In a way, Cho Cho Lwin's story starts with a young boy in a small village in her home country of Burma, now known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. It was early 2004 and Lwin, a travel consultant at the time, was guiding a wealthy Swiss hotelier named Peter Gautschi by request through the type of rural setting seldom trod by tourists from the Western world. Myanmar's people had been under the reign of a military government since 1962, when General Ne Win led a successful coup against Prime Minister U Nu, and the country had suffered from years of political corruption, anti-government riots and repression. Education was in particularly dire straits by 2004, the same year a power struggle ousted a new prime minister and saw him placed under house arrest. Government-run public schools were brutally underfunded, and despite rapid regrowth in the 1990s, Myanmar's centuries-old monastic school system remained financially dependent on impoverished rural communities and suffered from a lack of suitable infrastructure.
During their trip beyond the crowded city of Mandalay, on the way to a high-altitude town once known to British colonists as a "hill station," Lwin and Gautschi stopped by a tiny school in the village of Ohn Chaw. Even Lwin, a well-educated woman who had attended university and studied English, had never set foot in a monastic school before. What they saw were more than 100 students of various ages sitting on the ground or in trees, watching with rapt attention as Buddhist monks worked through lessons on mathematics, Burmese and English. Gautschi was touched by the scene. Then he met the boy.
Lwin remembers the boy being about 9 or 10 years old. He was hoping to undertake shinbyu, or the novitiation ceremony required for Burmese boys to become novice monks, but Lwin quickly learned that his parents could not afford the robes and other materials necessary for the rite. Gautschi offered to cover the costs and sponsor the boy.
Lwin still has photos of the ceremony on her laptop, along with scores of images of the Ohn Chaw school children seated in clusters on the ground. That moment in 2004 quickly brought her and Gautschi together, and demonstrated for her Gautschi's selfless spirit. His goodwill didn't stop with sponsoring the boy's novitiation. After the ceremony, Lwin and Gautschi continued their trip, yet Gautschi insisted on stopping by the school again on their way back. They spoke with the abbot, who explained that despite the monastic mission to educate impoverished rural students, schools like his receive no financial backing from the government—hence the lack of sheltered classrooms.
"So Peter took all his money out, which is in the mixed currency of U.S. dollar, Singapore dollar, Hong Kong dollar, Burmese dollar, all total valued about $2,200 U.S." recalls Lwin, who now lives in Missoula with her husband and two children. "He said, 'What can we do with that? Can we help with the classroom, or should we help with uniforms or stationary?' Then the abbot said, 'Okay, we can help with classroom.' That's what was needed. So Peter handed money to me and then he left. He went back to Hong Kong."
Just like that, Lwin became the first Myanmar-based volunteer for the Studer Trust, an organization Gautschi founded in 2002 with the goal of building schools in China. She oversaw construction of the new Ohn Chaw classroom, a 43-foot-long open-walled shelter complete with benches and tables. When the project was done, she had $100 of Gautschi's money left. With it they hosted an opening ceremony—what would prove to be the first of 60 for Lwin, Gautschi and the Studer Trust in Myanmar to date.
The 366-mile highway stretching between the Burmese cities of Yangon and Mandalay has developed a reputation for danger since its completion in 2011. News reports from the region commonly refer to it as Myanmar's "death highway," a critical strip of infrastructure initially ordered by the military junta in 2005 and completed in what engineers have since admitted was a rush job. Officials have recorded more than 470 crashes there in the past four years. In 2013 alone, such accidents resulted in 546 injuries and 100 deaths.
Among those deaths was Studer Trust founder Peter Gautschi.
Gautschi had arrived in Hong Kong in the early 1950s to take up a position as a junior executive for the famed Peninsula Hotel. The cigar-smoking, golf-playing Swiss native eventually rose to the presidency of the company, and expanded his portfolio even further by founding the luxury Swiss-Belhotel chain in 1987. As he explained in a 2010 interview with Forbes magazine, which had just named him one of Asia's "heroes of philanthropy," Gautschi kicked off his retirement in 2001 with a $40,000 donation to UNESCO for a school project in China's Hunan Province. But when he visited the school himself to gauge the effectiveness of his investment, he felt his money had been wasted. He saw Western-style flush toilets with no piping, radiators without boilers, and more than 200 fewer students than he'd been led to believe.
"I thought I could do better myself," he told Forbes. And so the Studer Trust—named for Gautschi's mother—was born.
Until he met Lwin, Gautschi had never considered expanding his organization's scope beyond China. But the work was hardly complete on his first school in Ohn Chaw before construction began on a second Myanmar school, Aung Ka Bar in the village of Gway Gyi Kone. The classrooms were simple, open-air structures at that time, but the Studer Trust's design quickly evolved to include fully walled buildings, two-story schools, even a classroom on stilts in Pauk Par. And it didn't take long for Gautschi to drum up financial support from friends and other philanthropists, including fellow Swiss-born Hong Kong transplant Walter Wuest.
Gautschi's primary goal with the Studer Trust was to offer investors something more than hollow assurance. The organization has no central office and only a handful of paid personnel. As Gautschi wrote in a 2009 editorial to the South China Morning Post, "We serve as a bridge between those who are willing to help and those who are less fortunate. I motivate friends and volunteers with similar views and values to contribute time and money to the trust." Those with the Studer Trust who do get a paycheck get one straight from Gautschi's own pocketbook.
"What makes Studer Trust very unique is my salary, the ground team salary, everything is paid by Peter's separate account," says Lwin, who began working for the Studer Trust full-time in 2005. Studer Trust employees work from home on computers and cellphones, or on the ground in the countries their projects are based in. That way, Lwin continues, administrative overhead is kept to a minimum, and donors know exactly where their money is going.
"[Peter] would rather go to the individual and then show them what we are doing and if that individual likes it, then he donates the money," Lwin says.
Gradually, the organization expanded its efforts from rudimentary $2,000 classrooms to scholarships, teacher salaries, computer centers and summer English programs. Much of the staff's time—including Lwin's—is spent following up on projects to monitor progress. Most of the time communities are overwhelmingly grateful for the new infrastructure, Lwin says. But the Studer Trust's website notes that in revisiting a few past projects, personnel witnessed classrooms falling into decline, "neglected or misused by the communities who had been so appreciative in the beginning." Following up on those projects and providing incentives for continued community support for education has become the best way for the Studer Trust to make sure its donor investments are lasting ones.
"Studer Trust project managers visit every project at least once a year to identify and address any ongoing concerns such as building repair, painting, furniture, teaching tools, teachers' salaries, and student scholarships at these schools, which are run and maintained by the monastic school system," Lwin says. "Myanmar, without a doubt, needs a higher education system that can produce students capable of critical thinking and innovation."
Gautschi made it a point to occasionally oversee the work of his organization. According to the Studer Trust, Gautschi attended the groundbreaking ceremony last June for a new school building in the village of Shwe Myo. Photos from the event show Gautschi and the school's abbot pounding bamboo stakes into the ground to mark the new foundation, and Gautschi personally poured the blessing water over his marker. Locals thanked Gautschi in English.
Shortly after that ceremony, on June 6, 2013, Gautschi was killed when his Toyota Prado collided head-on with another car while traveling the Yangon-Mandalay Highway near the city of Nay Pyi Taw. The Myanmar Times reported that Gautschi's driver was attempting to pass another vehicle when the accident occurred. Two Myanmar nationals from the other car were also killed. Lwin, who was in the car with Gautschi at the time, suffered a minor knee injury.
"Our car lost control," Lwin says, "and then went down to the ditch and rolled over. Peter died at the accident ... But we keep continuing, and he left sufficient funds to run the projects, so we are okay. He set it up, a really good foundation, so we would be able to carry on the projects."
Lwin considers herself part of that stable foundation, and remains as focused as ever on continuing the Studer Trust's efforts in rural Myanmar. The organization offers children in those communities an opportunity, she says. "Otherwise they would never get a chance even for basic literacy."
On a chilly December afternoon, Lwin blends in with the crowd at a downtown Missoula coffee shop. She sits in front of her laptop, a cellphone and a cup of tea, wearing a puffy down coat—nothing to suggest to the casual observer that she is effectively our town's philanthropic ambassador to an entire Southeast Asian country.
"I'm very lucky and very happy to be here in Missoula," Lwin says. "A lot of friends, they know what I'm doing and they've been very supportive."
Lwin's unlikely arrival in Missoula followed a fortuitous route not unlike her initial meeting with Gautschi. About one year after her trip with Gautschi to Ohn Chaw, Lwin's husband, Bo Bo Khant, won a highly competitive United States green card lottery. The couple wanted every opportunity for their two daughters, particularly when it came to education. Lwin was lucky; she says she received a good education in Myanmar and high marks in school despite not being able to afford special classes. She attended government-run schools in urban Mandalay her entire life, and went on to get a bachelor's degree from Mandalay University in 1999.
"Those days when I was in school were so corrupted," Lwin says. "Monastic schools were banned and if your parents couldn't [afford] to send you to government school, you would never get educated."
Khant planned to go ahead of the rest of the family to New York City and find work. It would be the first time he ever left Myanmar. Lwin was still working part-time as a travel consultant and ended up chatting one day with two clients from Montana. She joked that they might bump into each other in the U.S. someday. One of the clients, John Price Anderson, who owns a home in Missoula but spends much of his time in Indonesia, asked what her family's plan was for finding housing and work stateside.
"He said, 'Oh, well, it's not a good idea to go to New York,'" Lwin recalls. "They said, 'Do you have family or friends or any relatives in the United States?' I told them no, because the rest of my family, my two daughters and my husband, they'd never been out of the country. So they said, 'What? No, then, it's not a good idea to go to New York. Why don't you go to Missoula and stay at my place?'"
Lwin and Anderson continued to exchange emails for the next few months, making arrangements for her family to live in his house until they could get settled. In June 2006, Lwin, Khant and their two daughters arrived in Missoula thinking they'd move on to a different community with a Burmese population within a year. But they fell in love with western Montana.
Khant now owns and operates Bo Bo Electric, and works as the resident electrician and general technician for Missoula Children's Theater. Lwin works remotely as one of the Studer Trust's two directors, traveling back to Myanmar several times a year to oversee projects in person. During her time in Missoula, she's also managed to develop a pipeline of goodwill between her native country and her new home.
Last October, Kathi and Glenn Wood made a point of telling their Burmese guide that, regardless of what else he had planned, their trip to Myanmar had to include a stop at the Studer Trust's lake-top Pauk Par preschool. The couple wanted to visit their friend from Missoula, Lwin, who was conducting follow-up work in the country, and see one of the schools she'd talked so much about.
"People actually live on this lake," Glenn says. "They grow gardens, floating gardens, and they can harvest them. It's a very famous place because it's been inhabited for, I don't know, centuries. They scrape the bottom of the lake and use that for fertilizer, so they're self-sufficient."
Kathi met Lwin through a weekly Jeannette Rankin Peace Center knitting circle known as the Peaceknitters. One year before the Woods' trip, Lwin had asked the group to help her supply toys to some of the students at the Studer Trust schools. The group had already knitted a parcel of teddy bears for the relief effort in Haiti after Hurricane Sandy. For Pauk Par, a few in the group made plush fish for the 40 or so preschoolers who are shuttled to school across the lake by boat each morning.
"Some people would knit balls for them," Kathi says. "I had crocheted a bowling set for my grandson a few years back, with 10 pins and the ball and everything, so I said, 'Why don't I make a bowling set for these kids?'"
When the Woods arrived at Pauk Par, Lwin was waiting for them. The three of them passed out clothes made for the children by Missoula's Christ the King Church and watched as the kids played with the plush toys Lwin had delivered earlier. Kathi asked their teacher whether there was anything else the school needed.
"They want to increase the number of students, but they want to buy their own boat," Kathi says. "And the community where the school is located, the land part of it, there is the boat factory that makes these boats. Somehow, I want to raise money toward a boat for the school."
After learning about the specific type of boat the villagers desired, the Woods and Lwin figured the cost would come to roughly $1,500. Kathi is now raising the funds herself and intends to pass them to the Studer Trust to fund the new boat. The effort shows how Lwin's deep emotional investment in improving the situation in Myanmar has spread to others in Missoula.
"I would love to be able to give them money for that boat, because that means that more children are being educated, and that's their goal," Kathi says. "If you saw the size of the building they started in and the size of the building now, it's so wonderful that this foundation ... gave them the money."
The Woods aren't the only ones who have visited Myanmar in recent years. Tourism in the country has increased dramatically since the military junta was replaced with a parliamentary government in 2011. Hundreds of political prisoners were released, and the new government began drafting laws ensuring basic human rights. Freedom of the press was established, and the Associated Press last spring became the first international news agency to open a foreign bureau in the capital of Yangon. The Woods say they got a travel visa in no time, and most places accepted American currency. A long era of religious and ethnic oppression has ended. Now, Myanmar is struggling to rebuild—and fast.
For Lwin, increased travel and attention to Myanmar underscores the mission she set out to achieve with the Studer Trust. Most children in rural areas don't make it past primary education; many villages don't even have their own middle schools. Students drop out because they're unable to travel safely to neighboring villages for continued education, or they begin to go to work with their parents at a young age.
"We have no basic infrastructure," Lwin says. "We have no proper software. And because of the poor education in the past, today even we would like to hire teachers, but there are not very many educated or graduated people that we can hire. Some of them never received proper teacher's training."
The Studer Trust has tried to ease those problems. Over the years, the organization has funded teacher salaries and built three bridges to provide safe passage for students between villages even during the rainy season. When Cyclone Nargis devastated communities in the Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008, killing more than 138,000 people and destroying some 700,000 homes, the Studer Trust responded by raising 545,156 Hong Kong dollars—about $70,300 U.S.for the relief effort. The money funded construction of 100 homes, 177 fishing boats, one pier and a footpath in the region. Lwin says she collected an additional $10,000 from Missoula donors after holding a fundraising event at China Woods home furnishing store.
"It is very important for me, knowing that the place where I live also supports my work, trusts our work over there, and are willing to support the Burmese people," Lwin says.
Lwin sees the situation in Myanmar improving. Obtaining permits and dealing with local authorities used to be the Studer Trust's biggest hurdles; Lwin says she was once interrogated for two hours during a work trip by officials she felt were simply holding out for a bribe. Political tensions and corruption are gradually easing, and Western tourists like the Woods are flooding into the country. But that transformation is raising new challenges, both for Myanmar's still-developing infrastructure and for the Studer Trust's effort to improve a rural education system made up of relatively untrained and inexperienced teachers and administrators. Lwin says those educators demonstrate strong passion, but they often have "no more than 11 years of basic schooling."
In other words, as her country enters a new chapter on the international stage, her work has become increasingly pressing.
Lwin doesn't talk much about the personal toll Gautschi's death had on her. Her follow-up trip last fall was the first since the accident.
They were close, though, she says, a friendship easily summed up in a photograph of Lwin on the Studer Trust website. She's smiling, her arms wrapped around Gautschi's chest outside one of the Studer Trust's schools. Gautschi towers almost two feet taller than her, decked out in sunglasses and a baseball cap, a camera hanging around his neck. He's laughing.
What Lwin will say is that Gautschi left his organization in good order. He meticulously arranged for his private account to continue paying the Studer Trust's administrative costs, and his friends and donors have offered their ongoing support. It is difficult, Lwin admits, due to Gautschi's role as their sole fundraising liaison. He'd dedicated the last decade to improving education for thousands of children throughout Myanmar and China, she adds, and his "indomitable spirit" will be missed. His death left the organization in the hands of Lwin, her co-director in China and the rest of the Studer Trust team. It's now their labor of love as much as it was his, and Lwin says they all intend to see his work completed.
"Even though he's not here anymore, we're still continuing," she says.
Lwin is hopeful that the Missoula community can continue to support her endeavor, as well. To that end, she recently checked in with teachers and Studer Trust personnel to see what need western Montana could contribute next. She's suggested that locals help her collect 70 backpacks for poor students—half for girls, half for boys, all between the ages of 6 and 13.
This month, the Studer Trust is primed to break ground on the last piece of Gautschi's vision: A teacher training center in Mandalay, which Lwin says could be up and running by July. The project marks a shift in the organization's ongoing mission in Myanmar. The Studer Trust decided last year to stop actively seeking new schools to work with, and opted instead to redouble its efforts maintaining the 60 schools it already helps. Lwin feels refocusing on the quality of the educators in those schools—particularly the strength of their English language instruction skills—is a critical step in continuing Gautschi's devotion to better the lives of Myanmar's younger generation.
"English is the one subject that we would like to promote to our students, because English teaching in our country is really bad," Lwin says. "Pronunciation, grammar, everything. So we would like to get native English teachers."
Lwin's life changed dramatically after that first trip to Ohn Chaw with Gautschi. She credits her good fortune to the education she received, but that remains out of reach for so many others. Lwin only hopes that the opportunities she's opening up for students back home will strengthen Myanmar's future. So far, she's encouraged by the results.
"Most of the students also, because we have been doing this for almost 10 years, some of the students, when we helped them in 2006, they are already in first year in university or something like that," she says. "A lot of students, they go back to their villages because they said, 'Okay, Studer Trust helped us. Now it's our duty or responsibility that we should give something back to the community.'"