Elizabeth Kolbe is helping her neighbors in Thailand

Deb Moldaschel
The Sleepy Eye Herald Dispatch

Members of Trinity Lutheran Church know all about former Youth Director Liz Kolbe's life and special project in Thailand. Recently she was kind enough to share her story with our readers also.

Elizabeth (but I think "Liz") Kolbe is a 2002 graduate of Sleepy Eye High School and the daughter of Thomas Kolbe and Katelyn Mason. She told me she is also a former staff writer for the Herald-Dispatch, when she was 16 (she didn't say—maybe summer intern? We used to have those). 

Liz Kolbe and her husband Kim.

Liz is currently living in Thailand with her husband Kim. She described their location as "our beautiful, yet economically underprivileged tropical island home, Koh Jum, Krabi, Thailand. There are about 3,000 people living on our island, roughly the same population as Sleepy Eye. Much like Sleepy Eye, it is quite rural; while about 70% of families make their living from marine fishing, Koh Jum also has rubber forests which provide for the remaining families here. We have three small schools, one for each village on the island, but students are only able to complete the ninth grade before having to move to the mainland if they wish to continue their studies. Most students (if they have studied through ninth grade) choose to stay on the island and work in family industries. While we do have tourism on the island, our tourism is strictly limited to peak season (November to April), mostly due to the harsh monsoon winds that are horrible for sunbathing and swimming, but great for fishing."

"I have been lucky in that my education (I went on from Sleepy Eye to get my BA from MnSU - anthropology/ethnic studies in 2008 and then to Mahidol University for my MA in human rights in 2016) has given me the opportunity to pick up remote work, which helps to supplement the lack of income from my tourist business," said Liz. "Thailand shut its doors to international tourism on March 26, 2020 and we are still waiting to fully open. Others on our island do not have external options for work and many have gone back to traditional resource harvesting occupations such as small-scale fishing and rubber cutting. It has been hard but we are fighting."

Liz said during her time as Youth Director at Trinity she tried to teach the young people about the reality of youth around the world and just how lucky they are to have grown up in such a great community as Sleepy Eye. 

"Now I am living in one of those places," she said. "The palm trees and turquoise waters often hide the real situation of poverty on some of these Thai islands."

"I have been so pleased and appreciative of the level of giving I have seen from my small community and inspired to continue to help those in need around the world — the epitome of think local, act global," Liz said. "I am currently doing a fundraiser to purchase powder milk formula for infants on my island and, having been a part of the Trinity church system for so long, and knowing how the spirit of giving is alive and well in our motto: 'God's Work, Our Hands,' I thought to give the opportunity to some of the members of the church to be able to give directly to a cause, through someone they know and trust (me) that was currently living in the situations we are trying to combat (extreme poverty)."

Trinity Lutheran Church members and others they shared her story with responded to Liz's story and request for assistance. In a recent church newsletter her note to the congregation was published:

"We have started to receive funds and have purchased powdered milk formulas for infants of families in need on our island. We started distribution on Monday, May 17, and will continue to help those in need as long as we can. On the first day, we were able to distribute this assistance to 17 families with 23 children under the age of 4. In the following days, 8 more families with another 11 children under the age of 4 came seeking assistance. We were happy to facilitate the giving of aid without the fanfare, all in the hopes of not impacting the self-motivation of these parents to provide for their families. As a student of human rights, anthropology, and poverty alleviation, I am critically aware of the negative impacts that can come from aid distribution and so it is my wish to be able to provide this aid without the necessity of registrations, photos, or conditions. Much like the Food Shelf in downtown Sleepy Eye."

Residents of the island town of Koh Jum, Krabi, Thailand agreed to a photo showing the results of Kolbe's efforts to help provide powdered milk formulas for infants of families in need on the island.

Liz said they are still distributing aid to make a prolonged impact to those who need it and have set up a Baby Food Shelf, at her shop, where mothers and fathers can come and discreetly get products when they need it.

Liz told the Trinity members, "Hopefully the donation that I just received from Trinity will help this small project last at least until Thailand permits international tourists to come back and rejuvenate the economy. We will keep going as long as we can."

Liz said that living in Koh Jum during the pandemic "has really opened my eyes to the realities of the world that I have only studied and gives me a new perspective on what it means to be 'Our Work, God’s Hands'."

Anyone who would like to contribute to Liz Kolbe's project can contact Trinity Lutheran Church for information on how to send donations.