Alum’s passion for refugees leads him to found nonprofit

By Kayla Reeves

A Baylor graduate who created a nonprofit organization to help refugees in Thailand recently shared his ideas at an international conference sponsored by a Bill Clinton initiative that brings world leaders together to discuss global issues.

Chris Woodruff, a 2009 Baylor graduate, co-founded the organization Life Raft International to provide food, shelter and other necessities for refugees in Bangkok, Thailand. He and co-founder Michael Hoyt taught English in Bangkok for a year soon after graduating Baylor. The year he spent teaching sparked Woodruff’s passion for working with refugees.

Kathryn Mueller, a senior lecturer in sociology, has been coordinating the teaching program for the last 20 years. It allows Baylor graduates to teach English as a second language to Thai elementary school students. Woodruff took Mueller’s class as an undergraduate and was later selected for the program.

Wattana Wittaya Academy in Bangkok” is a private school consisting of about one-third royal children, one-third children of the elite and one-third very poor children who scored high on standardized tests and received scholarships, Mueller said.

Mueller said while many of the children at the school were wealthy, Woodruff could have been exposed to the refugees in Bangkok because it is a huge city where many local churches and monks are involved in helping the underprivileged.

Woodruff said he always had the goal of helping people.

“I went [to Thailand] with the idea of doing volunteer work,” Woodruff said. “After a year, I talked to Mike, and it had been such a transformative experience for him that he decided he wanted to keep helping them.”

Thailand is a hub for refugees in Asia, Woodruff said, because it is relatively developed, easy to escape to and several aid organizations are waiting to help the refugees when they arrive.

Refugees in Thailand leave the dangers of their countries, but after about two months, their tourist visas expire and they can be thrown into international prisons or sent back to their native countries, Woodruff said.

“They’ll have horrible conditions, bad food and water, disease-ridden environment [in the prisons or their home countries]. They’re trying to live under the radar, relying on aid organizations to help them,” he said. “They escape persecution and go to Thailand to get refugee status with the UN, and then settle in new places. But a lot of people there are stuck without refugee status.”

Mueller said she is not surprised by Woodruff’s motivation.

“He certainly participates fully in anything he’s involved in. He’s very gifted academically, and he’s one of those rare people who can immerse themselves completely in another culture,” Mueller said.

Life Raft International connects the refugees with people who want to help. They use email, Skype or Facebook to introduce donors to refugees, which makes it personal, Woodruff said.

“Even 15 or 20 dollars a month goes a really long way for some of these families,” Woodruff said, although people with other skills or resources are also welcome to become involved with the organization.

On March 31 and April 1, Woodruff brought his ideas to the Clinton Global Initiative University meeting — the international conference. Woodruff said Clinton attended and spoke at the meeting along with big-name celebrities like Usher, Jon Stewart and others who are not necessarily celebrities, but who have a big impact on combating world issues.

“Young people have a greater ability to enact change than ever before,” Clinton said in a press release, “and Clinton Global Initiative University is a global network of young people seeking to use the resources at their disposal to make a difference in the world.”

“Clinton Global Initiative University members do more than simply discuss problems,” the press release said. “They take concrete steps to solve them by building relationships, creating action plans, participating in hands-on workshops and following up with Clinton Global Initiative University as they complete their projects. Their efforts have culminated in approximately 3,000 Commitments to Action.”

According to the conference website, Commitments to Action “translate practical goals into meaningful and measurable results.”

Woodruff is able to participate in this students-only event because he is currently studying law at Georgetown University.

“My experience at Clinton Global Initiative University was fantastic. It was incredible just being able to meet so many people from around the world who had passions for things beyond themselves,” he said. “Sunday during the service project, I even got to have a conversation with former President Bill Clinton.”

Woodruff said he plans to continue his work with Life Raft International once he finishes school, as opposed to letting his co-founders take over.

“I see this as a life work,” he said. “It’s not a full-time job. I always expect to be putting a decent amount of time into this on the side.”