Exchanging Ideas, Exchanging Culture: Pelah and the YSEALI Program

Last spring, Five Valleys was honored to host two YSEALI professional fellows, Vu Thi Phuong Thao ("Thao") from Vietnam and Phonepasith Sotitham ("Om") from Laos.  The exchange centered around nonprofit work, and specifically, conservation work.  

Vu Thi Phuong Thao ("Thao"), Jenny Tollefson, and Phonepasith Sotitham ("Om") at the Lincoln Community River Park site last spring. Photo by Five Valleys staff.

The United States has a long-standing and robust nonprofit sector that benefits nearly every aspect of our culture. But in Southeast Asia nonprofit work is still relatively new.  During their time in Montana, Om and Thao shadowed our staff to learn more about our work, and even assisted in the field and with events, including our 2016 Banquet.  During their stay, they were housed by two Five Valleys staff members, which was fun for both the fellows and the staff members and their families.

The YSEALI program, which stands for Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, was instituted by President Obama in 2013 and is a part of the Professional Fellows Program of the U.S. Department of State, which is hosted locally by the Mansfield Center, located on the University of Montana campus. The program partners with extraordinary young men and women from Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam to provide training, funding and mentorship as they aim to tackle economic, environmental, educational and civic issues in their communities. Along the way, the program fosters the exchange of ideas about the goals and missions that we have in common, as well as seeks to build a bridge of cultural exchange between our communities.

Pelah and young Lao professionals. Photo courtesy of Pelah Hoyt.

Thao and Om returned to their homes last May. But the second part of the exchange involves a Five Valleys representative traveling to Asia. 

Pelah Hoyt, Lands Director at Five Valleys, boarded her flight for Asia on January 6th.  For the last week, Pelah has been in Laos, and she's been busy!

Pelah on the Mekong River. Photo courtesy of Pelah Hoyt.

Pelah met back up with Om and has traveled extensively, learning about his organization, SuDHiCA, a local non-profit bringing sustainable agricultural practices to the highlands of Laos. 

From founding an artisan group in the community to promoting and educating the public on water filtration and sustainable agriculture, Om and SuDHiCA are stand-out, innovative leaders in their field. Pelah says, "Om’s work is based on respect for the people he works with. As he says, 'I learn so much from them.' Om is hard-working, knowledgeable, and passionate about sustainable agricultural practices. As the future of conservation in Laos, Om is inspiring!"

Om teaching a local farmer about sustainable agriculture. Photo courtesy of Pelah Hoyt.

Pelah has also been busy providing training to young Lao leaders. Last week, she put on a grant writing workshop for nearly 50 Lao professionals. 

Pelah says,"The young leaders came from a variety of backgrounds including school teachers, the national library, and organizations working with people disabled by UXOs (unexploded ordinances from the US bombing in the 1960s and 70s)." 

"I talked about how Five Valleys Land Trust has funded our dream of helping people take care of the land and rivers with grants. Some of the participants shared their dreams of creating a green school, supporting rural students, and improving women’s lives," Pelah says.
Pelah teaching young Lao professionals about the finer points of grant writing. Photo courtesy of Pelah Hoyt.

In a true moment of cultural exchange, Five Valleys' recent partnership with Big Sky Brewing Company was mentioned, and the young professionals pondered if a partnership with their own favorite regional brewery, Beer Lao, might be worth exploring!

"It was an honor to speak with these professionals on behalf of YSEALI, the Mansfield Center, and the U.S. State Department," says Pelah. 

This week, Pelah is in Vietnam, meeting with Thao and learning about nonprofit work there. We at Five Valleys couldn't be more excited, or more proud of Pelah, and of our community's small contribution to this innovative, cultural and professional exchange.


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