Twice a year, Bunnag leads a team of volunteers who leave behind family, careers, and the comforts of home to bring donated supplies and medical care to people in rural areas of Thailand. They operate as Smile on Wings, a charity Bunnag established in 2003. “I used to be afraid to fly, but I got over it. Now I want to do good while I can.” Pointing to one picture, she laughs at the deep ruts carved into the dirt road. “Look! We rode for hours, up 5,000 feet above sea level to the tribal people in the northern villages. Sometimes the only transportation is an elephant—so this was OK.”
On her recent trip in February, Bunnag led the Smile on Wings team
to the northern Thai-
“In an emergency here,” said Bunnag, “forget it, you just die.” Before 2002, Bunnag hadn’t been back to Thailand since she was 14, when she was sent to live with her father in the United States. By then, she had spent a lifetime away. She learned English during high school at Montgomery Blair, in Silver Spring, Md., where she graduated with honors. From age 18, she supported herself working odd jobs then, as a dental assistant. She married, studied at Montgomery College, and graduated from Howard University Dental School with honors—while raising three sons. Bunnag recalls: “I just didn’t sleep a lot then. I would put the kids to bed, sleep a few hours, and study from midnight to 3 a.m. every day. Then get up at 5:30 a.m. and go back to school. My husband was such a big help. We worked together to achieve this goal. At that time, I didn’t know if it was going to happen because it took so long. Financially we were struggling.”
When her mother died in Thailand, they had no money to fly her back for the funeral. When she did eventually return to Thailand, Bunnag realized that as a trained dentist and an American, she had great resources to provide help to those in need there. She started by networking with her dental patients and colleagues, one a former adviser to the Minister of Health in Thailand. Just months later, she had enlisted her first Smile on Wings volunteers and put together the inaugural mission in October 2003.
To date, Smile on Wings has performed five missions, each with a new team of volunteer professionals who pay many of their own expenses and use vacation leave to be absent from their jobs. “Whenever we return from a mission, the volunteers who went tell others about their experiences, and we always get new people who want to be part of it. That’s good because there’s always a need.”
“When we went
for the tsunami relief work in January, we were a group of nine: four
“The Thai news wasn’t reporting much on the local people who lost everything. Instead, they were focusing on the death toll and the foreigners, so having the TV team with me was a great opportunity to get more help to them—although I didn’t know really what to expect there.” When they arrived in Thailand with a loose plan “to help,” Bunnag met with an official at the Provincial Public Health Center, who approved her proposal to work at Bang Muang, the largest refugee camp in the area. For seven days straight, the team worked morning to night among the camp’s 5,000 survivors, including 300–400 children and 97 orphans, seeing 200 to 300 patients a day.
“I [was] so relieved that we had work to do there.” In fact, the
amount of work was daunting.
They also bought four fishing boats, which the fishermen will share until more can be provided, and delivered 18 bicycles for refugee children paid from donations by children at Watkins Mill Elementary School in Montgomery Village, Md. Bunnag’s husband, Aurachun, a skilled artisan, will go back next time and teach people how to make knives, a skill they can use for work or just occupy their time.
Jet lag? What jet leg? Bunnag is buoyed up by the potential and the opportunity to do more. “I heard so many sad stories, and I just want to help while I am able to do it. I’m just a dentist, but I have a vision for what I want to do.”