Building schools, brick by brick

Tracy Cosgrove has been helping disadvantaged children for the past 18 years, after she and her husband decided they wanted a way to show their young children “another side of Asia.”

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Published in The Myanmar Times on 13 May 2013

Tracy Cosgrove has been helping disadvantaged children for the past 18 years, after she and her husband decided they wanted a way to show their young children “another side of Asia.”

Tracy with children in Myanmar. Photo: supplied
Tracy with children in Myanmar. Photo: supplied

Following the tragic death of her husband in a car accident in 1998, Tracy continued her voluntary activities and in 2003 founded the Melissa Cosgrove Children’s Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation named after her daughter.

Along with countless health-related projects in Thailand, Tracy has initiated the building of 30 schools and orphanages in Myanmar, with the first opening in 2005. The most recent was a school for 120 children in Rakhine State, which at the end of February was handed over to the education department.

In the past, the foundation has worked with street children, trafficked children, children whose parents are migrant workers and those with HIV/Aids. It is now focused on health and education related activities.

An interior designer by profession, Tracy personally identifies and chooses the projects that are supported: her interest in Myanmar was piqued when she assisted a trafficked Myanmar boy to return to his family from Thailand.

She told The Myanmar Times, “I’m not a big NGO and I wouldn’t call it charity work – it’s about empowering people.”

Tracy is a no-nonsense person – the type who sees a tragic situation and simply gets to work improving it. One gets the feeling that “No” isn’t in her vocabulary.

She said she doesn’t get overwhelmed by thinking about the number of people who need assistance – she tries not to focus on that, but instead concentrates on what can be achieved.

During her first visit to Myanmar in 2004, a friend took her to a village in Bago Region, which is about 3 hours from Yangon. She travelled in a “Flintstones car, past a lot of checkpoints” while being followed by a policeman on a motorbike. Although the local police initially wouldn’t allow her to get out of the car, when Tracy took one look at the local orphanage she resolved to rebuild it from its dilapidated state. She immediately set up an appointment with the then British ambassador to Myanmar, Vicky Bowman, and pleaded for financial assistance to get the project started. Three months later, the job was done, and she set about rebuilding a kindergarten in the same township. She also supports a monastery in the same area.

Tracy and Phyo Wai at the orphanage in Dalla
Tracy and Phyo Wai at the orphanage in Dalla

Due to the fact that the foundation isn’t encumbered by the red tape that can surround many non-government organisations, the scope of her work is flexible. Tracy is building a school in a village located an hour by boat from Ngapali, and when she happened to see a girl with what appeared to be a spot her eye, she took a photo and posted it on Facebook. A doctor friend diagnosed it as a cancerous tumour and the teenager was promptly flown to Yangon for an operation. She is grateful to Air Mandalay for flying the girl free of charge.

While traveling on the ferry to Dalla village on 6 May, Tracy said: “The last time I was on the ferry, I saw a boy who looked really, really sick. He was grey. It turned out that he needed a heart transplant.”

Thanks to Tracy’s compassion and powers of persuasion, she raised the necessary funds for the operation and the boy has successfully recovered.

When we arrive at Hope Orphanage, Tracy swings into action – asking her assistant Phyo Wai to find out the children’s needs and how best to provide help on an ongoing basis. Though businesslike when doing the organising, she puts her notebook down towards the end and stops to take photos of the children, saying “Pyone!” (Myanmar for “smile”). She laughs and kids around with them with such ease that it seems as though she’s known them for years.

Although this orphanage in particular is being supported by a family in Australia, Tracy said that Facebook is an excellent means of obtaining funding from overseas supporters. Peoples’ generousity is such that she often has to tell people to wait until the next projects presents itself – she doesn’t fundraise unless there is a specific goal in mind.

“The network [of supporters] is growing and growing,” she said with a smile.

Tracy also has a policy of hiring locals to build the schools and orphanages, in order to boost employment opportunities in the areas she works.

Her son and daughter also help her with projects in Myanmar and Thailand, and she said that her own parents are also active supporters.

Tracy repeatedly states how her work has been aided by the kind-heartedness of Myanmar people – whether it’s a taxi driver that returns part of his payment to contribute to a youngster in need, or people banding together to achieve a common goal – all without financial reward.

She said, “It was a close community when I was growing up in Manchester, but it wasn’t like this. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

In 2003, The Evening Times gave Tracy the “Scotswoman Award,” in recognition of personal courage and dedication towards others. It’s not difficult to see why.

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