Sumlee Beede, owner of Sala Thai Restaurant in Duluth, grew up in a small village in Thailand. Last February, she went back to her home village and visited her old elementary school. She remembers fondly when a group of more than 400 Thai children waited in line to receive toothbrushes and chocolate from her. She thinks about these children every day.
“Growing up all my family went to this school between two villages,” Beede said. “Every time I’ve gone home, I drive by there and my heart drops because I would remember how horrible the bathroom was at that school.”
The bathroom is dirty and doesn’t have running water. There are only two stalls and there is no storage for toilet paper or cleaning supplies. There isn’t a sink so students wash their hands by pouring water from a cup over their hands. This cup is also used to clean the toilet after each use.
After visiting her old elementary school, Beede decided that she was going to raise money to fix up the bathrooms. The old bathrooms are “decayed” and “embarrassing,” Beede said. She worked in education for 28 years and says education and helping children is very important to her, especially in her home village.
“I know that kids need help everywhere, but this is a personal connection for me. It’s where I came from,” Beede said. “This is just a little token to show that I appreciate what I got from this elementary school.”
Beede said that the inadequate hand washing facilities are her biggest concern. United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Thailand cites that many schools and homes lack safe water supplies.
According to a UNICEF Thailand press release, “some schools even lack sufficient water supplies for cleaning, which results in toilets becoming unsanitary and a threat to children’s health. Many schools also lack the minimum number of toilets required to serve the student population. Toilets are also often dark and far from classrooms, which can be dangerous for young children and girls.”
Without adequate water and sanitation facilities, children are more likely to get sick and spread diseases.
“I know I can’t fix all the problems, but I always wanted to fix up the bathroom so that proper hand washing could happen,” Beede said. “They had built a bathroom, but it wasn’t working. The excavation company had burst the water line and they didn’t take the responsibility to fix it. So the new bathroom was just sitting there without any running water.”
To help raise the money, Beede began teaching a cooking class, charging $40 a person. She raised $550, which was enough to fix the water line and provide the school with running water. She was also given an estimate from a Thai construction company to build a six stall bathroom, three for girls and three for boys.
Beede does not want to give them the money to build this new six-stall bathroom until they commit to demolishing the old and decayed bathroom. She also wants to make sure that the new bathroom will be properly maintained by cleaning staff and the children. This new bathroom would cost between $8-10,000.
“I don’t think it’s out of reach. If I work hard I can get the money to get this done for them,” Beede said. “I have some friends spread the word about my cooking class, but it’s just kind of me financially. I just want to get it done to help them.”
Once she fixes up the bathroom, Beede wants to tackle the inadequate facilities in the kitchen. Right now, the school feeds over 400 children from two clay pots over an open fire. There is a sink where water is run in from a reservoir. Beede just wants to provide them with the basics.
“Sometimes these kids don’t get lunch and only get one meal a day,” Beede said, with tears in her eyes. “These kids are so skinny. I work with food so it’s hard to see these kids go hungry.”
Beede is going back to Thailand next February for two weeks to visit the school. She hopes to see some of the changes she’s worked toward.
“I will work hard to get this accomplished in the next year or two, hopefully sooner. If it comes sooner, that will be a blessing,” Beede said. “If we don’t fix all of that, I think prompting some of the interest and needs of the school is a good place to start.”
Though Beede recognizes the problems in her old elementary school, she has fond memories. She feels blessed that this school has provided her with so much and never thought she would own her own restaurant, car and house.
Beede will host another cooking class in the fall to raise more money. She also plans on hosting a fundraiser at her restaurant. All the proceeds will go toward the school in Thailand.
“It is because of the gifts that I have, that I want to give back something to the school that gave me so much,” Beede said.