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Burma Hike Inspires School-building Mission

  • Jan Sluizer

Students at the Nan Ouw School in Burma recite the Burmese and English alphabet for "Build a School in Burma" founder Bob Cornwell. (Courtesy Build a School in Burma)

Students at the Nan Ouw School in Burma recite the Burmese and English alphabet for "Build a School in Burma" founder Bob Cornwell. (Courtesy Build a School in Burma)

Three years ago, Bob Cornwell was a financial advisor to several foreign governments with a lucrative stake in a financial consulting firm. Today, he is building schools in Burma.

“We’re really trying to help kids on the margin who wouldn’t otherwise get an education," Cornwell said. "Kids not having an education is just a recipe for every type of personal disaster in their lives.”

Cornwell first met the children who inspired his mission in 2010, when he and a friend hiked from village to village in the hilly northwestern province of Burma, an area of the former British colony known for trekking.

“We walked and walked and each night we stayed in a village, slept on the floor," he said. "None of these villages had electricity. Many of them are not really accessible even by road. And lots of kids. Maybe five on average per family. No school.”

With an annual per capita income of about $460, Burma is one of the world's poorest countries, according to the United Nations. Under a military government, Burma faced tough international sanctions for 25 years. Today, with a newly-elected government still evolving, international aid has begun to arrive, but very few resources are allotted for education in remote villages.

Cornwell was amazed to learn the cost of building a primary school in Burma was $15,000 to $20,000, modest by American standards.

He sold his interest in the firm he’d started 25 years earlier, and established a nonprofit called Build a School in Burma. He focused on under-served villages that demonstrated their committment to building schools by contributing land and labor.

Among his volunteers is Rick Heizman, a leading expert on Burmese music. “Burma kind of struck my heart when I went there in the '80s.”

Heizman has been doing humanitarian and education projects in Burma for more than two decades. He and his wife, renowned Burmese harpist Su Wei, live in San Francisco, but return to Burma often to visit the school projects. Su Wei says the children are excited to learn to read and write and their parents are hopeful that getting an education without leaving home will allow their children to break a long cycle of poverty.

“Most likely they’re like workers, farmers," Su Wei said. "Usually they have to take care of the business. The school is inside their village, nearby, so, at least, they don’t have to worry about taking the kids to the school in faraway places.”

Visiting some of these remote areas, like the Pharagyi village in western Burma where a monastery school for 120 students is being built, can be challenging. The first day is spent flying from Rangoon to Sittwe on the northwest coast.

“The next day go by river about eight hours, and then the day after that, go by jeep across some hills to another river, and then take that river by boat another five hours, and then you’re there," Heizman said. "It takes half a week to get there and half a week to get out of there.”

The organization has built two schools so far, a third is almost done, and in June, construction or renovation began on two more. Cornwell attributes much of that success to creating partnerships with local civic groups.

“They have a very good connection to the local people. They understand what the needs are. They speak the local language which is really important, because about 40 percent of the people in Burma are not ethnic Burmese and they don’t speak the Burmese language as their first language and they’re often very intimidated by officials," he said. "So having someone who really understands the local situation is crucial.”

Cornwell continues to write applications for grants and is seeking donations to build as many schools as possible. He says bringing educational opportunities to under-served communities has made his retirement years happier than he ever could have imagined.