Tom Ross

Tom Ross

Tom Ross: Rewarding work in Chiang Mai

Steamboat graduate tells of work in Thailand

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

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Steamboat Springs High School graduate Laura Philip returns to Thailand March 8, where she is a social worker in a shelter for girls forced into the sex industry. She talks about her experiences Thursday in Library Hall.

— One of my ongoing regrets is that all too often I, and perhaps much of the community, lose track of Steamboat Springs’ young adults once they graduate from high school and head off into the big world.

I often think the bright youngsters we export to the world represent Steamboat’s most important endeavor. It’s a shame when we don’t have the opportunity to celebrate their accomplishments beyond the Yampa Valley. So, the e-mail I received from Laura Philip in February was most welcome.

I remember Philip best as an energetic young cross-country ski racer, but there’s much more to her adult life. She went off to Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., where in 2008, she earned an undergraduate degree in international affairs. Now, she’s off on a bigger adventure.

Philip leaves Steamboat on March 8 for the Baan Yuu Suk shelter for girls outside Thailand’s second largest city, Chiang Mai. She will be employed as a social worker with the Children’s Organization of Southeast Asia. Her job will include working with families to keep young girls out of the sex industry.

This will be Philip’s second trip to the shelter — she was there in fall 2010 — but this time, she will stay 12 to 18 months.

It’s hard to imagine from the perspective of the Yampa Valley, where we provide so much for our children, but in Thailand, girls as young as 5 are forced into sex work in part because their struggling families are at a loss to provide them with food and clothing.

As grim as that sounds, Philip is looking forward with great anticipation to her return to Baan Yuu Suk.

“I’m never as happy as when I’m doing this kind of work,” she told me. “You get outside your own mind and realize what’s really important.”

During her junior and senior years in college, she worked at an organization that advocated for abused women.

“I developed a passion for social work and trauma recovery,” she said.

Upon returning to Steamboat, she volunteered with Advocates Building Peaceful Communities. But all the while she was researching international organizations where she could pursue both sides of her professional ambition. After arriving in Thailand, she quickly realized she’d made the right choice.

“We’re so fortunate here,” Philip said. “Over there, I have opportunities to make a difference that are really self-rewarding.”

Her work won’t involve rescuing girls from the sex trade as much as working with families in poverty to show them there are alternatives to selling their daughters. By identifying girls who are at risk for sexual abuse, the group hopes to keep them from falling into that trap.

“At the shelter, each girl can make goals for herself. They are secure, they have food and they go to school,” Philip said. “I taught English to two girls last fall and helped one of them look at colleges in London and Australia. She wants to go to medical school, and that’s a possibility.

“Many children in Southeast Asia grow up in a culture of victimization where they are seen either as a commodity to sell or as a financial burden. The girls I met were not victims, but true survivors.”

Of course, Philip isn’t the only young adult from Steamboat traveling abroad and working on behalf of people who lead difficult lives. Within the past year, I’ve learned about Jessica Schlapkohl’s work with orphans in Africa and Jonathan Olinger’s work with earthquake victims in Haiti.

We can all be proud of them.

— To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboattoday.com

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