At the age of 14, Thum Ai left home on his own to go live in China as a migrant worker, washing cars and working at an ice cream factory. He did this in hopes that he could earn enough money to enable him to go to high school. Unfortunately he could not, so when he returned home two years later he worked as a logger helping to earn money for his family. Despite this difficult and grueling work, he still could not make enough money to attend school. During that time many of his friends were leaving Shan state to go to Thailand; some because of limited opportunities and others looking to escape forced enlistment into the army. Thum Ai decided that better opportunities might await him in Thailand, so journeyed from home by himself once again. While working in Thailand as a mechanic, Thum Ai took every opportunity to further his education. This lead him to attend an environmental awareness training. After the meeting, he felt such an overwhelming sense of guilt for working as a logger. He never thought about the environmental damage, he was only trying to feed his family. He decided from now on, he would work to help educate people on the importance of the environment.
For his needs assessment, Thum Ai returned to his home town in Shan State for the first time in many years. He found it to be very different from how he remembered. When Thum Ai was young, the forest was full of tall, thick trees that the villagers used elephants to bring down for logging. As he got older the trees became weaker and the villagers could pull them down with Buffalo. Now, what trees are left are sparse and thin and easily cut down. People haphazardly dispose of their waste in the river that they bathe in, often giving vulnerable populations, such as children, skin disease. Poverty stricken people are forced into more environmentally unsustainable activities such as logging, baking charcoal and using of chemical fertilizer that will drive them into further poverty as resources dry up.
To help people in his community learn how to manage their natural resources, Thum Ai will conduct a 5 month-long “Green Training Program.” The 15 selected students will study each weeknight for 3 hours. They will be trained in environmental awareness and conservation as well as English. After their extensive training, the students will become a self sufficient Environmental Awareness Committee, monitored by Thum Ai, which will be responsible for spreading their knowledge throughout the villages in their area, through a variety of different activities and campaigns. Thum Ai hopes to continue this training yearly and make the library he is holding it in a center for environmental activism.