Pursuing a Passion: Global Citizenship

Wunderman’s Daniel Morel on Building a School in Laos

Every so often, something striking happens that has a profound impact on one’s view of the world. It happened to me when Geoff Collins, Wunderman’s now-retired office head in Bangkok, told me about his motorbike trip along the Mekong River in Northern Laos. He and his brother witnessed how the lack of educational resources seemed to be a severe disadvantage to residents in the area, so they decided to volunteer their time to help a village during their stay.

This village had no roads, cars, phones or reliably distributed electricity and, making it even more difficult for Geoff, no one there spoke English. Hearing Geoff’s story, I became captivated by his mission, which in turn became my own.

My relationship with Southeast Asia began years ago at the dinner table listening to my father, a French civil servant in the diplomatic corps, tell stories about life in the Orient. As I grew older, I became part of the ’80s generation who travelled the world with a backpack and a bicycle. I journeyed up and down the Mekong River, soaking up the culture.

Asia became top of mind after the 2004 tsunami devastated the region’s fragile infrastructure. Our Wunderman offices around the world raised $170,000 to support relief efforts. Our colleagues in Thailand worked alongside our Ford client and Habitat for Humanity to build homes. As a result, we established vital connections to aid groups and sought to extend our level of involvement in the community.

Geoff was also part of the post-tsunami relief effort and remained involved, helping to rebuild the region. He invited me to Laos, and I accepted. My travels there increasingly exposed me to the Laotian people and their needs. Despite its beauty, Laos is a country that still bears the scars of war. Unexploded munitions litter the countryside—the deadly trade of harvesting scrap metal, especially by women and children, is a tempting source of income for many.

My journey brought me closer to the people and reacquainted me with their poverty. Laotians earn, on average, less than $900 a year. On a ride up the Mekong River, I met a young woman on her way to be married. I was looking to find something to give her. Eventually I handed over the contents from the pockets of my motorcycle jacket, which just happened to include some Bulgari toiletry samples. The gesture was clearly appreciated and quickly reminded me that, to those who don’t have much, a kind gesture or a small token can mean a great deal. Some of you may dismiss this as too insignificant a gesture to alleviate anything in the grand scheme of things; I respectfully disagree. For those who live from day to day with so very little, anything is appreciated and welcome.

Geoff took me down river to the isolated village of Ban Lad Hane, where he was building a school. Geoff, along with his brother Marty, runs the Bridging the Gap Mekong Trust, a charity registered with the government of New Zealand. Its purpose is to provide local people with what they need most — education and opportunities to work. By supplying essential education resources, the trust’s mission is to improve the standard of education in order to produce knowledgeable, resourceful citizens in the long term.

It was a natural fit for Wunderman to become involved in this mission; it is in perfect alignment with our commitment to learning. As a company, Wunderman is sponsoring the trust’s school-building initiative in Ban Lad Hane. Concrete and rebar, chairs and blackboards — all are being shipped to build this school on the Mekong.

The trust’s work on the school continues, and the work isn’t easy. Yet I know, when it is finished, everyone who contributed to its construction will be proud. I am personally gratified, as the school will be named the Lester Wunderman School in honor founder of our agency, whose passion for learning continues to inspire others.

I tell you this story because it reminds me, every day, what it means to be a global citizen. We as a company embrace the broad view that we have a responsibility to our customers, communities and environment. For me personally, involvement with the Bridging the Gap Mekong Trust has been extremely fulfilling. The ability to get involved and connect with people brings its own rewards—some of the immediate variety and some that take more time. All are invaluable.


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