"Building a Better Laos" -- Marathon Co. Families Create Humanitarian Project

By: Bao Vang
By: Bao Vang

You would do anything for a family member, right? Probably even more so when that relative is half way around the world, and living under poor conditions. That was the start of a promise made 10 years ago by Marathon County Hmong families who wanted to help those who were left behind in Laos.

They started The People to People Project.

It was off to a rough start back at the start of the milenium. Several thousand dollars was raised, but it was kept in a bank for years until a man named Bob Weller took over as president.

Sunrise 7's Bao Vang sat down with Weller for more on why a man who had just retired took on such a huge role and how he successfully took it off the ground in her "Building a better Laos" series.

In 1996, Bob Weller was on top of the world.

"When I was requested to time the and work on the Olympics in Atlanta, i thought that if I could affect a world event, it would really be something - a real feather in my hat," said Weller.

A top honor among many others he had already accomplished in his 50 years.

"I started in business in 1965, when I got out of the airforce and I started my career with GTE and continued for 31 years developing technical centers throughout the United States."

Then he retired and worked at Wausau Financial Systems for another 8 years, then retired again. Not too long after that, he created his own private business, which led him to the success of inventing a timing device at the Olympics.

Still, something was missing.

Weller says "after about six or seven months, it got to be kind of hollow in my soul and I thought how small this really is in comparision to the whole world. I still wasn't feeling like I was contributing to the world."

In 2006, while he was preparing for major surgery for back degeneration because of arthritis, he was approached by a Wausau organization that had big dreams but lacked business saavy.

The People to People Project was created in 2001 by Marathon County Hmong families who wanted to help their relatives who either chose to stay or were denied the opportunity by the Laos government to immigrate to America after the Vietnam War.

With an expected year of recovery ahead of him, Weller could not promise anything.

"I thought the recovery time would be quite lengthy. But, after a period of days or a short period of time, I was starting to heal very, very rapidly," said Weller.

And he interpreted that as a gift.

"This is why I've been given these gifts of healing that I'm supposed to work on The People to People in Laos."

Weller later took over the corporation as president, took a three week trip to the Nam Bak District in northern Laos, where thousands of Hmong still live today, that same year as his surgery, and started moving the organization in the direction in which its founders had dreamed.

In 10 years, the group raised $130,000.

That money has gone to funding two schools educating more than 1,000 children and created four water projects providing clean water to villages for the first time ever.

On his last trip to Laos in 2008, the reason why he decided to focus his early retirement years on this humanitarian work was clear when he met a man who put it into perspective.

"I asked the individual what was the most positive effect that this village had as a result of bringing clean water to them and he responded to me in english which was really really rare: 'My children, no sick no more' ... that was the crowning moment."

A recent fact-finding trip to laos has resulted in more projects to be completed.

Bao was able to tag along with members of The People to People Project and will show you what it's like to go from a blue print to building a new school.


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