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A Giving Spirit

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‘Pon is a real hero in our community'

When Paphanh (Pon) Sithavady, a custodian in Reed, Dartmouth, Thorton, and Bartlett Halls, returned to her home country of Laos in 2006 and witnessed the devastating poverty in her husband's village of Ban Done, she considered her own good fortune.

Paphanh (Pon) Sithavady (left, standing), Facilities Operations and Management custodian, with children in the Ban Done middle school in her home country of Laos. Sithavady raised funds-largely through her own earnings-to rebuild the school, which was under construction when this photo was taken in 2007. She now hopes to build a medical clinic for the community.

"I have a home. I have a job I'm very happy with. I have lots of friends who help me. There are families in Ban Done who have nothing, farmers who can't feed their own families. I couldn't just walk away," she says.

What struck Sithavady most was the condition of the schools. Ban Done's dilapidated elementary school had holes in its walls and floors, flooding, and contaminated water. The middle school was infested with termites.

pon sithavady
Paphanh (Pon) Sithavady (Photo by Joseph Mehling ’69)

As a child, Sithavady had to look after her younger siblings following her mother's death, and was not able to attend school. "I had always wanted to go to school, to learn," says Sithavady, who moved from a refugee camp in Thailand to New Hampshire with her husband and children in 1980. "I couldn't do that, but now that I have a better life here, I want to be able to help people in Laos achieve this dream."

Sithavady paid to have the elementary school repaired and purchased toys and soccer uniforms for the students. When she returned to Dartmouth, she had run out of money, but not dedication to the cause.

She communicated with education and government officials in Laos, and told everyone she knew about the middle school she planned to build. She set aside money from her paycheck and raised funds selling handcrafts made by Ban Done residents. Sithavady earns additional money by catering parties, selling jewelry, and making holiday wreaths-with all of the proceeds devoted to her projects in Laos.

By 2007, she had raised $25,000-enough to install a filtered water tank for Ban Done's schools and to complete the new Ban Done Middle School. Photos show a pristine white building with bright red shutters, and smiling children on the playground.

Sithavady's efforts are supported by her many friends at Dartmouth and the surrounding community. Robin Donovan, Classics Department administrator in Reed Hall, helps advertise her initiatives, and serves as a contact and drop-off point for items sold by Sithavady.

"Everyone knows Pon and stops to talk to her," says Donovan. "She's very kind; if you're having a hard time, she's there for you and finds some way to make you feel special, even if she doesn't know you very well. She's always thinking about how she can help other people."

Pamela Crossley, the Robert 1932 and Barbara Black Professor in Southeast Asian Studies, has collaborated with Sithavady on some of her fund-raising efforts for five years. "Pon is a real hero in our community. She provides us with an example and shows us the way to provide practical, effective help to people who need it. The water and building projects she has helped the people of Ban Done with will provide benefits and a model to the people of Laos for a very long time," says Crossley.

The Laotian government has sent letters to Sithavady, thanking her for her efforts. With the middle school completed, Sithavady's next goal is to raise $35,000 to build a medical clinic for Ban Done, whose nearest medical help is 75 miles away. She also hopes to move ahead with additional repairs to the elementary and high schools.

Sithavady says, "In my life, I want to do something good, something good before I die. You look around campus and see the buildings people have donated: Baker-Berry, Thayer ... I don't have much money, but I wanted to do something like that too."

To order a holiday wreath or contribute to Sithavady's efforts, contact Robin Donovan on Blitz or at (603) 667-5468.



Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08