A conscious traveler
Silverton man spices up his travels with service

A group of school kids greets Steve Leisle on a recent trip to Indonesia. The Silverton man has added a humitarian angle to his passion for travel and engaged in service projects all over Asia./Courtesy Photo

by Shawna Bethall

t’s February in Silverton, the snow is as high as the eaves, the economy is sliding south and life just isn’t what you’d hoped it would be. What can you do?

“The first trip was out of the blue,” recalled Steve Leisle, who’s been a builder and real estate agent in Silverton for the past several years. “A friend of mine invited me to Jakarta, so I called another friend who had grown up in Indonesia. This was after the tsuna mi, and she was going back to help.”

Leisle decided that even though volunteering in Indonesia had not been on his radar before, midwinter in Silverton wasn’t really cutting it, so he would give it a go. That was two years and four trips ago, and he says he’s never been happier.

That first trip, the one after the tsunami, Leisle and a group including his friend as well as nurses and teachers, visited the remote village of Banda Aceh, in northern Indonesia.

“The cities got the money,” explained Leisle, concerning the relief efforts in the region. “The villages were left behind.”

As locals took the group through the community, sharing food and telling stories, the real estate agent from Silverton gained a respect for the people and their culture. The volunteers played with the kids in the villages and set up a co-op to provide rototillers to rice farmers in the surrounding communities.

“You don’t really feel like you’re doing that much, but just being there means so much,” he said. “It’s hard for them to believe people would come all that way to help out.”

After returning to Silverton, Leisle realized he’d become “addicted” to the happiness and generosity of the people of Southeast Asia. He began planning his next trip, and a year later he found himself in Jakarta. This time, he volunteered at an orphanage where he taught English and math, but also helped out with building repairs.

“The kids would follow you around asking how to use a hammer, and you’re trying to figure out how to even say ‘hammer’ in Indonesian,” said Leisle, who remains charmed by his young “apprentices.”

Steve Leisle helps Habitat for Humanity break ground on a new house in Southeast Asia. Leisle has taken part in builds in Thailand and Indonesia, among other places./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

When his time was finished, he returned to Colorado but once again felt the pull back to what he now calls his second home. Six months later, he returned to the orphanage in Jakarta. But the place wasn’t the same. The director was struggling with health issues, and funding was short. She also was concerned with a recent group of volunteers who’d spent their time treating one of her orphanages as a hostel instead of a school.

“Volunteers don’t always realize the ramifications of their irresponsible behavior,” said Leisle. “If people are going to go, they need to go with good intentions and leave their ‘baggage’ at home.”

It was during this trip that the school’s director asked the builder to visit her other schools and help with upkeep and repairs. At this point something “clicked” for Leisle.

“I love the kids, but I’m only an OK teacher,” he said. “But I’m a good builder, so I figured why not use those skills where they are needed.” For his next trip, he contacted Habitat for Humanity who has “builds” all over Southeast Asia. He had hoped to find work in Bali so that he could continue learning the Indonesian language. But the build he found was in Thailand, so he applied there instead.

Leisle is emphatic in saying his intention for these long-term visits wasn’t only benevolence; he’s a traveler and he goes to see the countries and learn the cultures. He visits the temples and takes cooking classes. He’s traveled in places such as Thailand, Laos and Vietnam during his time off and he doesn’t want his efforts to be misunderstood. But he also feels that volunteering is an opportunity to work with locals and get to know them. This is exemplified in his work in Lampang, Thailand.

Leisle was already visiting northern Thailand when the Habitat build in Lampang was unexpectedly cancelled. Political unrest in Bangkok – where the crew was to fly into – triggered a travel alert from the United States. Habitat told him he could go and work with the local team there, but he would be doing it as an individual, not part of the organization. He went.

According to Leisle, two dilapidated homes had been torn down in anticipation of the Habitat build. When the build was cancelled, they hired local contractors for the job, and the contractors weren’t real excited to have a volunteer come in because it meant lost hourly wages for them.

“But they gladly let me do the grunt work,” Leisle said, pointing to a picture of himself shoulder deep in a trench he helped dig. “And I didn’t mind. I was glad to do it, and I learned their style of building. They get tired of people coming in and denigrating their craft. But these guys know what they’re doing. They don’t even use a level; they just set a line and go. I have a lot of respect for them.”

Being the only volunteer at the site allowed Leisle to get to know not only the contractors but the families they were building for as well. They shared home-cooked meals with the American and worked side by side with him. They made him feel welcome in spite of the language barrier.

“These people are incredible, and their smiles are so genuine,” he said. “They don’t need us to go in and save them. They just want people to work with them. I love it. Plus,” he added, smiling, “it’s fun.” •