Building a future 

Missoula's unlikely connection to the rebirth of Myanmar's education system

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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.

click to enlarge Lwin’s work with the Studer Trust requires her to return to Myanmar several times a year, where she follows up on the progress at schools the organization has built. - PHOTO COURTESY OF STUDER TRUST
  • photo courtesy of Studer Trust
  • Lwin’s work with the Studer Trust requires her to return to Myanmar several times a year, where she follows up on the progress at schools the organization has built.

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.

click to enlarge Missoula’s Peaceknitters meet once a week in the back of Joseph’s Coat, and have taken to knitting plush toys for Lwin to take with her for school children in Myanmar. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Missoula’s Peaceknitters meet once a week in the back of Joseph’s Coat, and have taken to knitting plush toys for Lwin to take with her for school children in Myanmar.

"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."


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