we would be attending a special festival at a local Buddhist temple.  I began our meeting by saying:

“Tonight we will be celebrating a Buddhist festival with the Yaowawit students at a local temple.  We will circumambulate, which means to walk around, a local shrine holding candles. Now, it just so happens that Cynthia in her book discusses the imagery of a candle.  Before I get to her ideas, please write down this quote in your journal: ‘Flame is to candle as inner aliveness is to self’ (p. 48).

On page 48, Cynthia tells a story to explore what she calls ‘inner aliveness’.

“To explain, in turn, what this means, I return again and again to a remarkable story by Isak Dinesen from her years spent in Africa.  One day, out in the bush, she came upon a beautiful snake, its skin glistening with subtle, variegated colors.  She raved so much about that snakeskin that one of her house servants killed the snake, skinned it, and made it into a belt for her.  To her great dismay, that once glistening skin was now just dull and gray.  For all along the beauty had lain not in the physical skin but in the quality of its aliveness.”

So, my question that I want you to address in your journal today is this: “Where have you sensed inner aliveness this week?  This could be in yourself, in your relationships with the children, in nature, etc.”

Day 6 Meeting (Thursday, March 8)

By this point in the week, we were starting to feel like a regular part of their school community.  But in less than 48 hours, we would be heading back to school.  I needed to get the students thinking about how they would integrate their experience back into their HKIS world.

“Your journal entries this week have been very impressive, and Miss Rowe and myself have thoroughly enjoyed reading them.  Nearly all of you feel a sense of balance of body, mind, and heart that you rarely experience in the HKIS pressure-cooker.  And I think we all agree that we would like to bring more of the Yaowawit atmosphere to our HKIS daily lives.  So, what I’d like you to do now is to write a letter from your Yaowawit self to your HKIS self.  It probably works best if you actually use those or similar terms in addressing your letter.”

I wasn’t actually sure if students would be able or willing to do this, but given the good week we had had, I wanted to give it a try.  And to my surprise, students found it quite easy to do.

Day 7 Meeting (Friday, March 9)

We were leaving on Saturday morning, and I knew that Friday’s night final celebration would leave no time for any kind of group processing, so our Friday after-lunch meeting would be our final discussion and journal entry. By this time I knew the week had been a big success, and students were already saying how much they would miss Yaowawit.  Bridget and I were quite pleased with their letters to themselves and thought the next step was to share these with others in the group.  So, I explained:

I want you to trade your journal with someone you trust.  Read through their journal, pick a key quote or idea, and write a note to that person why you liked what they had written.

Following this activity, each student shared something they had seen in each other’s journal.  To close out the session, we had a discussion about how we could shift our HKIS school culture in the direction of balance that we had sensed this week at Yaowawit.

Student Reflections

I felt that our interim group came together as a community in a way that was better than most of my previous trips.  One important aspect of that sense of community was the in-depth sharing that we were able to do both verbally and through our journals. Miss Rowe and myself were impressed how students continued to get better at articulating their learnings throughout the trip and including the parent night back at HKIS.  Here are some excerpts from their final reflections about the trip that students wrote to prepare for parent night:

DSC_2303From Alisa: Yaowawit to me means selflessness. Coming home, it didn’t feel like home. I didn’t feel comfortable being somewhere where I couldn’t be around the kids. Yaowawit was such a high, that when I went home it felt like the world around me wasn’t spinning the same way. Going onto Interim I was hoping for more of a surface difference, I was thinking about my laughs about my smiles but being there, there was a deeper difference. I cared about their laughs, about their smiles. In a way it felt like an early experience of motherhood. I tried to take care of them and love them when in fact, they took care of me and loved me. They gave me more insight then I thought I could ever give them. Speaking wasn’t necessary as I sat on the benches holding these kids closer and closer knowing the day would come when I had to leave. I have never left so deeply satisfied then on Yaowawit. The kids were my experience and I will never forget.

To be honest, in the beginning of this trip, I didn’t expect much. I thought it was just going to be another service that I’ll be doing in my high school years. But I was wrong; this interim completely transformed me. I’ve done much service in the past; I went to Foshan and did many local charities in Hong Kong. This Yaowawit experience truly awakened my heart. Through this service, I discovered myself (anonymous).

From Elise (in middle of picture): Throughout this interim, I’ve changed completely. I used to find my family annoying, with my mom telling me what to do, my brother coming into my room, or my dad telling me to appreciate what I have. I would always put in my headphones and ignore them. But now, everything’s different. This new insight of wisdom struck me right when interim ended, when I realized how fortunate I am. The kids always have a smile on their face after being through so much, why should I have a frown when I have everything that they don’t . . . . I believe, through service, two qualities are needed. Love and compassion. In this interim, I truly understood the meaning of those two words. Whenever service is present, love and compassion will never end. Not only did I discover my heart, but also the balance between my mind and body as well. Pouring my heart out to the kids, acting out compassion through my body, and understanding through my mind, helped me become a better person (Elise).

From Katie (left in picture): During my week at Yaowawit, I had the time of my life. There was one day when we were playing in the theater, the music was blasting, and everyone was having fun and laughing. I look to the corner of my eye and see a little girl, looking out to the trees. I ran to her, trying to get her to join in with the games and festivities. But when I saw the look in her eyes, I knew something was wrong. She didn’t speak that much English so I couldn’t communicate with her and ask her what was wrong, so I just held her tight. Later I found out that she thought her mother didn’t love her. Just after a few minutes of holding her tight, she had the courage to step up and try to have some fun and interact with her classmates. The kids at Yaowawit are definitely some of the strongest kids I know. (Katie)

From Ivy, who has cultural and family ties to Thailand, and speaks Thai:

Living in a completely new environment and devoting every day to mostly playing with children, I came to realize that I liked that kind of life. At Thailand, I found a balance of mind, body, and heart. My whole being felt healthier physically and mentally-from sleep, clean air, and being free of stress. It felt as if time stopped, allowing me to loosen up and become conscious of my surroundings. Once I opened my eyes in this way, I noticed beauty-in the natural, artistic, and moral forms. I was reminded of how overly caught up in my own life I normally am that I fail to appreciate these things. Most prominent was the beauty in the people at Thailand, our so-called “land if smiles”. They’re smiles not only reflects upon their charm within, but they’re contagious, making the people around them happy as well. It is their amiable nature that attracted me to them, as well as the rest of our interim In addition to letting go of my self-consciousness and treating everyone like my bestie, I came back from Yaowawit with a newfound appreciation for the Thai community in Hong Kong as well as any other community I am a part of. At Yaowawit it felt so great to belong to a new community. I finally have a place on the earth, I thought.

I was pleased that students were able to integrate Bourgeault’s ideas into their service work throughout the week.


My goal on this trip was to develop more quality reflection time as a group. Compared to other places I have taken students, the Yaowawit community has few obvious struggles.  It’s a beautiful place with beautiful students.  Through use of wisdom concepts, however, I’ve realized that while getting students “out of their comfort zones” where they gain first-hand experience with social issues can be invaluable, it is possible that asking students to seek an alignment of mind, body, and heart in a conscious search for wisdom may also offer a path of transformation. The high quality of reflections during the week seemed to confirm Bourgeault’s belief that wisdom is accessible to students who consciously develop a rhythm of daily activities which include intentional reflection.  Drawing upon Matthew Fox’s (1991) four paths for personal change, this interim experience has helped me to consider that the via positiva has the potential to be just as enriching for students as the via negativa. This opens up new avenues for providing in-depth service-learning experiences.

Next year I hope to further explore the “via positiva” at Yaowawit. I plan to offer students three options (see three pictures below) for inner exploration: the way of work (e.g., on Yaowawit farm), the way of meditation, and the way of art.  It is hoped that Bridget and I will come to better understand what helps students to engage in personal growth while on service interims.


Bourgeault, C. (2003). The wisdom way of knowing: Reclaiming an ancient tradition to awaken the heart. San Francisco, CA: JosseyBass.

Diessner, R., Rust, T., Solom, R. C., Frost, N. and Parsons, L. (2006). Beauty and hope: A moral beauty intervention, Journal of Moral Education, 35, 3, 301 – 317.

Fox, M. (1991). Creation spirituality: Liberating gifts for the people of the earth. New York: HarpersCollins.

Helminski, K. ( 1992). Living presence: A Sufi way to mindfulness and the essential self. New York: Tarcher-Putnam.

Additional Student Comments

Responding to the prompt, “the best thing about this interim,” students wrote:

  • Coming back a new person. Going into the interim I didn’t expect the kids to give me more than I would give them. This interim was the first interim I felt I found a deeper meaning in life rather than just a surface meaning. You are with the kids all day everyday and you feel at home and at peace.
  • It was very simple in a way that was refreshing. It gave me time to engage in things I normally am not “allocated” time to do so. I come back feeling healthier mentally, physically, emotionally.
  • The amount of bonding that went on both within our HKIS group and with the kids at the school. I truly felt a connection of “mind, body, and heart” as I progressed through the week. The trip pushed me to re-evaluate who I am as a person, both inside and out.
  • The best thing about this interim was the children. Being there for a week was all about the kids and how we could help them. Looking back on the week I realize that we really did make a difference in their lives, and helped them take one step forward to a better education and brighter futures. As we were leaving I felt the strong connections made with the children at the school. Yaowawit also has a positive experience by surrounding you by always helping people which makes you think how much you live in a ‘limited’ life at HKIS.
  • The ease into which one could understand and explore more of their true character and find genuine happiness. There was a fulfilling balance while living there.
  • Getting the chance to get away from the fast paced city life of HKIS and chilling out in Thailand for a week. It was so refreshing to just slow down, calm down, have nothing planned and just live life in the moment, enjoying everything that we do without any feelings of stress or pressure.
  • I think the most positive aspect of my interim was basically everything. It was really nice to spend the whole week with the kids, playing with them, painting with them and putting up lanterns with them. It was simply beautiful.
  • To be completely honest i don’t think that there was a weak element on my interim. It was spiritual, we got to do service and we got to experience the culture.

From Maxine Lai after our 2013 interim trip:

This was my third trip to Yaowawit and all three times I absolutely loved my experiences there. I was able to once again witness the inner aliveness or true happiness of the children. The simple games that we played with the children brought out laughter and it was interesting to see how such simple games could bring out so much energy and enthusiasm. I think the students of Yaowawit School were really able to bring out their sense of inner aliveness, encouraging us to be just as alive in that moment. 

My journeys to Yaowawit helped me discover and confirm that I am on the path that I want to be on. Working with kids, and helping them out is definitely what I want to do. The path that I am on makes me smile and feels right on the inside. The strong connections that I have developed over this trip confirmed so much of the journey that I have been on. For the past couple of years, I have been set on becoming a pediatric surgeon. It is is something that I want to become and like the founder of the Yaowawit School says, “it isn’t about how successful you are, it is about whether you are happy with what you are doing”. That wisdom really helped me think about why it is that I am doing what I am doing. It shouldn’t just be about people pleasing, but about self-pleasing. I think this trip overall, gave me self-confidence and satisfaction in what I am doing.


About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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One Response to Seeking Wisdom Through Service: A Week at Yaowawit School

  1. says:

    Marty, your guidance throughout this trip was vital to forcing myself and the students to stop and truly reflect on our experiences, character and opinions in a meaningful way. With your guidance and with the aid of the themes address by Bourgeault in her book, I was able to begin to articulate my feeling and thoughts in a way that reached past the superficial surface that reflection so often creates.

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