By Kathy Boyd and Shannon Blackwell
In October 2018, SAP North America announced that employees would have the opportunity to apply to participate in “Service Unites,” an international volunteer experience in Thailand. After submitting a two-minute video on their purpose, passion, and why they would be the best person to represent SAP in this opportunity, SAP Concur employees, Shannon Blackwell and Kathy Boyd, were two of the five employees selected to embark on this journey.
From the beginning of this opportunity, both Shannon and I kept asking “why me?” I have never been overseas, I don’t speak multiple languages, I am older than the other team members…but can still lift and haul with the best of them! But we both want to make the world a better place and were honored to be selected.
SAP partnered with an organization called Cross-Cultural Solutions (CSS) that focuses on child education and health. Our project was to build hand washing stations at a local school in the Nan Province of Thailand. Our time in Thailand and with the staff at CCS was great. We both felt that they worked diligently to ensure we felt comfortable in the Thai environment, that we understood customs, and knew what to expect when interacting with students, teachers, and the public. This was extremely helpful and allowed us to focus on our project, instead of sorting out any confusion.
Our task was to install hand washing stations and to educate on hygiene. For the first three days, we worked on re-building the hand washing stations—this included mixing and pouring the cement, tiling, adding grout to the tile sections, and painting. On the last two days, we taught multiple sessions to groups of students on the importance of good hygiene and hand washing. We finished our task, but it was sad to see the ongoing need for more.
This is meant to be eye-opening, not depressing. In North America, we don’t even think about what it would be like living without soap and warm water. It made me realize that the hand washing stations we built will help these students stay healthy, allowing them to continue in school and improve their lives.
For me, personally, this was a brand-new experience. I was the only one in the group who had not experienced volunteering internationally, so it was definitely a different experience.
The hand washing station project was very important, but we did not even scratch the surface. Everywhere we went hygiene was an issue. Soap and hot water were rarely available in bathrooms. The teacher’s bathroom at the school, that is also used to wash dishes, was the only place where we saw soap. The need was overwhelming.
However, I thought the smaller moments had the most impact. One day, Rybo (another SAP volunteer) and I taught a class about germs. We finished early, so we opened it up to questions about anything—these kids were curious about a lot! The conversation landed on the topic of careers and one student said he wanted to be a programmer. Lucky for him, that’s Rybo’s job. After a few minutes of chatting, the student revealed he was teaching himself online. Rybo shared a multitude of resources with the student and suggested specific data science he should learn. This child was so excited, and Rybo, quite possibly, could have changed his life just from this conversation. He now knows where to go and how to improve his skillset to become a programmer and someday work for a company like SAP.
After seeing this exchange, the principal asked if we could go over to the computer class to potentially help some more students. It turns out they were learning Dreamweaver and we were so happy to assist. The hand washing station project was great, but we had so many interactions that will have just as much impact, if not more. That’s what we will all remember—the moments that SAP helped create, the moments that really mattered. Those are the stories we will tell over and over.
One thing that stood out to me is that kids are the same, no matter where you are. They are curious, smart, funny, and emotional. The language barrier didn’t matter. I could smile, nod, or speak my (really bad) Thai and they would smile back. I know that we were there to build hand washing stations, but we were also there to provide encouragement. As I was awake at 2:00am this morning from jetlag, I thought about the result we all wanted, to give these students and staff access to clean water to stay healthy. If our being there, helps just one student stay in school and not miss out on an education because they were sick, or pass along an illness to those around them, we succeeded in what we set out to do.
Through the education on germs, hygiene, and proper hand washing, we were able to help the students succeed in their education and improve their lives. But I believe we can do more.
We can all do something to help others. I am thankful that SAP and SAP Concur also believe this. SAP’s purpose of helping the world run better and improving people’s lives is one that we all embraced.
As Concurians, we are afforded the opportunity to volunteer eight hours per quarter and I want to encourage all my colleagues to use those hours. We can all help in some way – this is our purpose and the purpose of SAP. You don’t have to travel globally to make an impact, but we were all thankful that SAP created this opportunity, selected us, and we are looking forward to the next experience!