Rick Reece’s journey from Glen Lake hoops to village empowerment in Laos

From staff reports

During this season of giving, we reached out to Rick Reece—a Maple City native and member of Coach Don Miller’s 1977 Glen Lake state basketball championship team—who nearly 20 years ago founded Village Focus International, which empowers communities in Laos. Reece lives in Laos with his Lao wife Nalin (whom he married in 2001 at a ceremony at Old Settlers Park in Burdickville). They have two children, Alan and Annabella. 

We asked Reece about his journey to found Village Focus International, the most gratifying and toughest parts of his job, the importance of community health and food security in Laos, the importance of women in combatting poverty, stopping modern-day slavery, his memories of Leelanau County, and of winning a state title with Don Miller.

Glen Arbor Sun: What inspired you to found Village Focus International? Tell us about that journey?

Rick Reece: I loved my childhood in Maple City, and my memories filled with outdoor adventures, sports, friendship, and a loving family. I still think of Leelanau County as my home and it makes me happy that my sister has lived in Traverse City all these years, and my mother has recently returned to the area after seven or eight years in her childhood home in Arkansas following the death of my father.

My adventurous spirit started I suppose when I left home for Hope College and to play basketball there. While it doesn’t seem such a big step in retrospect it certainly was for me, since I was the first of my siblings to go to college, and my friends, teachers, and activities there began to open my eyes to the world. As a sophomore my basketball team traveled to Mexico to play six games around the country against the Mexican Olympic Basketball team to promote the sport. For a small-town kid that experience was transformational. Fast forward to graduation, when I did not have a clear career path in mind, so began to think about opportunities abroad.  

Through Hope College linkages I landed a job teaching English at the Sendai Student Center, a center that served nine colleges and universities in Sendai (the same place the tsunami devastated in 2011). As part of that job I took twice-yearly trips to South and Southeast Asia with groups of Japanese students. We went to India, Nepal, Malaysia and Thailand for short culture and work trips that included two weeks in an agricultural ashram in central India, and a remote village in northern Thailand. I left Japan in 1986 and didn’t return to Southeast Asia until 1992, but I look back on those experiences as the fuel that lit a fire in me to live and work in Southeast Asia.  Traveling is amazing, especially if you have direct and meaningful connections to people outside of the normal tourist areas, but I really wanted to live in the developing world and to try to understand how people live, think, and believe.

At that point I do not recall having a clear understanding of how I could or would make a living, and so I joined the Peace Corps in the early 1990s. It ticked the box of ‘adventure’ and opening the possibilities of meaningful work living directly with local people, and kept me in basic food and housing as well. I lived on the northernmost inhabited island of the Philippines for almost four and half years, a place called Itbayat, one of three inhabited islands of the province of Batanes. I was a “Water and Sanitation” volunteer, which for me turned out to be a job helping the small island municipality (total of 2,000 people in the town) design and install water taps for every household. When I arrived Itbayat had only a handful of shared water taps for the entire town, and when I left every household had their own. To be clear, I did not make this happen on my own, but did play a major role in the process.  With social media I am able to stay in touch with many of my friends there, and it made me happy a few years ago when a friend wrote me that “…whenever I turn on the water tap I think of you…”.

Side note: Itbayat Island is hit by 10-15 typhoons each year so the people live in meter-thick stone houses and rarely face casualties or infrastructure damage. However, on July 27, 2019, a series of major earthquakes hit the island, killing more than 10 and damaging hundreds of houses, destroying water systems, electricity, and even the port.

I returned to the United States in 1996 and immediately went to graduate school at the University of Oregon, where I studied Nonprofit Management, with the intention of returning to Asia to work professionally. I was hired straight out of Oregon as the Country Director of a small US-based nonprofit called World Education, and arrived in Laos in November of 1998 to begin work in a brand new country. World Education was a small operation in Laos, with only five full time staff members, and focus on integrated development: village education, health care and nutrition, agriculture, and village leadership. We worked in extremely remote villages along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos, in communities dotted through the mountains that separate Laos and central Vietnam. The remnants of the Vietnam War are conspicuous in those villages, with bomb craters and unexploded bombs everywhere, and the occasional shell of a jeep or tank rusting along a village path.

By 2000 our team had grown to 12 staff members, and we made the bold move to strike out on our own: we decided to start a new organization—Village Focus International (VFI)—that would be led by local people, linked to international expertise and fundraising, and based in Laos. Since there was not a law governing local nonprofits in Laos (at least at that time) we registered ourselves in the United States as a 501(c)(3) organization, and remain so today. Since World Education had made a decision to move out of Laos anyway, all government and donors agreed to transfer support to VFI, and so we continued and expanded and improved the work that we were already doing. 

During the past almost 20 years—in August of 2020 VFI will celebrate 20 years of work in Laos—VFI has evolved into the leader in Laos in two specific sectors: the fight against human trafficking, and the fight for land and natural resource rights. I am proud every day that when we have national-level meetings on these important topics, VFI’s Lao leaders are the ones invited as key experts alongside the expatriate leaders of other NGOs and agencies.

Most international NGOs speak a lot about local empowerment but sadly few really make it happen. Most organizations, and this includes the United Nations, the big NGOs, and most of the big projects funded by foreign governments, have a never-ending cycle of foreign directors leading their projects in Laos (or any country). While I have been the director of VFI for 20 years, my role is really limited to fund raising, while our three-person country leadership team (all Lao people) have full voice and control over what we do, where we work, how we work, and how we manage ourselves programmatically and administratively.

In 2020, I will be moving out of my director chair, at least as a full time VFI staff member. I will continue to support VFI in a part-time way, and will likely be engaged as a full time VFI Board Member. VFI is still my baby, and what I most want is for the organization to succeed well beyond my tenure.

Glen Arbor Sun: What’s the most gratifying part of your work? (Feel free to mention accolades and accomplishments.) How about the toughest part of the job?

Reece: The most gratifying part of my work is that VFI is known in Laos and throughout the region as an organization founded upon amazing and capable and committed Lao leaders.

I’m also proud of the fact that now, 20 years after inception, we still have several people still working together, including our two most senior leaders. When I arrived in Laos in 1998 as the Director of World Education, we employed a part-time cleaner and her husband as a part-time security guard. At that time both were paid less than $100/month. Now, in 2019, that same woman is a key administrative assistant for VFI, handling all essential government paperwork for the organization. Her husband, suffering from severe kidney disease for the past five years, is still on VFI insurance. Together, they have built a beautiful home, and have put three children through college!

In 2017 I was awarded the Hope for Humanity Award, an award given “in the spirit of Hope Athletics, the H-Club at Hope College presents the Hope for Humanity Award recognizing service above self among the alumni athlete community”. This was an extremely gratifying honor for me, especially since I was able to share it with many friends, including both Coach Don Miller and Bobby Sutherland, who attended the event with me.

The toughest part of the job is dealing with institutional donors. We survive on money from other governments, and from large foundations. Of course we have strong and constructive relationships from many donors (especially, I must point out, with the US Embassy in Laos, with the US State Department, and with USAID), but it is soul-sucking and exhausting that donors too often decide priorities and funding in a bubble, seemingly divorced from any understanding of local issues, and often without meaningful input from local people.

VFI was created to elevate the voice of local people, including village people, local officials, the leaders of VFI and other non profits, and even national-level officials. It is too easy, though, to be cynical about (again, the never-ending cycle of) expatriate ‘experts’ who change funding priorities and undermine the efforts of groups like VFI.

Glen Arbor Sun: Tell us something about the communities in Laos and Cambodia with which you work that might surprise the average American.

Reece: I’ve been here so long that I am not sure I have a clear view of what average Americans may or may not know about Laos and Cambodia (note: we are no longer working in Cambodia since we turned over the Angkor Wat Bike4Kids event to a local group 3 years ago).

Here are a few ‘surprising’ facts about Laos (I will limit my comments to Laos):

Laos is (perhaps until Afghanistan) the most bombed place on earth. During the Vietnam War, for nine years between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped more than 2 million bombs in Laos. Most were dropped along the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’, through the jungles between Laos and Vietnam, which was used by north Vietnam to transport people and equipment to forces south of the DMZ. Thirty percent of those bombs did not explode, and still cause accident and death today. In 2016, during his last trip abroad during his presidency, President Obama pledged $90 million to help clean up these UXO (unexploded ordnance), to supplement the US efforts (the US is already the leading donor to remove UXO).

The Vieng Xai Caves, in northeastern Laos on the border of Vietnam, housed an entire city to hide from their enemies, including more than 20,000 people, during the Vietnam War. The caves included homes, schools, markets, a bank, a hospital and mortuary, and the entire ‘Congress’ of the Pathet Lao during that time. It is a truly amazing place to visit.

Laos is a tapestry of ethnic cultures. More than 50 percent of the population is made up of ‘minority’ ethnic groups, including Hmong, Akha, Lahu, Taoi, Katang, etc. 

Laos is landlocked, with the Mekong River (Mother of Rivers) making up almost the entire western border

The Golden Triangle is where Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar (aka Burma) meet, and is a primary source of opium and other drugs.

Lao people might be the friendliest in the world, are amazingly cosmopolitan, and generally love Americans. Vientiane, the capital, has one of the most vibrant food cultures anywhere: you can walk along the central commercial district and have your choice of top-notch world cuisines.

Laos has great coffee, which is one of the primary exports of the country. The Boloven Plateau, in southern Laos, is perpetually cool and misty, the perfect locale for coffee. The Plateau also has hundreds of waterfalls, making it a favorite tourism destination.

Glen Arbor Sun: I know that community health and food security are major parts of your work. Describe the staple crops and daily meals in these communities.

Reece: Lao people (no one here says ‘Laotian’—it is Lao people, Lao language, Lao country, although Laos as the name of the country is acceptable) consume more sticky rice than anyone else in the world. It is the national staple, typically eaten with the hand, and is served steamed, sweet, fermented or even sour. Lao people eat, on average, 340 pounds of sticky rice per year (compared to 20 pounds per year among Americans).

Otherwise, Lao people eat soup, a grilled food (fish, chicken), sauces, a variety of greens, and stew or mixed dishes. Greens are usually fresh raw greens, herbs and other vegetables. Meat is normally not the central part of the meal, though Lao people love texture in their foods, meaning soups will have cartilage, stomach lining, bones, and other chewy goodies.

Glen Arbor Sun: Why are empowerment and protection of women so important for combatting poverty in these communities?

Reece: Lao men are the first group that recognize that Lao women carry the lion’s share of work in families, though that does not necessarily translate to political or community power or leadership. Lao women are fully in charge of childcare, family finances, and field work (gardening, foraging, water carrying, etc.).  

Girls are the first group to leave school, usually because remote and poor families think field and family labor is more important than education. Schools are typically poor, and children must walk for miles once they finish third grade. Families are reluctant to allow their girls to go to neighboring or faraway villages, so they pull them out of school and they begin a life or work. An education, on the other hand, opens an entire work for each child and family, and has implications for better nutrition, health care, for themselves and their future families.  

Including women in village leadership is a core principle for VFI, since it allows and encourages improvement in all aspects of life, including fair education, better family health, innovative village businesses and farming, full family decision-making, etc.  

Empowering women and girls allows them to better engage in life, work, and leisure with men and boys. When women work with their fathers, husbands, brothers and other men, they can change harmful gender behaviors that lead to poor health, bad family decisions, violence, and other things that push women and girls to the margins. 

Glen Arbor Sun: I’ve heard sex trafficking referred to as “modern day slavery”. Is that an appropriate metaphor?

Reece: Human Trafficking is best seen as a continuum of exploitation. It can include full blown slavery, in the sense of the absence of freedom, the performance of some service (sex, labor, etc.) against one’s will, and limited or no benefit (pay or whatever) for those services. But it also may include domestic work with terrible conditions, pathetic pay, and regular verbal or emotional abuse. The key point is an imbalance of power, in which the trafficking victim is exploited because they have no power and limited choices. The person may be from a poor village, which has just lost a quarter of their land area to a rubber plantation. The family may decide that their 13-year-old daughter needs to go the nearby city or even across the river to Thailand to find work and send some money back home so her siblings can eat and go to school. Brokers roam these vulnerable communities and make promises to naïve families, who believe this is their only choice to feed their other children. So yes, “modern day slavery” as CNN and other label it, is an appropriate metaphor.

By the way, VFI is the only organization in Laos listed in the CNN Freedom Project website

Glen Arbor Sun: How has the organization changed or evolved since you founded it (in 2000, right)?

Reece: VFI has evolved from a small organization working on integrated development, focused on a handful on villages in southern Laos, to a medium-sized organization (55 staff member in Laos) that is recognized in Laos and the region as the leader in the fight against human trafficking and for land and natural resource rights.  VFI is also well known as being managed and led by highly capable and committed Lao leaders.

Glen Arbor Sun: What’s your biggest source of hope and optimism connected to your work?

Reece: I actual try to keep fairly focused, and to concentrate on what we can do in Laos, and in the communities where we work in Laos. In that regard, my biggest hope is in the local people that I have been working with at Village Focus International over the past 20 years.  These are the people who are going to change this country for the better, and who will make the choices about how best to go forward.  I have enormous pride and confidence in the local leaders of VFI, and that is a source of pride and optimism.

Glen Arbor Sun: How often do you get back to Leelanau County, or the United States in general? What do you miss most about this region where you grew up?

Reece: I try to get back to Leelanau County every year, but it usually happens once every two, or maybe 2 times in 3 years if I am lucky. There is so much that I love about my home area, and much of it is visceral and hard to put into words. At the center of my love for the area is that it is the source of my childhood and happy memories of family, school, and friendship, though it is impossible to ignore the natural beauty of the area.  

My wife Nalin—who is Lao—and my children Alan and Annabella, are in the US every year, but sometimes go to the LA area, where Nalin has 3 siblings. All three of them escaped Laos during the Communist revolution and ended up in Los Angeles via a refugee camp in Northeast Thailand. Nalin, who was 5 or so when her siblings escaped, was protected and cared for by a Buddhist monk, who convinced Nalin’s mother to stay in Laos in his care.

Son Alan graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York two years ago, so sometimes our US visits are to places other than Leelanau County, even if that is the place I always want to go. Nalin and I got married at Old Settlers Park in 2001, with Don Miller as our photographer, and with Art’s and the Lake Michigan beach as feature locales post-reception.

Glen Arbor Sun: As a member of Glen Lake High School’s 1977 state championship team (with Coach Don Miller), what does basketball mean to you? How often do you play hoops these days?

Reece: I am proud to be a member of that team, and was thrilled to be back in Michigan in 2017 for the 40th anniversary of that victory. Eight members of that team—Rick B., Geoff K, Robert F., Dave Prentice, Terry Stachnik, David Stachnik, Jimmy Wiesen, and myself—were together for that weekend event, and it was days of fun and laughter. Coach Miller, Coach Christiansen, Denny Dame, Ivan Ford, Teacher Mary Frixon, and a bunch of friends from other years (Bobby Suds, Keith Shimek, Brad Fosmore, etc.) were together during that time.  It may be more meaningful for me since I am so far away but my basketball memories of Glen Lake continue to be important in my life.

I’m especially proud that none of my former teammates is fixated on our basketball exploits, and all have gone on to success in their chosen fields. Among our group are successful business people, coaches, soldiers, etc., and all have families that they love and are proud of.

I reserve some final words for Coach Miller. Coach has surely shaped as many young men and women in Leelanau County as any other single individual. I am really happy to be connected to him, and always make a point to spend time with him when I am home.

I have played basketball everywhere I have lived and traveled: I played in a league in Japan, was part of the Itbayat Island team each year I was there (basketball is the national sport of the Philippines), and have been part of the old man’s league in Laos from 1998 until now, a group that plays twice a week, with players aged 20-60 (and surprisingly has included former players from the Italian league, from D1 and D2 in the US, and others. During my graduate studies at both the University of Michigan and the University of Oregon I played intramural at the highest level, against many players who went on to play professional football (Desmond Howard, Chris Calloway, others). During my limited times back in Michigan over the years I played in and won several Gus Macker 3-on-3 tourneys, and was part of Don Lewis’ Lewis Construction basketball team for two seasons, traveling the state and playing the best teams everywhere. So yes, basketball has remained important to me all these years. At the Vientiane International School, where son Alan graduated in 2011, I coached our junior and senior boys in our Mekong River International School Association league (which includes schools in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos). So, instead of heading to Suttons Bay or Elk Rapids for games, our kids get on a plane to fly to a neighboring country several times a year. And finally, when our daughter Annabella started school and proved to be an eager and skilled athlete, our coached our junior girls teams and conducted weekend basketball clinics, always guided by my memories of Glen Lake basketball lessons. Annabella has been on the varsity basketball team since freshman year, and I am a loud fan in the stands, living every second as if there is nothing more important in the world.