Alumni Spotlight: Charlotte Bennett Schoen

Tell us about yourself and your trip.

Charlotte: I am from Englewood, NJ and went on an AJWS volunteer trip to Lucknow, India in 2011 and Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2012. I had my 69th birthday last month with the elephants - I have a Master's degree in Education, work as a businesswoman.

Why did you decide to volunteer with AJWS in Thailand?

Charlotte: I considered volunteering with AJWS because I knew of it through my friend Marcia Heisler. As a community organizer and activist of many years - as well as a seasoned traveler - it seemed to be a fit. However, because I was elected to serve on my local city council (Englewood, NJ) I did not follow up with AJWS for several years. I served 6 years (2 terms) on the council.

For the first placement, I left it to AJWS to choose the country. This time, I requested either Thailand or Cambodia because I had not been to this part of the world. When the assignment was Thailand, I went to Siem Reap, Cambodia for a week before coming to Thailand. (Just phenomenal !!)

Volunteer in Thailand with AJWS

Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.

Charlotte: My day to day at the NGO is very self directed. Both in India and Thailand, it was made clear to me what the NGO wanted. In India I did not come with any material for teaching English (which was part of the empowerment of Community Change Agent project). My daily day in India involved a very long commute (1 bicycle rickshaw and 2 small buses - plus a walk) - but I liked the guest home where I was living.

In Thailand I made sure to find housing walking distance to the NGO and came with lots of English teaching material. In Thailand the NGO works with human rights of sex workers - English and Thai classes are offered daily. Many of the women are migrants from Burma and Laos. I am also asked to organize teaching materials that the NGO has collected over many years and make it into a cohesive textbook that anyone can teach from.

The women that I meet for classes are sweet and motivated and hard working - whether in India or Thailand, whether CCA or sex workers. All try to improve life for their families. Human rights are human rights.

How has this experience helped you grow personally and professionally?

Charlotte: Personally, these placements have a profound impact. Everyone thanks you for what you do and for coming to where ever your placement is. Now in Thailand there is tremendous heat, but on my daily walk to and from the NGO, I pass a 15 story building under construction. And I indeed ask myself, "I'm complaining about the heat?" Manual labor is everywhere, in India and in Thailand. Entrepreneurial and hard working - there is always something to think about. And there is always something good to eat.

It is a joy to be in this part of the world also because it is so beautiful - the many temples and wats are spectacular and part of the daily day, the daily street-scape. Again, Songkran was a time of playing with water - and going to the temples. These are countries of faith. Chiang Mai itself has over 300 temples.

Professionally, I came prepared to do what I was asked, but this is to the credit of AJWS and the matches that they recommend with particular NGOs. They do put a lot of team effort into the selection process and do a very good job on orientation to start off the placements.