In 2001, Patrick Kearns was a struggling 24-year-old artist in Portland, Oregon working two jobs to make ends meet. At that time, he could scarcely have imagined that just six years later he would be running an organization on the Thailand-Myanmar border to help migrant children build bridges to their futures.
His unlikely transition started as a simple plan: Patrick would teach English overseas until he saved enough money to return and pursue his art. He secured a position at a private South Korean language school, where he taught three- to 15-year-olds eight hours a day. “One day a three-year-old was sent to my class with explicit instructions: I was not to worry about teaching him because he couldn’t learn,” Patrick says. “I began looking for alternative teaching styles and different ways to engage him. Within three months, he had caught up with the rest of the class.”
That small success was a turning point. “This experience made me realize that I could effect change in meaningful ways that were larger than me,” he explains. “I gained confidence in my ability to problem-solve and work with diverse people, even when faced with experiences for which my education had not prepared me.”
A year later, with newfound confidence and a sense of adventure, Patrick jumped at the chance to work in Thailand with Burmese migrants who sought refuge from oppression and economic hardship. “A close friend and I opened the English Immersion Program in the Umpiem Mai refugee camp, near the border town of Mae Sot,” he says. “It was the first time I had taken responsibility for something other than myself.”
During his two years there, Patrick identified a serious problem: few opportunities to find jobs existed for the young people nearing graduation from migrant schools, defeating the purpose of programs designed to help them succeed. “The overwhelming majority of these young people had never held a job and had very low skill levels,” says Patrick. “Having been almost totally dependent on humanitarian groups, they had little experience making decisions, taking responsibility, or providing for themselves.” After careful research, Patrick founded Youth Connect in 2007, supporting students’ transition from high school to safe employment that pays a living wage. The Youth Connect Transitions Program has three steps: train high school seniors in Thai language and life skills, provide them a 12-week intensive employment skills training followed by apprenticeship, and help them find good jobs.
The support and involvement of the Mae Sot community is critical to the program’s success. Patrick says, “We work with more than 70 businesses that want skilled labor. It’s a win-win and a sustainable solution to the problem.”
To expand possibilities for graduates, Patrick has also started social enterprises. Travelers can stay at the Picturebook Guesthouse run by program students, or rent bicycles from the 2 Wheels repair and rental shop where two graduates work. Youth Connect participants now also produce and sell furniture, art, and coffee in partnership with local artisans.
Though Youth Connect continues to grow, Patrick still measures success one apprentice at a time and looks for the potential in every child. “We had a young man who was labeled a ‘troubled kid with no talent’ by his teachers,” he says. “When he was dismissed from his appren- ticeship, I met with him and we agreed he could apprentice at Ironwood, our furniture-making enterprise. He took quickly to the challenging carpentry and today, just two years later, he’s the assistant manager. His recycled teak chess sets have just been purchased for global retail by National Geographic’s online store.”
Patrick’s mother, who cares for poor seniors and the disabled, inspires him. “Her work is the most challenging I have seen, yet she works with constant love and care for those whom most of society has chosen not to value,” he says. “I am inspired by the ability to use a small amount of resources to create real and meaningful changes in the lives of people I serve.”