Art Relief International designs and implements artistic outreach programs for many different groups in Chiang Mai, all of whom struggle to be accepted in the community because of their backgrounds. We work with various other local humanitarian organizations to offer ARI's featured programs to their participants.
Our focus groups include:
- Displaced Burmese refugees and migrant workers
- Indigenous hill tribe groups
- Single mothers in crisis
- Direct and indirect victims of HIV/AIDS
- Gay and transgender community
- Children with disabilities
- Incarcerated women and juveniles
- Adults with disabilities
- Male sex-workers
- And more!
Art is widely recognized as an extremely valuable tool in working through past trauma, as well as a means to communicate hardship and create new purpose. ARI works to ensure all of these groups can fully enjoy the power of art as a therapeutic and a community process through our program.
Here are a few of their stories. If you want to meet more artists, join us as a volunteer in Chiang Mai! Email:
for more details.
Phil from Hope Home as Artist of the Month!
When thinking of our first resilient artist to honor with the Artist of the Month title, we had to look no further than our man Phil.
Hope Home has been a standard workshop spot of Art Relief International for years. Personally speaking, it was the first ever workshop in which I volunteered with ARI. ARI Volunteers spend Wednesday mornings with six children who live in the care of Hope Home, a foster home for children with special needs. One of these amazing children is Phil.
Phil is ten years old, and has struggled with severe cerebral palsy his entire life. Phil has no family; he has lived at Hope Home ever since Judy Cook, the founder, brought him into their care from the nearby government orphanage outside of Chiang Mai.
Phil cannot speak, walk, or even stand- he struggles to sit up, he cannot go to the bathroom or feed himself. But what CAN Phil do? He can paint. Phil is an artist.
Phil is particularly skilled with his feet. “I’m impressed by the strength and ability of his feet. He can hold a paintbrush and is so excited and happy about moving his feet that it makes you happy too,” Nora Giersiepen, ARI volunteer.
“Painting, hugging, waving, and playing, Phil uses his feet in a very inspirational way. He has the most contagious smile and laughter,” Emma Gabriel, ARI volunteer.
Sometimes the struggles with his disability get the best of Phil- and we cannot blame him. Frustrated by his disability, he can at times forget his abilities, and we are there to remind him. He can paint. He can choose his colors. He can pick up and hold a paintbrush. He can (and LOVES) to unpack our box of art supplies in wild disarray with no concern over who must pick everything up! He can hold a music shaker. He can play the drums. He can wai hello to you. He can blow kisses. He can laugh, smile, and learn.
Phil loves watching TV, he loves running around the playground with the help of a strong volunteer, he loves kicking a soccer ball, eating snacks, and he loves listening to Bob Marley on my headphones. Phil does not like sharing, saying goodbye, practicing using his hands, which he finds just frustrating, and being ignored-naturally. He will let you know when you’re not paying enough attention to him.
“When I first met Phil I remember he had no front teeth! He is very lively, keeps laughing and is so excited every time we visit Hope Home. Regarding his disabilities, we never saw that as a problem. It was always exciting to see him painting with his feet. He is quite shy when we put art supplies or toys in front of him, he laughs every time we play with a toy that rings a bell. His favorite activity is to be taken out and go for strolls around the neighborhood,” Wad Rattanakit, Cultural Canvas Thailand’s Executive Director.
Every volunteer who comes through the program has gotten a chance to meet this extraordinary kid- and he has shown us that what you can do is more important than what you cannot do. Phil is really just like any ten year old boy- he loves to laugh and play. We honor him with our “Artist of the Month” because he is a figure of strength and reminds us that art and creativity do not discriminate against disability. Creativity can set you free.
Pim is 17-year-old girl from Buerum, in northeast Thailand. Like most girls her age, Pim had a steady boyfriend during high school, and when she was 16 she became pregnant. From there everything in her life changed. In Thailand, single motherhood is still highly stigmatized, and Pim’s parents could not sympathize with her situation. While at the hospital, Pim happened to glance over at a TV screen and she caught a glimpse of a future full of hope and support: a commercial for Wildflower Home. She decided right then and there to go to Wildflower as soon as she could.
Today, Pim is a happy, healthy mother of an 8-month-old baby boy. She says, “I was thinking about giving my baby to someone else but after my baby was born everything changed. Seeing his face makes me happy.” Life with her newborn hasn’t always been easy. When her son was only a month old, he became critically ill with pneumonia, forcing Pim to confront the hard realities of motherhood. “I was crying on the phone to my mother to say sorry,” Pim says. “I finally know how hard she works to take care of me. She forgives and understands me now.” Pim hopes to make a better life for both herself and her child, planning to “continue studying in Nursing” if she can. Pim says proudly, “I want to take care of my family.”
Pim loves learning English and Art, and has shown an abounding passion for creative exploration in our workshops. At Wildflower, she has tried to take advantage of the vocational training opportunities available to all the mothers. “I like working with color,” Pim says. “CCT should come again. Everyone here loves art and I will think about how to adapt this workshop to the products we sell.” For the women at Wildflower Home, art is more than a creative release; it is a pathway to a more sustainable way of life.
Children's Learning Center Story
Chiang Mai is one of the most successful and vibrant cities in Southeast Asia, with a growing population of over 233,000 people. The city grows daily, primarily as a result of tourism and the skyrocketing demand for eco-trekking. As a result, new buildings—hotels, condos, malls, and subdivisions—rise everyday, creating a massive need for labor. Burmese refugees, Tai Yai ethnics and Hill Tribe people are often employers’ first choice for staffing these massive construction projects mainly because they are cheaper than local laborers and have few legal rights for more lucrative employment. Refugees from Burma enter Thailand daily to live and work in Chiang Mai. They usually build shanty homes in one of the city's many construction camps.
Wanna is the daughter of a Tai Yai couple who live and work at one of these construction camps. She doesn’t know how old she is: “I’m around 11-12 years old,” she says. “My mom didn’t inform the officer about my birth.” She moved from Namjing, Kashin State, Burma four years ago to live with her parents, who had moved several years earlier. They have been stuck ever since in low-paying and dangerous jobs at a construction site in Chiang Mai. Wanna does not like living in Chiang Mai, explaining, “Here is not our home. I don’t feel it’s home.” Wanna and her parents have decided to move back to Burma within the next three years, risking their jobs and migration rights to return to their home country.
Wanna’s mother is almost 45 years old. She has been unable to work for a year due to an ear infection. Wanna’s parents cannot even afford school, no less quality healthcare. Fortunately, Wanna is able to study at the Children Learning Center, a school for Burmese migrant children run by the Migrant Learning Center -- an NGO that works with the families in the camps. She loves writing and won an award for an essay entitled “My Family.” She has set her sights high, and hopes to one day share her story with the world.
Today, Wanna is telling her story through art. She’s working on a miniature paper house as part of a workshop put together by our canvas volunteers called Model Village Visualization. “I love art,” Wanna says. “I love painting. It’s another way to tell my story.” She continues, as she glues paper onto her house template: “I want to have my own house and [to] have a good job so that my parents don’t have to work hard.” Her determination shows in her words. Her little house is complete as we finish our conversation: bright, colorful, and full of hope.