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PASADENA, Calif. – There is no running water. There is no electricity. There is no doctor to deal with the serious health problems the people face daily. No teacher for the children. No roads, let alone cars or other vehicles. No telephones. . . no computers . . . no credit unions. There are, literally, no signs of modern life. This tiny village in remote northern Thailand – like others in the country in similar dire straits – barely exists as far as the government or Thai society is concerned. The people living here are essentially cut off from the outside world. It may be the 21st century to the rest of the world, but visitors to villages like this one will feel like they have suddenly stepped back hundreds – or even thousands – of years. Gary McCartney, a marketing specialist at Wescom Credit Union in Pasadena, Calif., has taken that step back in time in order to help Thai hill villagers take a small step into the present. His mission is built along the lines of the credit union philosophy of “people helping people.” In his case, he is raising that concept to new heights through both secular and spiritual work in the villages. McCartney, who will be making his second trip to Thailand in November followed by a third journey next summer, admits the villages near the Laos and Burma borders are a far cry from upscale Pasadena. “You’re talking Third World conditions, they’re so far removed,” he said. Next summer, McCartney will lead a group of young people from First Baptist Church in Temple City, where he is involved in youth ministry, to Thailand to construct another water project in a remote village. The project will bring water from several miles away to the village as well as provide a filtration system to ensure the water is safe and clean to drink and a pumping mechanism to make it available to the huts of villagers. The water plan is part of the Integrated Tribal Development Project, a Thailand-based secular-missionary program which develops water, agriculture and sanitation projects throughout the remote areas of northern Thailand. McCartney’s church group has already constructed four water projects. His two-week trip back to the country this fall will be to create a video documentary about those projects, do some minor repair work in the villages and to scout a village for next summer’s construction project. The documentary will be used by the American Baptist Churches in the USA for mission outreach as well as by the southwest regional church group and the First Baptist Church-Temple City. McCartney noted that the water projects have a wide-ranging impact on village life that goes far beyond just having flowing potable water, which helps solve many endemic health problems. “It literally transforms these people’s world,” he said. “They go from virtually nothing to just increasing their way of life by 100 fold.” “It is impossible to overstate the value of clean water to a village’s health and welfare,” added Doug Beyer, pastor emeritus of First Baptist who worked on the fourth water project in the village of Mae Kae Noi. “Before we came to Mae Kae Noi, their closest water was a polluted stream 375 steps down the mountain. “When a village gets running water the men are able to spend more time working in the field instead of hauling water in old anti-freeze cans and bamboo tubes,” Beyer explained. “Their health improves and the government is more likely to allow them to continue living on the land. They are also better able to obtain and retain a teacher for their children. Right now only one or two children in the village walk over a mile to a neighboring village for classes. The rest of the children and all the adults are illiterate. All that changes when the village gets running water.” “Once they agree to get a water project, the government actually sees them as an existing entity and starts funding the village with money,” McCartney noted. “They send in a doctor for the children and a teacher to teach the villagers. . .” The water project also solves irrigation problems, allowing villagers to develop an agricultural program to become self-sufficient, he said. Among the ag programs are growing tea and coffee beans for companies such as Starbucks and Lipton, he said. “If a village gets approved (for a water project), this is a way of putting themselves on the map and bringing up their quality of life,” McCartney said. “It all starts by a simple thing: clean water.” The 20 students on the work team each raise about $2,000 to make the trip. “We make sure that when we go into these villages, we do not live off of them,” McCartney said. “We take in enough money and supplies to feed them and ourselves the whole time. They don’t use any of their livestock or materials to feed us.” Beyer recalled some of the `special’ meals to which the church workers were treated by the villagers. “If anything runs, swims, flies or slithers, it’s food,” he said. “So we had several `special’ meals of porcupine, dog and tarantula. I think the tarantula was marinated in soy sauce and roasted over a wood fire. All I got was one leg. It had a nice smoky taste, but there wasn’t much of it. “The villagers caught a cobra . . . I’m glad to say the villagers didn’t share the snake meal with us,” Beyer added. “They also trapped a flying squirrel. It graced somebody’s table, but not ours.” McCartney said the water projects benefit not only the villagers but the student volunteers. “The majority of (First Baptist) students come from wealthy families,” he said. “It’s been a life changing experience for them. They come back seeing what they have and what other people don’t have. It’s a real eye opener.” The church group also does community projects in Tijuana, Mexico. Students who want to work in Thailand must first do a project in Tijuana, he said. Next summer, three teams of approximately 20 students each will travel to Thailand for two weeks; one team will work on the water project, another will work in another village doing lighter repair work, and the third group will be more or a vacation bible-study group, McCartney said. McCartney said the rewards of the program for the volunteers are difficult to put into words. “It’s just one of those things,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. You just feel so good. It’s a great feeling.” McCartney admitted that he used to take conventional vacations to various resort and tourist locations. “I wanted to do a vacation where I did something worthwhile,” he explained. “I want to be part of enhancing these people’s lives.” Villagers are thrilled with the results and often try to give away items they made as a way of thanks, he said. “We’ve been given gifts that people worked months to make,” he said. “They’ll give them away because they’re so grateful. A village lady who may be working on something that will earn her enough wages to feed her family for a month will want to give away what she made because she’s so grateful.” Beyer, too, said the work was extremely rewarding. “I never worked harder, got dirtier and enjoyed it more than the two weeks I helped build a water system in a small, desperately poor village – and I never want to do it again,” he said. -

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