One woman's quest to show displaced, stateless kids their lives are worth celebrating
Pauline Tee/Annie Reneau

As we board the rental van in front of our hotel in Mae Sot, Thailand, the leader of our group, Pauline, notices a dog wandering in the street. It's not an unusual sight—stray dogs roam everywhere here—but this mutt looks particularly mangey. "Oh, that poor dog!" Pauline says. "When we get back, I'll see if I can bring him something to eat."


This is Pauline Tee in a nutshell: compulsively compassionate and immediately thoughtful. The friend we share in common had described her as "a sweetheart," but that was an understatement. Pauline is someone who puts her energy, time, and money where her heart is, with a pure generosity that makes you believe humanity has a decent chance after all.

Pauline tee has spent nine years serving displaced and stateless Burmese kids in Mae Sot, ThailandPhoto courtesy of Pauline Tee

As we set off for one of the three Burmese schools we'll be visiting this week, Pauline goes over what we'll be doing and who we'll be seeing. Mae Sot sits along the Thai side of the border between Thailand and Burma (also known as Myanmar) and is home to tens of thousands of Burmese people of varying statuses. Many are refugees who fled their homeland during several decades of civil war and unrest. Some belong to ethnic groups who are persecuted in Myanmar. Some are migrant workers who legally or illegally make their living on this side of the border, contributing to cheap labor in Thailand.

And thousands are displaced children—some orphaned, some stateless—whose well-being depends on adults willing to help them and whose future depends on getting an education.

Burmese school in Mae Sot, ThailandAnnie Reneau

"Stateless" is a strange status to have as a human being. In the simplest terms, it means having no official nationality, no identifying documents to prove what country you belong to. Without such documentation, it's often difficult or impossible to access resources, qualify for aid programs, or receive support from official sources. Statelessness can occur under various circumstances, but the end result is a sort of humanitarian limbo where people have few options, and children in particular are vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation, and abuse.

The Burmese migrant schools in Mae Sot give displaced and stateless kids a safe place to learn. But they are also challenged by the poverty and instability that mark the lives of children they serve. Pauline, who is originally from Malaysia and now works for an international bank in Singapore, got connected with some of these schools nearly ten years ago on a volunteer trip with colleagues. Since then, she has returned to Mae Sot at least twice a year, and single-handedly created several programs for children here.

One morning, we go to the Thai/Burmese border, where a large, colorful marketplace sells clothes and trinkets, and a line of duty free shops sells mostly cigarettes. Pauline points out an area just beyond the shops, a strip of land between the countries known as "No man's land." Both countries claim jurisdiction over this area, but neither country effectively polices it. Hundreds of stateless Burmese people, including children, live here in makeshift huts made of plastic tarps draped over rudimentary wood structures. Though Thai soldiers loosely monitor it during the day, lawlessness, drug deals, and child exploitation go largely unchecked.

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"I just can't walk away from the children after learning their living condition is as such," Pauline says. "The only way I can describe it is just like if you saw an injured person on the road, you just can't walk away from the person without helping them. And that kept me going back to Mae Sot again and again and again."

A glimpse of "No man's land" between Thailand and MyanmarPhoto by Annie Reneau

With the help of her partner, Fun (pronounced just like the English word), Pauline has spent the past decade pouring time and resources into serving these kids. She's set up a Lunch Every Day program at several schools, to ensure that kids get a nutritious lunch at least each weekday. She sponsors Burmese kids to go to Thai school, assisting with fees and transportation, to give them greater educational opportunities. And she organizes big birthday bashes—complete with cake, presents, games, and music—to celebrate the lives of these kids, some of whom have no idea what day they were born.

Twice a year, Pauline invites friends and acquaintances to meet in Mae Sot to help put on these events. Our small band of birthday volunteers includes people from Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and the U.S. We are also joined by a 19-year-old Burmese college student named Jo Jo, who grew up in one of these schools and now returns to help Pauline with the birthday parties. Our job is to take care of logistics, help with organized games and activities, light candles on hundreds of cupcakes, hand out goody bags and t-shirts, and generally provide a day of celebration for the kids.

Jo Jo, a former Burmese migrant school student, returns each year to help translate and organize birthday activities Photo by Annie Reneau

The first day we visit the largest school—230 kids—and Jo Jo brings a dozen or so Burmese teenagers with him to translate and help organize games. After spending just a few hours with Jo Jo, it's clear that he's an extraordinary young man—a natural and likable leader. Pauline first met him when he was 10, and she was impressed by his innate confidence even then. (He was one of the first students to call her "Pauline" instead of the standard "Teacher.") He got a scholarship from an Australian NGO to go to university in Myanmar, where he's currently studying International Relations.

Jo Jo says he loves coming back to help Pauline put on the birthday events. "The annual birthday party is such a great party for refugee kids," he tells me in English, "because the kids can know how important they are." He has started organizing a similar program himself at an orphanage in Myanmar.

Birthday fun at Burmese school in Mae Sot, ThailandPhoto by Annie Reneau

Knowing the vulnerable status of these kids, Pauline decided from the beginning that if she was going to do these birthday events, she would return to the same schools each year without fail. She will only add a new school to the program if she's 100% sure she'll be able to keep it up, and that long-term commitment has paid off. Kids at the five schools she supports—close to 600 children—look forward to Pauline's birthday parties the same way kids everywhere look forward to their birthday.

Birthday celebration at Burmese school in Mae Sot, ThailandPhoto by Scott Smiley

"A lot of people call us 'The Happy Group,' says Pauline. "I used to call ourselves the 'Independent Volunteers' [because] we don't belong to any NGO. We're just a group of volunteers who want to bring happiness or joy, no matter how little, to these kids so we can make their lives just a little bit better."

However, she points out that the birthday parties aren't just about providing a day of fun. "Celebrating a birthday is a celebration of our existence in the world. So for these kids, when we do the birthday program, it actually has a larger meaning than just celebration and fun and joy and goody bags and snacks. It's actually a celebration of their existence." It lets them know they are not only seen, but valued as human beings.

For three days, we throw birthday celebrations for about 430 kids, ranging in age from preschool to high school. I note that most of the kids wear some sort of school uniform, but some have put on their best dress-up clothes for the occasion. Most also wear a traditional skincare product called thanakha—a paste made of ground tree bark that's used as a sunscreen and skin softener—on their faces. Burmese people of all ages wear thanakha daily, a distinguishing feature that makes them stand out in Thailand.

As a trained teacher, I've been around a lot of children. No matter where you go, kids are always kids. Within an hour, I could spot which kids in each age group were the teacher's pets, which ones were the class clowns, which ones were shy at first but would warm up as they got more comfortable. I saw the silliness, teasing, and expressions of friendship you'd see in any large group of children. I watched teenage boys be teenage boys, challenging one another to arm wrestling competitions, alternating between being goofy and shy.

Preschool classroom at Burmese school in Mae Sot, ThailandPhoto by Annie Reneau

What I couldn't see, of course, was which kids hadn't eaten, which kids had been orphaned, and which kids were being exploited or abused before or after school. We know that's reality for some of these children, and as much as we wish we could, we can't change their individual circumstances. That's why Pauline does what she does—to show them that they have not been forgotten by the world.

"The very first time being exposed to the true meaning of being stateless and displaced in a foreign country, I saw how vulnerable they are," says Pauline. "The other thing is they are children. They're not strong enough to protect themselves. They are purely at the mercy of the world, the adults in the situation they are in, and that keeps me going."

Pauline knows, of course, that Burmese kids in Mae Sot are not the only children in need. But she chooses to focus on this one place and these specific kids so she can make an impact. She says:

"I know that there are so many children who are vulnerable. There are lots everywhere...I just happened to have met them first. If I had gone to Indonesia or Cambodia and met a group there, maybe I would do the same. But I went there. I met the kids. I learned about the children and decided to help. Instead of doing a little bit here and there, I wanted to focus my energy on one place. Already in this one place, the needs are just enormous and I can't cover everyone. I might as well focus on this one door so that it's more sustainable rather than going all over the place. That's why I keep going back to them."

Fun helps Pauline to keep her programs running. As a stress management coach by profession, he's also added a social/emotional component to their work with the children. "We need to give a lot more psychological support to these kids, because they don't get any," says Pauline. Fun brought in a self-mastery program and hired a local teacher to help implement it. He Skypes in with students on a monthly basis, and they've gotten positive feedback on the program from kids and teens who say they've gain strength, self-awareness, and emotional tools to help them cope with their challenges.

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I ask Pauline if she's considered consolidating her efforts into an official NGO. She says she's thought about it, but the stateless status of the children and some of the adults she works with means she would hit funding road blocks. Companies want to avoid situations where they can't determine exactly where funding is going, and with some of the services Pauline helps with, that's a problem. For example, at some schools, a driver picks up kids at the border and drives them to school each day. Sometimes the driver might be a stateless person themselves, who may or may not have a legal driver's license. They may have to bribe the police every month to get the kids to school—that's just the way things are done here—but no organization would be able to support that officially.

Some kids are picked up at the border and dropped off at schoolPhoto by Annie Reneau

Pauline is also worried that running an official organization would take energy away from what she does best, which is to serve the children directly. So she keeps her fundraising efforts personal, pays for the majority of their projects from her own pocket, and oversees her programs herself. "I know there are certain activities that will drain me," she says, so she sticks with what works and what she can keep up with in her free time. Though her successful banking career is an accomplishment in its own right, she now sees it as a means to one end—funding programs that help the stateless, displaced kids that live in Mae Sot lead healthier, happier lives.

"I say it's a calling," she says. "I found my passion with children. I know what to do now. My job is just a job to finance my work with children."

I look at Pauline and think of the many unsung heroes out there—people working at the grassroots level, helping specific groups of people in specific areas, without fanfare or recognition. Seeing her in generosity in action is humbling, and I don't know whether I feel more ashamed or inspired by her selflessness. All I know is that the world could use a whole lot more people just like her.

If you'd like to support Pauline's efforts, a GoFundMe has been organized to help fund the birthday and lunch programs for the schools she serves in Mae Sot. A few dollars here goes a long way there.

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
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When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

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In a segment called “What Do You Know About The Female Body?” men try—and hilariously fail—to answer even the most basic questions, like “does a female have one uterus, or two?” much to the amazement of some of their female partners.

Here are some of the very best bits of nonwisdom:

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Images courtesy of AFutureSuperhero and Friends and Balance Dance Project
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The day was scorching hot, but the weather wasn’t going to stop a Star Wars Stormtrooper from handing out school supplies to a long line of eager children. “You guys don’t have anything illegal back there - any droids or anything?” the Stormtrooper asks, making sure he was safe from enemies before handing over a colorful backpack to a smiling boy.

The man inside the costume is Yuri Williams, founder of AFutureSuperhero And Friends, a Los Angeles nonprofit that uplifts and inspires marginalized people with small acts of kindness.

Yuri’s organization is one of four inaugural grant winners from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, a joint initiative between Upworthy and GoFundMe that celebrates kindness and everyday actions inspired by the best of humanity. This year, the Upworthy Kindness Fund is giving $100,000 to grassroots changemakers across the world.

To apply, campaign organizers simply tell Upworthy how their kindness project is making a difference. Between now and the end of 2021, each accepted individual or organization will receive $500 towards an existing GoFundMe and a shout-out on Upworthy.

Meet the first four winners:

1: Balance Dance Project: This studio aims to bring accessible dance to all in the Sacramento, CA area. Lead fundraiser Miranda Macias says many dancers spend hours a day at Balance practicing contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop, and ballet. Balance started a GoFundMe to raise money to cover tuition for dancers from low-income communities, buy dance team uniforms, and update its facility. The $500 contribution from the Kindness Fund nudged Balance closer to its $5,000 goal.

2: Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team: In Los Angeles, middle school teacher James Pike is introducing his students to the field of robotics via a Lego-building team dedicated to solving real-world problems.

James started a GoFundMe to crowdfund supplies for his students’ team ahead of the First Lego League, a school-against-school matchup that includes robotics competitions. The team, James explained, needed help to cover half the cost of the pricey $4,000 robotics kit. Thanks to help from the Upworthy Kindness Fund and the generosity of the Citizens of the World Middle School community, the team exceeded its initial fundraising goal.

Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

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To make room for newcomers, the club recently moved into a larger studio with a third station for apprentices or guest artists. Unlike a traditional fundraiser that supports the organization exclusively, Black Fluidity Tattoo Club will distribute proceeds from GoFundMe directly to emerging Black tattoo artists who are starting their own businesses. The small grants, supported in part with a $500 contribution from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, will go towards artists’ equipment, supplies, furnishings, and other start-up costs.

4: AFutureSuperhero And Friends’ “Hope For The Holidays”: Founder Yuri Williams is fundraising for a holiday trip to spread cheer to people in need across all fifty states.

Along with collaborator Rodney Smith Jr., Yuri will be handing out gifts to children, adults, and animals dressed as a Star Wars’ Stormtrooper, Spiderman, Deadpool, and other movie or comic book characters. Starting this month, the crew will be visiting children with disabilities or serious illnesses, bringing leashes and toys to animal shelters for people taking home a new pet, and spreading blessings to unhoused people—all while in superhero costume. This will be the third time Yuri and his nonprofit have taken this journey.

AFutureSuperhero started a GoFundMe in July to cover the cost of gifts as well as travel expenses like hotels and rental cars. To help the nonprofit reach its $15,000 goal, the Upworthy Kindness Fund contributed $500 towards this good cause.

Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

The scarf, a simple accessory that some find an essential fashion piece. Both fashionable and function with the warmth they provide, scarves can be a valuable gift for any occasion or person. Here, we've selected our best selling scarves from our store. At Upworthy Market, when you purchase a product, you directly support the artisans who craft their own products, so with every purchase, you're doing good. These scarves are not only unique, but they are hand-made by local artisans and all under $30.

1. Fair Trade Woven Dark Gray Alpaca Blend Scarf

Celinda Jaco selects a cozy blend of Andean alpaca for this handsome men's scarf. Classic in style, it features fine stripes of white and black woven through the dark grey textile. Hand-tied fringe completes a distinguished design.

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For parents, handling a 2-year-old's 2-year-oldness can be a challenge. You can't rationalize with them. You know they're not being little toddler terrors on purpose. You know that they're just learning and that it's a stage and a phase that won't last forever, but when you're in it? Phew.

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