February 28, 2023 at 7:17 pm
We regret to announce the recent passing of Duke McElroy, 82, at his home in Roberts Creek, British Columbia.
In 2006, Duke and Steve Armstrong founded Myanmar Schools Project (MSP), an American charity with the goal of building schools in Myanmar villages. By the end of 2015, MSP had constructed or renovated 45 buildings. Roger Brain joined their efforts starting in 2009 and subsequently founded the Canadian charity MBSPF that carried forward Duke and Steve’s initiative. Now, well over 100 schools have been built and many more upgraded, benefitting more than 10,000 children in rural Myanmar.
Duke was always glad to know that school building continues. He and his wife Sharon’s lifelong practice of generosity was directed toward education as a long-term strategy for improving the life of a community.
When Roger joined Duke and Steve on their trips to Myanmar, he recalls:
“Duke was the the oldest of the group, but his energy was unbounded. Because Duke and I shared a lifelong passion for golf, at least once each trip we would leave Steve to work and search out a course to play…Duke hated the limelight and let his actions do the talking. His generosity practice was a great teaching for me and I will always be grateful for our time together.”
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October 26, 2020 at 3:29 am
Text and photos: John Stevens
An important part of building construction in Myanmar is getting the right kind and quality of sand. Sand is used throughout our construction. It’s in each school foundation, in every brick and in the concrete.
Sea sand, desert sand and local kinds of ground sand are not really suitable for construction purposes. Only river sand should be used and although it’s not easily accessible, that’s the only kind of sand that we ever use.
In the photo below, you see regular sand which is found everywhere. It’s used a lot in Myanmar. It’s cheap but very coarse and not pure. Bricks and concrete made of inferior sand will flake, crack and crumble. Depending on how poor the quality is, some of them even break in half during the transporting. Buildings made with this sand do not last very long.
The sand we always use comes from a freshwater river. That sand is fine and pure as the next photo shows.
We could purchase locally made bricks made from regular sand near the construction sites for a lower price, but we pay two thirds more to get the bricks that we want. We trucked these bricks 160 miles to the current school site from north of Mandalay One truck can transport 7500 bricks.
Sand is also a major part of the aggregate in the concrete we make for the school’s construction. Maung Maung Gyi always says he wants the schools he builds to last 100 years. That means river sand.
(John Stevens and contractor Maung Maung Gyi are based in Mandalay and have been building high quality schools for MBSPF throughout Myanmar for ten years now.)
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October 6, 2020 at 11:11 pm
The 2020 Baw Nin Ywar Thit High School Project
A year ago, in July 2019, we heard from a long-time supporter of MBSPF. He and his wife have always been particularly interested in girls’ education and now they wanted to hear about the Baw Nin Ywar Thit village project.
I had visited this village in the hills outside of Heho on my first trip to Myanmar in 2012. We had made a bumpy landing after a bumpy flight from Yangon, and were met at the airport gate by Ernest Singh, our Kalaw area contractor. We drove straight to the village. It had rained hard and the soft dirt road was so muddy we finally had to get out and walk to the village. As we met with the chief and village elders to hear what they needed, I could see the circle of women and babies sitting off to the side, watching and waiting to see if these strangers from Canada might agree to build a primary school for their children.
We did decide to build there in 2013, and it was a very successful primary school. (in our minds, a school is successful when the villagers work well with our crew and volunteer to provide food and some materials during the building phase and when the government sends the teachers and when many children attend the school.)
Five years later we built a middle school in Baw Nin Ywar Thit. Children were coming from villages up to five miles away, a long walk each day to attend the middle grades. But our success created a problem. This last visit, in 2018, we could see they now needed a high school. But high schools are both expensive and rare, so we knew this school would draw students from an even wider area around the village. Where were these high school age students from distant villages to stay? While the boys could be accommodated at the local Monastery, the girls could not. They would need a girls’ residence if (as we fervently wish) the girls were to continue their education. A building was also needed to house the female teachers who live on the school site.
We are privileged to meet many fine people in our work. The Chief of 22 villages, U Nyo Aye, is from the Taung Yoe tribe. He is also secretary of Taung Yoe tribe culture and literature. Our contractor tells us that he works very hard for his people. We first met U Nyo Aye in 2012 on our first visit to Baw Nin Ywar Thit. He was instrumental in our decision to build the primary school there.
This trip, when we asked his opinion, he suggested that we stretch to try to build a girls’ residence to go with the new high school. The female teachers who would live on the school property could supervise them. We saw it would be an elegant solution for these female students.
Here he is explaining his proposal to Roger through a translator:
It was a great idea—but expensive. A high school was already stretching our resources.
And then! Since education for girls was the heart’s desire for these faithful donors of MBSPF, they offered to fund both the teacher’s residence and the residence for girls in addition to the high school! With happy hearts, we went ahead.
And now, the 2020 Baw Nin Ywar Thit high school project is completed. And we are all very satisfied.
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April 16, 2017 at 8:37 am
An MBSPF-funded school brings the promise of a brighter
future for farming families.
Text and photos: Quade Hermann
“If people have no education, they have no life.”
The words of U Kyaw Kyaw Tun, the President of They Phyu Chaung Village Council, are met with nods of approval from the 50 or so parents sitting along the walls inside the old school room. The room is half renovated; the bamboo walls and roof have been torn down and replaced with concrete and corrugated metal. Close by, a second new and larger school building is also taking shape thanks to the volunteer work of the villagers and the financial support of the Myanmar/Burma Schools Project Foundation. Together the two school buildings represent a turning point for this farming village of about 250 households just north of Yangon.
Maung Maung Gyi (centre, on phone), head of the construction company working with MBSPF to build schools in Myanmar. He’s passionate about what the new school can do for the families in this village. Beside him is Naga Sema, a monk from the nearby meditation centre, who has personally donated a lot to the development of They Phyu Chaung over the years.
“People are talking because of the new school,” says Win Khing, a mother of two whose daughter started kindergarten last year. “It has brought a new excitement to the village. If you go to people’s houses they talk a lot, they have new ideas.” Like most of her neighbours, Win Khing left school after grade four to work in the fields, but she has a different future in mind for her daughter: university, and the world beyond the village.
Some 200 children will be able to stay in their home village and stay in school up to Standard 8 thanks to the generosity of MBSPF.
The excitement about the school is shared by Headmistress Daw Win Mar. With her hair swept back in a tight bun, she is upright and elegant in her bright white teacher’s blouse and long dark green skirt. She has been teaching in They Phyu Chaung for 30 years. Everyone falls respectfully quiet when she speaks.
“It was hard in the old school,” she says. The roof and walls were made of bamboo, open to the rain, the cold, the insects and the heat. “In the rainy season, the children get wet. In the dry season, they are too hot to think. In the cold months, they get sick. And they are too easily distracted by looking through a hole in the wall to watch someone walk past.”
The new school building has thick walls, big windows and has been positioned specifically to catch the cooling breeze that blows across the fields at certain times of day. But the new building will bring more than comfort for the students and an increased ability to concentrate on learning.
There is no electricity in the village, no air conditioning, so the new building is positioned to catch the cooling breeze. The walls are 10” thick, twice that of a normal school, which will keep the inside cooler in summer and warmer in winter and be strong enough to withstand the earthquakes that regularly rumble across Myanmar.
Teachers’ quarters. The teachers’ cottage will sleep six. A new government regulation will see teachers rotate jobs and villages every five years. Good living quarters will help attract teachers to the school, and keep them comfortable. “If the teachers are happy, then they will do a good job and the children will be happy,” says Maung Maung Gyi.
“Until now after Standard 4 the children have to leave this school and go to another town. They must walk about 30 minutes to the highway and then travel seven miles to the school,” explains Maung Maung Gyi, the head of the construction company working with MBSPF to build this school and several others. “The people in the village are all farmers, some quite poor. Only a few can send their children to the next town and even then they have to give them food for the week. It’s expensive. Students who cannot study after Standard 4 they go to work, then marry and have children. They stay poor.”
Maung Maung Gyi’s (centre) with his construction team. Crews of volunteers from the village have also contributed to the project by helping to dig the foundation and other labour-intensive tasks.
Thanks to the generosity of MBSPF and the support of the government in providing more teachers, the school will eventually offer classes through Standard 8, which means all the children in this village – especially girls – will be able to stay in school longer. Statistics show what these parents already know by common sense: the longer their children stay in school, the brighter their future will be.
“You can give children money, they can win the lottery,” says U Kyaw Kyaw Tun. “But without an education they won’t know what to do with it. Education is the most important thing.” The parents nod and smile again, because they know their children will have a better chance now at getting this most important thing.
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March 2, 2017 at 7:50 pm
Earlier this year (2017), the Nwar Shar Yoe village school that we built in 2016 was turned for one day into a rural health center for villagers who have cataract problems. The school was chosen by the health department to be their temporary health centre as it was the only really good building in the area. The doctors said that had they not been able to find a building this clean in this part of the district, it would not have been possible for them to come there at all. 220 mostly elderly villagers came from a total of 15 villages within a radius of 4 to 5 miles to be treated by 20 doctors who brought along 42 medical students with them.
February 15, 2017 at 12:47 pm
Board Member Meg Clarke and her husband Bill, invaluable team members on the Mandalay portion of the Annual Schools Trip Dec 25, 2016 – Jan 11, 2017, have this delightful story to share:
“We love it! We love it. We love it!” –
chanted a classroom full of 5-year olds as Bill walked in to take their picture. Bill was so overwhelmed, he nearly forgot to capture the picture. The only other English words they knew were “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
We all know that gratitude, and expressing gratitude, creates health and happiness. Most of us could take lessons in gratitude from these 5-year olds – and from everyone in the villages whose outpouring of appreciation touched us deeply. They lined the dirt road as we approached, sometimes giving us fragrant flower-garland necklaces. Now I know how the Queen feels when she arrives in a new place.
Always, they took our hands and said “Mingalabah”, or blessings be with you.
In most of the villages in which we are building schools, the school becomes the only concrete-floored, earthquake- resistant, monsoon-proof building in the village. Villagers live in wooden huts with dirt floors, and palm-frond roofs. They have no running water and often the village shares a single well. There is no electricity. They cook outdoors over open fires and eat squatting; no tables or chairs.
So imagine how the children feel, in a dry secure building, sitting at desks, having clean toilets. No wonder they “love it!”
January 30, 2017 at 10:02 am
MBSPF Board director Sharon Brain was a key member of the team on the Annual Schools Trip Dec 25, 2016 – Jan 11, 2017. Here is her account of a day on the road visiting rural villages/schools in the Kalaw area of Myanmar:
We went to a school opening in the morning in the village of Pwe Hla Shwe Gone, one of our bigger school buildings (five classrooms) which was funded by a generous Deep Cove couple (neighbours of ours we know through our church.) It was January 1 so the village was in full festival mode and there was speech-making, dancing and loud music—a wonderful party.
The women (this is the Pa’o area in the Shan state) wore their distinctive orange head gear.
Many babies, though not too many—when I ask women how many children they have, the usual answer is two.
After that celebration, we piled back into two cars to drive to Wah Bo Yee, a village about two hours out of Kalaw, high in the wooded hills and fertile valleys of central Myanmar. We needed two cars because there were several of us including our Kalaw area contractor, Ernest Singh, a Burmese of Indian descent, who used to be a teacher and speaks very good English. He is 76 years old.
One of his two sons, Wyn, was with us too. A carpenter, he makes all our doors and windows and helps his father run his building crew of 15 workers. The Kalaw Education Official was there too. He usually travels with us and can tell us what the education department can or can’t do. His department pays the teachers so his co-operation is vital. We help him by building out-of-the-way schools in remoter villages and he tells us about the schools that need help. (The government prefers to build schools close to the road but many of the more distant villages need schools even more; hence, our many miles on dusty back roads.) We also had Mimi, a translator, a young woman who had been Ernest’s student and works as a tour guide.
Steve and Roger and I rode in the second car. We passed the time talking dharma and dinner plans and aspirations for the New Year. We drove about an hour on a paved road that often was lined on both sides by enormous eucalyptus trees. We passed motor bikes, ox carts, tuk-tuks full of peanuts and a huge Shrine with four enormous Buddhas carved into the mountain side called Blue Lake. (Even Steve, who is an avid non-tourist, was intrigued and he stopped on the way home to take a picture. When we go back next year, we said, we will stop there but we hardly ever do much touristing, so I will be surprised if this comes to pass.)
We turned up a steep and narrow (and unpaved) mountain road, through a pass cut in the rock and into a fertile mountainous valley. High above us on the mountain top was a golden Buddhist pagoda. Very scenic—unlike the school which was dire. It’s a primary school and very bad. Leaky roof, no windows, mud floors, crowded, etc. Heart-breaking.
I poked my head in the kindergarten and this little one burst into tears at the sight of me. He had probably never seen a foreigner. I was wearing a big red hat which was likely terrifying.
The teachers’ cottage, though clean, was even worse than the school. Teachers’ accommodation is the responsibility of the villagers and the cottage was probably no worse than what some of the villagers live in but when I went to see it with two of the teachers, I couldn’t think of much good to say except it was big. Gaps in the thin wood-slatted walls, leaking tin roof, holes in the floor, rickety stairs… The teachers are usually young women who are posted to these remote villages for three years. It’s best if they are local, as the more mature teachers are, because then they live in the village in their own homes. But for these young women, the conditions are appalling.
(Building teachers’ accommodation has become one of our pet projects as we think that happy teachers will mean a better education for the children.)
But this village has hopes for a better future for their children. We didn’t come to this school because of the Education Official (in the white jacket)—this school was outside his district. We came because the local monk had heard about MBSPF and had come twice to Ernest’s home to ask for our help.
The village is poor but they have several advantages. They can grow tea up here because the nights are very cool. There were orchards of oranges as well. A woman in the village who came forward to introduce herself had already donated the land for a new school. The monk who was born there hasn’t forgotten them and will advocate for their needs. They have lots of children who look very poor but healthy.
So we all trooped out for a look at the proposed site. Down a path, across a clean stream that runs all year (a rarity in this country where water is either too much or too little, depending on the time of year.) The proposed site is sunny and clean and has good water and there is room for the teachers’ cottage too. Ernest thought he could get his truck in using the back road. The Education Department is already paying the teachers and the village is eager to help with food for the crew and volunteer labour and some materials.
Everyone agreed the need was great. We left with their gift of a giant bag of the tea they grow, and with their hopes for their children. We promised to get back to them as soon as we had decided, which we did that afternoon in a tea shop. This was our last school site visited in this area so we could look at our potential projects and make our decisions.
Deciding is always difficult. There are always more projects than money. We decide based on whether we feel the village has the energy and resources to keep the children in school, whether the education department will send the teachers, whether the contractor feels it is a feasible project and whether the need is clear.
There is also an indefinable something—did we ‘like’ the project? With Way Bo Yee, we did. Very much. We saw a quality of hope and joy and industry that we want to encourage. So we decided to build the children of Wah Bo Yee a new school.
June 22, 2014 at 2:21 pm
Our contractors in Myanmar, John Stevens and Maung Maung Gyi, also build schools under their own 100 Schools organization banner. They have recently built an inter-ethnic, inter-faith school in the Wakema township located in the southwest of Myanmar, also known as the delta region of the Ayayarwady River.
John Stevens has some interesting observations about the villagers working together to help build the school. His story sheds a different light on the relations between Buddhists, tribal peoples and Muslims in Myanmar. Given news reports of violence between Buddhists and Muslims there, his contrasting story of them working together peacefully is valuable and encouraging.
“I thought you (and everyone else of us for that matter) might be interested in hearing a bit about the ethnic and inter faith school that we’ve been building in Wakema township. Maung Maung Gyi and I were shown a situation that pretty much put itself at the top of the list as far as which project of the five we would do first when given the chance. What made us so eager to take on this project was that it presented us with a situation that we had had very limited experience with in the past. This was an opportunity to build a school that was not just exclusively for the Burmese Bamar tribe but one which would also educate the children of another ethnic group (Karen) as well as another religion ( Muslim). This school could and would become the designated learning ground for the children from four distinctly different villages, one Burmese Buddhist, two which are Karen, and the fourth which is completely Muslim.
Since May 1st when construction began, the volunteer workers have all come regularly and equally from the four villages and have worked harmoniously side by side on each day that we’ve required their help. The only small noteworthy yet understandable event came on the first day, as we were about to do our traditional groundbreaking ceremony by offering incense to the Buddha. Just as we began lining up for he ceremony the Muslim volunteer workers did an immediate disappearing act but returned again as soon as the incense had burned out.
I think what foreigners who rely solely on the information they get from the newspapers are not aware of is that although the Buddhists and the Muslims in Myanmar are not what you might call bosom buddies, in most areas of the country they have no difficult problems with each other and these unfortunate incidents that have been in the news lately are more the exception rather than the rule.
It would be nice to see this new school become a model of how an inter faith and multi ethnic school in Myanmar can cohabit and become co-educated without difficulties.”……. John Stevens
January 9, 2014 at 11:23 am
We first came to the village of Yge Nge, just outside of Pyin Oo Lwin, in 2010. In the hills and only an hour of winding road from Mandalay, this is an area with a long history and for us Westerners, the blessing of a cooler climate. We built a five-room primary school here and also refurbished a two-room school. When we visited again in 2012, we saw that they were now in need of a six-room building so they could have a middle school. The number of students has increased from 444 to 506-a good sign. Because they have a large school property (an unusual situation in crowded Myanmar), there were many discussions with the teachers and villagers about where the school would best be built. Maung Maung Gyi, our Mandalay contractor, also insisted that we relocate the toilets so that the overflow would no longer run through the schoolyard during the rainy season.
This school is close to our hearts because it is the school for 22 blind children from the region as well as for the students from the local villages. The villagers and teachers are willing participants in the building and every project we have done at this site has been successful.
When we returned in 2013, the new building was near completion, with only the classroom dividers, blackboards and desks still to be put in place. We gave uniforms to all the children to celebrate the opening of their new Middle School.
February 8, 2013 at 9:22 am
Gandamar is a small village an hour from Mandalay where we built a school in 2012. The Minister of Education for the district officially opened it early in January 2013. The opening ceremony was, as always, elaborate with chanting monks, village officials, and our MBSPF representatives Maung Maung Gyi and John Stevens. All the children and teachers were in their best clothes and the whole village witnessed the happy event. There was a band and speeches and an elaborate meal for the important visitors.
When we arrived two weeks later to visit, the school looked wonderful. The children were in class working hard, but the teachers sent them outside to stand in straight rows on the steps for a formal picture. Then Roger created mayhem by giving out some of the Frisbees he had brought over from Canada in his suitcase. They had been donated by Susan and Ian Chubb of Deep Cove. The children needed to be shown how to use them, so Roger gave a demo.