Christy was born and raised in Seattle, Washington and spent most of her adult life in New York City. She now divides her time between Bangkok Thailand and the US. Coming from a multicultural family, and travelling at every opportunity, she considers herself a global citizen. Her background in youth advocacy, community development, and hospitality formed the foundation for her role working with the not-for-profit organisation; Courageous Kitchen.
As Program Director, Christy oversees the day-to-day activity of the foundation and manages the programs for the families and staff. She also develops curriculum for all food-related activities in the charity. In 2017, Christy launched a Thai cooking course for tourists and began developing a Courageous Kitchen cookbook.
Read on to learn about the outstanding work being done in #Thailand by Courageous Kitchen as Christy shares her insight on giving back!
Why have you chosen this area of humanitarian work?
I’ve always been passionate about food and people. When I first came to Thailand and met Dwight, our Executive Director, I had no idea he was working with refugees. All I knew was that I wanted to help serve people in some way, and he was that vessel for me. Initially, I started teaching English and immediately knew that I wanted to be involved on a much deeper and more meaningful way.
Before English classes began, I would cook with the children, as they had very little to eat in their own homes. It really struck a chord in me, when I realised that me wanting to impose my language on to them wasn’t really a necessity if their basic human needs weren’t even being met. Food and health had to come first!
My whole perspective changed at that moment and I dedicated myself to learning more about the people and advocating on their behalf. It’s amazing that something so simple as sharing a meal with someone can transform their lives. I’m fortunate to be able to witness it firsthand. Back in the eighties, my family were refugees in Laos.
My parents were sponsored by Americans and able to go to the states to start a new life. Although it was before my time, knowing that there was someone who once helped my family in the same situation, encourages me to do the same. I see the change and the hope it provides the kids having someone that truly cares for them. In turn, it gives me something to look forward to, gives meaning to my life and my work.
I believe as human beings, we have the responsibility to pay it forward.
What is your main volunteer role?
I manage and develop education and culinary programming for asylum seekers and refugees living in Bangkok, Thailand. My duties change depending on the day, so it’s hard to really tick off any boxes. On any given day, I may be advocating for families at a meeting, visiting people who’ve been detained in the Immigration Detention Centre, teaching a cooking class to tourists, or just visiting homes and sharing a family dinner.
The majority of our volunteers are very independent, and we expect them to be. We are a small group, that really need to trust each other and show love to the families we work with.
Currently, we’re serving about three to four hundred people in our community, with volunteers helping in various capacities. We try to provide an open line of communication always and help to give them the tools they need to be successful. It’s not an easy work, it’s emotionally trying at times, frustrating at others.
Being such a small organisation, things can be difficult to manage, however, safety and the well-being of our participants are our main priority. To volunteer, we do require a time commitment, background checks, references, and some sort of intent to be hands-on. We advocate for responsible tourism and value its importance.
What are your thoughts on volunteering in Southeast Asia?
In recent years Voluntourism has become quite trendy, and many places that claim they are charities tend to exploit the naive tourist. Many tourists are simply misinformed about the reality of this industry. For example, some organisations that may be desperate for money will make tourists pay to come and hang out at an orphanage or feed elephants for a day claiming that the funds will go to the right parties.
At the end of the day, you get to take a photo of yourself helping (visiting) underprivileged kids or mistreated animals and post it on your social media and then you may never visit again. The organisation, or shall we say business, has most likely made a profit whilst neglecting the needs of those they claim to help.
We want both parties to feel like they are benefiting from the experience, so we prefer that people aren’t just sitting around toting their cameras. You wouldn’t want to be exploited, so why do that to the people you’re meant to help? Ask yourself, am I helping or am I hindering? My advice to anyone that wants to volunteer, either locally or abroad, is to do your research. Find out who the organisation is, where they get their funds, how funds are allocated, who they are serving, etc. With a simple Google search, you can really find a lot of valuable information.
Also, how transparent are they on social media or through their website? Are you able to interact with a real person and get a response? Do you have a friend that can vouch for the organisation? These things may not seem like a big deal, but they make a world of difference in knowing where you put your time and money.
Can tourists help with your project and if so how can they get involved?
Yes, we have several ways to get involved! For short-term visitors, you can take a cooking class, where members of our team and community will lead you on a local market tour and provide a half-day Thai cooking lesson with all proceeds going directly back to our programs. For long-term volunteers, we do ask for a minimum three-month commitment.
We’re looking for people who can offer some sort of skill exchange, i.e. nutrition, teaching, fitness, medical, etc. If you’re interested, you can visit our website and complete our volunteer survey along with reading the Child Protection Policy. Additionally, we’re always hosting fundraisers in the US and Bangkok.
Travel For Change would like to thank Christy for writing about her work and sharing her story. You can view the video of the Courageous Cooking Camp to learn more.
Christy Innouvong, Program Director, Courageous Kitchen
Photos are not owned by Travel For Change.