Two Lao-American sisters spearheaded efforts to set up Jai Lao Foundation to continue their parents' legacy of helping and giving to the poor people of Laos.
Soutkita La Reagan and sister Noelle or Soutsapha Singharath migrated to the United States with their parents and six siblings in 1980 when they were 7 and 10 years-old respectively. So they grew up Americanized like most Lao kids in this country, thinking and behaving like American kids, sometimes forgetting their Lao heritage, until 2004 when they went back to Laos for a Buddhist memorial service for their parents who had passed away.
That trip to Paksaphan Village, Saravan Province, was the second one for La, but it completely changed her life. With a little bit
of emotion in her voice, she said, "The first time I went back, I saw what the conditions were like over there,saw the poverty and the suffering of the Lao people. It so saddened
me that I did not want to go back there again. But when I went back the second time with
my siblings and my own family, to hold a memorial service for our parents, we saw the overwhelming generosity of the villagers. They came pouring in with whatever little offerings they had, a small bag of rice, some money - one or two dollars - to give us as tokens of their participation. We were so impressed!"
It was then that La and her siblings learn about the generosity of their own parents, Kheuangkham and Kaysone Singharath. Noelle said her parents went back to Laos every single year after they sold their restaurant and retired, and every time they would help the villagers by doing something beneficial to them such as digging a big pond to raise fish so that the villagers would have a pond to fish for food, or help renovate the local temple among other things. Noelle added that the villagers all had kind words about their parents' generosity and good deeds, and it is this legacy of theirs that she and La would like to continue.
"I'm so inspired that I felt I needed to do what my parents did and walk in their steps and help the poor, because if you just kept feeling sorry for the poor but not do anything about it, it doesn't do you any good. At least when you go over there, you realize that the little thing that you do, it helps a life or two or the whole village. And in that sense, it changes your life. If we just focus on one village at a time, it can be a better society, maybe not now but 30-40 years from now, and that's what Jai Lao is all about," said La or Soutkita Reagan.
"Why the name Jai Lao(Lao Heart)? I was thinking about what we should call this foundation that's gonna symbolize who we are and what we are - Laotians. Then it just popped up in my head, Jai - we want to give from the heart, and Laotians have incredible hearts, incredibly kind and giving hearts. And that's how the name came into play. I know and believe in my heart of hearts that all Laotians have the most giving heart, even though they are so poor in Laos."
Jai Lao Foundation was officially incorporated in April and is now waiting for its 501(c) (3) status. This past weekend, La, Noelle, and a few friends came all the way from California, at their own expenses, to Washington DC's Wat Lao Buddhavong to set up a food stall selling sticky rice and papaya salad during the July 4th celebrations to raise money for Jai Lao.
They hope to raise more funds when they formally launch their humanitarian organization in August under the theme "One Night in Laos" in the backyard of La's home in Merced, California, complete with Lao food stalls, arts and crafts, classical dance performances and a Lao band because, said La, one of Jai Lao's objectives is to promote and preserve Lao culture and traditions.
The Singharath sisters' projects under Jai Lao include a small pre-school complete with bathrooms first, and later a small high school for Paksaphan Village. La said education there stops after eighth grade because the nearest high school is two hours away.
Jai Lao's past projects included, among other things, installation of a playground in a primary school in Paksaphan Village, construction of a water pump system for two schools and a two-room bathroom for a secondary school, distribution of educational materials to two schools as well as clothing and personal hygiene items to poor students and people. Funding for the first few projects came out of La's own pockets, except for funding for the two-room bathroom project that her son and daughter helped raise when they celebrated their 12th and 9th birthdays respectively.
For more details in Lao listen to our audio files. For more information about Jai Lao and to donate, visit www.JaiLao.org