For the last 22 years, Aoy LaChapelle has been many things to many people in Marquette, whether it’s been a friendly face to anyone that walks into her restaurant or a seasonal mother to a few thousand broke and hungry NMU students. For 15 of those years, she has expanded her endeavors and efforts to help less fortunate children in her native country of Thailand.
Every year, Aoy, owner and operator of The Rice Paddy, visits her hometown, which lies on the outskirts of Bangkok, to help provide food, clothing and other necessities for just over 300 children from two different schools – one of which she attended as a child. Aoy funds her trip and purchases necessities for the children using tips and additional donations given by customers. She bargains at local food markets near the schools to buy enough food – such as rice, chicken, fish, oil and chili peppers – to last nearly an entire year. She also purchases new uniforms for the children, and this year she even purchased a computer for one school.
“This type of work is addictive like a drug to me,” Aoy said. “Every day I think about what I am going to do next year and how much money I can raise for the children.”
According to Aoy, many children in Thailand are in dire straits for a multitude of reasons. The Business for Millennium Development, a group of Australian companies that focuses on poverty relief and business development, estimates that of the 61.5 million people in Thailand, 15.5 million live on less than $2 a day. Growing up, Aoy experienced such hardship first-hand.
“We had to share almost everything at home and at school, even books,” Aoy said. “Sometimes, there would be only one book for the entire class. I want to help give these kids a better childhood.”
Also, many children were left homeless by the December, 2004 tsunamis which claimed the lives of 5,395 people in Thailand. Aoy said this is another big reason she makes the trip.
Aoy doesn’t make the trek alone, though. Her husband and TV 6 anchorman Greg Trick accompanies her every year. Trick said their time spent at the schools is his favorite and most memorable part of the trip every year.
“It is just like Christmas morning to them; their eyes just light up as soon as they see their new uniforms and all the food which is donated,” Trick said.
Aoy said she isn’t the only one responsible for helping the children, as many of her regular customers make generous donations throughout the year – sometimes upwards of hundreds of dollars.
One of her closest Marquette-area supporters and friends, Art Lauren, said he likes to help out as much as he can.
“I think what she does is fabulous,” Lauren said. “She is almost like a foreign diplomat with all of her contributions and visits to her home country each year. She is just a very caring woman.”
Over the years Aoy said she has tried to inspire others to get involved and make a difference. Before her 2008 trip to Thailand, the students and faculty of North Star Academy in Marquette held a luncheon and raised $950 for Aoy and her cause. The food for the luncheon was provided by The Rice Paddy and then served in bowls which were hand-made by North Star students.
North Star Academy teacher and luncheon organizer Heather Jordan said it was great to get the students involved with helping children who are less fortunate.
“I think Aoy’s commitment to the children in Thailand is admirable,” Jordan said. “I know she works tirelessly to ensure the kids in that area are able to get an education, which is the most important influence one can have. She has probably helped many children in Thailand, even beyond what she originally planned.”
The students and faculty were able to see first-hand where the money was going and how it helped the children. Aoy puts together a DVD of the trip every year for customers to watch in the restaurant. After her 2008 trip, she brought the DVD to North Star Academy and played it for the students.
Jordan said that viewing the DVD gave the students a feeling of accomplishment when they saw the children receiving the donations that the North Star Academy fundraiser provided.
“They were no longer assisting faceless people halfway around the world,” Jordan added.
Despite her efforts, Aoy said she still has many people to thank for making the trip possible. She added that the will to help is inside everyone.
“I don’t know what it is exactly, but there has always been something inside me that wants to help people and I believe that exists in everyone,” she said. “It makes me feel great.”
Those interested in donating can do so at The Rice Paddy.