Golden family helps Burmese children with Room to Grow Foundation

Jennifer Jones distributes clothing and sports supplies to a number of Burmese children in Thailand.

Jennifer Jones distributes clothing and sports supplies to a number of Burmese children in Thailand.

The Jones family started the Room to Grow (R2G) foundation for a simple reason: to help support children’s basic necessities so they can get a healthy education.

R2G, a registered charity which started in Golden and is now based out of Kelowna, works to alleviate poverty among un-parented children from Burma who have sought refuge in Thailand. Although they began by working primarily within the official refugee camps in Thailand, they are increasingly moving towards supporting migrant children and unofficial refugees who have been exploited by Burma’s military regime.

“There is no legal support for these children,” said Sandra Jones, the director of the foundation. “We provide them boarding houses and the basics. Things like food, clothing and personal hygiene products, with the whole goal of allowing them to take advantage of educational opportunities.”

According to R2G’s website, for most people in Burma, there is no freedom of expression, no freedom of movement and no political rights. What started out as peaceful processions of Buddhist monks, nuns, and civilians against increasing fuel prices in Burma in 2007 (although the first uprising was in 1988) escalated into another brutally suppressed democratic movement, in a country that has been starved of this concept for decades.

Because of a long history of human rights violations in Burma, there has been a huge influx of refugees into Thailand since the late 1980s.

The roots of R2G started six years ago when Golden area locals, Sandra and Graham Jones’ daughter, Jennifer, went to teach English and volunteer in refugee camps in Northern Thailand. After working in the area for several years, Jennifer saw there was need to help abandoned children and migrants and has been doing so ever since.

Room to Grow works largely through partnerships with local people and groups. In 2010 the foundation was able to support the work of over 15 programs and helped feed and clothe approximately 2,000 children, including 100 newly arrived refugees in November. R2G is not solely responsible for the care of these children, but contributes to their care primarily in terms of food and shelter.

Jennifer and other Room to Grow workers are located in Mae Sot, an area on the Thailand border know for its large population of Burmese migrants and refugees. One initiative that Jennifer is working on now is going to a school and dancing with the children once a week.

Sandra, who volunteered in Mae Sot for two months last summer, participated in some of the dancing and said that because the children have many chores and few opportunities to play, dancing for an hour in sweltering temperatures provides them with both exercise and a sense of elation.

In 2009 Jennifer realized that these children had never had a birthday and had no idea when they were born. She decided to organize a birthday party for over 50 children, complete with individuals cakes, gifts, music and a day of games.

Other current R2G projects include providing quilting and sewing training to a group of women who have been trafficked, with the hopes that these women can then translate these skills into jobs in local sewing factories and be self-supporting. Through partnerships and donors R2G has started looking at ways to increase food sustainability for people living in this area, including small-scale and mushroom farming.

“There are three plants that seem to do the best in this area,” said Sandra. “You plant rows of sweet corn, with pumpkin that grows well in between. And if you plant long beans, they will grow up the corn stalk.”

This year R2G is also hoping to begin lunch programs in schools.

So where does Sandra see the foundation in five years from now?

“I hope we can continue to do what we’re doing,” she said explaining that these issue will remain so for a long time to come.

R2G wants to emphasize that unlike a lot of charitable organizations, they strive to never victimize the people they work with in any way.

“Most of the children we work with are very far from “helpless waifs”,” it says in their Christmas newsletter. “Some kids left their parents behind and hiked for days through dangerous jungles because they decided they wanted an education. Some of them left jobs where they earned money to support other siblings to come to school. They are strong, they are tough, and they are survivors.”

For more information, or to donate to R2G, please visit www.roomtogrowfoundation.org.