From Durango to Myanmar
The Shanta Foundation reaches out to the Pa-O people

by Jules Masterjohn

Durango is home to many remarkable people. Some of these individuals are champions in the athletic world, others are chroniclers of the region’s history. Still others are warriors for the environment, helping to keep our air and watersheds pristine and healthy. We are known as a friendly and caring bunch and demonstrate this with the more than 200 non-profit organizations located in our region. The relief efforts after the 2008 Main Avenue fire again proved that we take care of our own.

Additionally, there are some among us whose sense of community extends far beyond our region and whose efforts benefit communities half way across the world. The Shanta Foundation was born from the need of longtime Durango residents, Tricia and Mike Karpfen, to contribute to a broader world. "We wanted our lives to be bigger than ourselves."

Four years ago, while visiting Burma as tourists, the couple found a place to focus their desire to serve. “We were moved by the generosity and graciousness of the impoverished people we met while visiting Burma, especially in the face of a repressive government,” Mike offered at a recent fund-raising event for the foundation. Upon their return to the U.S., the Karpfens decided to form a non-profit organization dedicated to “improving the education, health, and financial well-being of entire villages” through collaborative processes with the villagers whose lives are affected.

Since 2006, the Shanta Foundation has established partnerships with seven villages in the Inle Lake region in eastern Burma, currently known as Myanmar. The people of this region belong to an ethnic tribe called the Pa-O and are know for their colorful weavings. They have traditionally supported themselves through subsistence farming.

The government of Myanmar is not currently tending to the needs of the people, especially in remote regions, so villagers depend upon their own efforts. It was after conversations with a Buddhist monk in one village that the Karpfens recognized the need for a primary school. Most children, if they do attend school, only do so for 2 to 3 years, and are then sent to work in family fields. Many parents are unhappy about this and want a different life for their children, but there have been no options for village Pa-O children.

To help create opportunities through education, the foundation set out on its first project in 2006. Mike smiled as he recalled arriving in the remote village of Yim Bya, with Durango chiropractor Ted Zerrer and his son, and $13,000 in his pocket to build a primary school. “It didn’t seem too difficult though we really didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, the people in the village were very organized and knew exactly what needed to be done.”

Once the building was completed and functional, the Shanta team realized that building schools doesn’t guarantee children would be educated. “If the teachers leave because they aren’t paid well and the kids are sick with diarrhea from bad drinking water or hungry from a lack of balanced nutrition in their diets, the learning is compromised,” Mike explained.

In order to help to improve the lives of Pa-O children, the foundation in collaboration with the villages, has built six primary schools, one regional middle school and set up four pre-schools as well as funded teacher trainings.

The Shanta Foundation has also built five village-wide water systems, six village latrines, and a community center as well as providing dental and medical clinics and hiring a full-time doctor. A crops-to-market system has been developed in one village in which a used truck was purchased and is now owned by the school. The truck is rented out to villagers to transport crops to the market and generates $1500 annually for the village’s educational program. This full circle system benefits everyone involved.

Since their first school building project, Shanta has taken a broader perspective, one that now “organizes communities to build on their own strengths, creating greater self-sufficiency to eliminate poverty.” Given the uncertain political situation within Myanmar, the foundation also wants to guarantee, if possible, that the work within the villages could continue in the event that the foundation no longer has a presence in the country.

The logical conclusion was to focus on sustainable community development, and the first step has been to develop a leadership program among the villagers. With the assistance of a Burmese community organizer, the people in each village have implemented a process by which they select 7 women and men for a leadership team to guide the village’s decision-making process.

Through the work of the Karpfens and Shanta’s dedicated and experienced board of directors, the foundation has grown beyond their initial focus of building schools. This widened perspective has come from spending time with the village people to identify what they need to make their lives more sustainable. “We do it the right way,” said Maggie Galland, Shanta board member. “We ask the people, ‘what do you want and how can we help you manifest it for your children?’”

In a country were there are few NGOs doing humanitarian work, the Shanta Foundation has been well received. Tricia Karpfen shared stories of excitement about its presence in village life. “When we start a project in a new village, all the people already involved in the work in other villages want to come along to the new village to share their enthusiasm.” The foundation has received requests to work in more communities than is possible.

“We have to say ‘no’ quite often,” she said. This year, the Shanta board of directors made a decision to develop and fully establish all the programs within the seven villages before expanding their assistance to other villages, believing that proven programs will best support self-sufficiency for the rural villages of Myanmar.

The organization’s success has come from an approach that respects the experiences of the local villagers. Linda Barnes, a certified nurse midwife, who traveled with Shanta as a volunteer to train traditional birth attendants last March, brought the organization’s role into perspective. “The women in the villages are very experienced with assisting births,” she said. “They have an intuitive sense when something is not right. What the traditional birth attendants lack is the knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of birth. So, when a labor is delayed, they will now know that one possibility is that the baby may be stuck in the birth canal, and will have some basic training in how to assess the problem and seek appropriate assistance.”

As the Shanta Foundation addresses the future needs of the Pa-O people – five new pre-schools, three water systems, the further training of local health care workers and primary school teachers, and a village micro-finance program for weavers – all involved remain committed to the large tasks of fundraising and organizing. Through it all, the Karpfens acknowledge, “We have found that our destiny is wrapped up with the Burmese people.” •

For more information about the Shanta Foundation, visit or call (970) 259-5120.