by Vicki Marsh Kabat
The tsunami that struck the southern part of Thailand in 2004 was devastating for thousands of Thais who saw their dreams washed away. It was painful, too, for Walai Jantawiboon, a first-generation Chinese born in Thailand, and then project coordinator of relief services in the wake of the disaster. But in an unexpected way, that work brought Walai to the point of pursuing her own dream – advanced education in social work – and that brought her to Waco in 2006.
"Social work cannot be inclusive without the spiritual part"
"I took the responsibility without being aware that it takes more than just a heart to really help people," says Walai (MSW 2009) of her relief work. "Our project team responded well to physical needs, but the lack of sensitivity to the people's psychological and emotional needs was so prevalent."
She learned of Baylor through a religious organization with which she worked in Thailand. Although she was raised a Buddhist, she became a Christian at 17, so Baylor's integration of faith and education seemed the right place for her. "Social work cannot be inclusive without the spiritual part," she says. "People need hope and that hope comes from the spiritual connection."
When she arrived in the United States, it was her first time in America, but she had one friend in Waco already, although she had yet to meet her. "I met Melissa Ishio on the Internet four days before I arrived in Waco. She was looking for a renter in Waco, and she also was completing her MSW," Walai says.
Melissa (MSW 2008), now back in Japan with her husband and family, served as Walai's mentor, introducing her to Baylor, Waco and all things Texan. Melissa and sons, Joshua and Justice, became a new family to Walai, helping her through many transitions.
"I never lacked for support from anyone here," Walai says. "Everyone has been very sensitive to my culture, my needs. My classmates have been so supportive."
Walai's first two field placements in the program were working with older adults, and she found that it was a good fit. This spring she spent the semester at the New York Academy of Medicine in its Social Work Leadership Initiative. It was the first Baylor student placement at the institute. While there she worked on several projects on a macro level – policy development with local and national governments, data research, program implementation and evaluation, resource mobilization and community building.
"It was my first time to do macro work, but I learned many skills and I have more confidence," she says.
In June, she will return to the home she shares with her sister in Bangkok and to her parents and other siblings, who live in the city or nearby. And, she goes back with new dreams. She would like to develop a research team and interview survivors of the tsunami about their quality of life, five years after the storm. But she would also like to develop a community for those who were orphaned or abandoned after the tsunami. The difference is that now she not only can picture it, but she has the skills to know how to accomplish it.
"Whatever work I am about to do, I have the tool box and have been taught well how to use the tools to help people become the experts in their own lives."