ub Benjamas & Cori Wittman

“An education is like a gate; the door to opportunity.”

Jub and Cori grew up a world apart. Literally. Cori in Idaho on a large farm, Jub in a small village in rural Thailand. Yet, for having such different cultural backgrounds, they share a strikingly similar heartbeat. They’ve spent the past 5 years in a village in rural Thailand developing a trafficking and exploitation prevention program around three basic principles: Developing strong family units, creating economic opportunity, and keeping kids in school through 12th grade. They sat down with me one hot day in February at Jub’s home to chat about their work.  Roosters crow in the background. Motorcycles zoom by. The heat index is 106.

What is Breakthrough Thailand, and what do you do?

CORI: Breakthrough Thailand is an experiment in finding synergy between community development and leadership development for at-risk teenagers. We work with teens who have great potential, then create an environment similar to their home communities. They can practice investing in others, build their own skills, earn an education, and develop a vision of how to invest in the communities they will be part of in the future. We see ourselves as investing in the inherent skills, capabilities, creativity and beauty of the people in this country in ways that they maybe haven’t seen in themselves before. Which is the case all over the world, not just in Thailand. But I just so happened to land here.

Creating an environment “similar to their home communities” is a humble way of saying they live with the girls. They share life with them every day; they care for them, challenge them, discipline them and encourage them. Through the ups and downs. Far too often in the development world we are focused on metrics to indicate success. Jub and Cori focus on stories of success. Only people have stories.

How many are in the program right now?

JUB: 6 teens, 1 boy and 3 littles.      CORI: Littles meaning under age 10

What motivated you to start this? Cori, you left a high paying job as an agricultural Policy lobbyist in DC. Jub, you were educated in Bangkok, and instead of pursuing dreams in the city, you decided to come back to your home village to invest.  

JUB: When I was young, I thought: maybe I can help change this world when I grow up. I didn’t really know if I could, but as I got older I realized that if I didn’t start something, somewhere, it would never happen. I grew up here in this village. There were a lot of drugs around; all my friends were doing them. One of my good friends died because of drugs. I was only 10 years old but knew I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted to have a different life. Many of the girls in the village didn’t want to study, they wanted to stay home and take care of kids [when they grew up]. I told my dad I didn’t want to be like them. I wanted to be different. People are not perfect but we should still give them a chance. I had that growing up. The world is not fair; I want to be that person to give people a chance.

My family is very generous.  I grew up seeing them love people; they cared for and helped others. I believe we can dream, and I was lucky because my family was so supportive. I had that freedom. On top of that, because I have God, I carry more. That is the purpose for me being here or anywhere, to do a good thing because of Him. I want to continue to do this and be here in this village, because nobody wants to do this and be here. It is hard here. I like the city because it is more convenient, and being here sometimes makes you feel stuck. But I love to see people have a chance to dream.

CORI: I was raised in an environment with a lot of opportunity. I grew up on a farm with a very close, tight-knit, large, loving family.  Naturally, we [my sisters and I] learned the value of hard work and had a lot of opportunities to earn our way - even earning scholarships in school.  We had people around us who enabled us to do that - family, extended family, teachers. They saw our potential and gave us opportunities.  When I came to Thailand for the first time, I met a lot of women involved in a lifestyle that was bred out of not having opportunities. Or, not perceiving to have opportunities.  Many came from broken families, or from villages with little to no economic activity. The education systems had largely failed them, and they had few examples of people who were innovative or pursuing the potential they had inherently. That got under my skin and I started wondering, “how can we bridge that gap?” so young people can see how huge their potential really is.

You both mention giving people opportunities. Jub, you were very intentional about finishing your college education before returning to the village. How does Breakthrough Thailand focus on education?

CORI: Education is a platform from where the girls can really launch. It is the basis of learning critical thinking skills, and challenging unhealthy societal norms that have been passed down to them. Not to mention the basic doors that open from an employment perspective. However, it is the critical thinking skills they gain from a positive education. This happens both through the schools they attend and what we try to instill in them here in a residential setting. I think it’s the platform where all of that begins.

JUB: And education is like a gate; the door to open opportunity. When I was young, my parents would say, “We don’t have anything [tangible] for you, but we want to support you at school. It can be a tool for you.” In the village we don’t know how to dream. Education allows you to dream. It is a door that opens your future.  

What is your wish for all the kids here? (Jub laughs, she says she has too many. Cori answers for them both)

CORI: That we would see them rise up and become positive influencers of their generation. That they would be voices of change. The catalyst that can start a model of something different. Thailand is a “same same” culture, so once somebody gets it, then that quickly spreads to others. But that one person has to break the cycle first.

Can you describe a little bit more about Same-Same?

CORI: Patterns of living are adopted and copied very quickly. If you do something your neighbor perceives as good, they will attempt to replicate that. This works for good and bad. When wealth is acquired through illegitimate means, that is copied quickly. If a kid decides to sacrifice the societal pleasures of dropping out of school, then works hard and succeeds in that way, that is the pattern that will be followed by peers and the next generation.

In our experience, we’ve found few who are willing and able to make the sacrifices and go through those difficult steps - for an number of reasons. Not always for lack of desire, but for lack of opportunity. We try to provide those opportunities and stand with those that do have the will.

What are some lessons you have learned about empowering others?

CORI: There have been a number of times we thought we had solutions, then found out it didn’t work. It really was just a good idea we had (or so we thought), but not what was needed. We used to come in with solutions of how we could fix things, and we fell incredibly short of the mark on that. There are better ways to walk with people toward growth than to provide solutions. It’s a very… narcissistic… what’s the word, I can’t seem to remember English!  

(Jub is Thai, but I closed my eyes, I wouldn’t know the difference between the two beyond the sound of their voices. Thai’s are always marveling at Cori’s lack-of American accent.)

Maegan: Yes, it seems self-centered thinking that we have all the answers and are best equipped to bring solutions.

CORI: Yes, it's self-centered to think I can evaluate a situation and determine what should be done in order to fix it... Now we seek to hear, understand and walk alongside people as they come up with their own solutions.   

Despite the challenges and learning curves, what keeps you going?

JUB: Responds with a Thai adage: 'The people that find success fall often. But when they fall, they get back up quickly.'  It is important to get back to a place that is healthy.  This is why you need to know yourself very well. I have wanted to quit many times. When I feel like giving up, I go back to the reason I’m here. That helps me through. I don’t want to say: I left, I gave up, or I ran away. I don’t want to look back and have regrets. I don’t want to lose the opportunity to get to know myself and people around me.

CORI: For me, it is letting the hope and power of victory always overcome the fear of failure. Even when failure is staring me in the face. Not letting setbacks distract me from hopes and the positive stories. It only takes one to break a cycle, so we will keep investing.

Jenilee Hurley
Tagged: Interview