Katsarin “Piano” Samranpriwan celebrated her 30th birthday this summer by throwing a Thai ramen party for 30 friends and colleagues.
It wasn’t easy. Samranpriwan was at Holden Village—far from her home in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and far from a Thai grocery store. The spices, noodles and chilis she ordered came on the boat and bus that guests and supplies take to the remote Lutheran camp in the North Cascades mountains of Washington state.
Her day job is in the social development and service unit of the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT), a companion church of the ELCA. Over the summer she worked with children in Narnia, Holden’s summer kids’ program, through the ELCA International Camp Counselor Program.
“I love working with little kids because I can listen to them and comfort them,” she said. “But my first day, I thought I couldn’t do it.”
While Samranpriwan trained to be an English teacher, her English was rusty. When kids asked her questions, she couldn’t respond.
Her strong teaching skills overcame the language barrier. At week’s end, five kids wrote notes thanking her “for being a good teacher, and for being silly.”
The 19 young adult leaders prayed for and encouraged one another through their bewildering first days.
While the notes cheered her, her first days were challenging. “I didn’t know American culture. Did I have to invite someone [to do something], or did they invite me? And they talked very fast,” she said.
“Here I say hello and some people don’t greet me,” she said. “In Thailand we are kind, and we smile and say hi to anybody we pass.”
During evening “sacred space” services, she wanted to sing but didn’t know the songs. “I cried every day.”
Anchoring herself in Holden’s daily rhythms helped. Working one-on-one with children sharpened her English. Joining staff in the dish pit and “garbo”—the complicated process of sorting village garbage into recyclable, compostable and landfill items—built her social network. “Staff don’t have much time to hang out, and garbo is a good time to get to know each other,” she said.
Her peers in the ELCA International Camp Counselor program also had her back. The 19 young adult leaders who served at ELCA-affiliated camps in 2023 developed strong relationships during their Chicago orientation. Scattered in places such as South Dakota, Montana and Wisconsin, they prayed for and encouraged one another through their bewildering first days.
Leaders and staff at camps also learn how to cross cultures and support counselors settling into a new place. As Samranpriwan and the staffing leads got to know each other better, they found ways to ease her into the community. She asked villagers to call her “Piano,” a nickname given by her musician father—and showed off her own skills when she sang a Thai song at an open mic.
Holden leadership also arranged an offsite trip for Samranpriwan, to a gathering of 600 young Karen Christians in Nebraska. Samranpriwan is Karen, and part of her work in the CCT is focused on securing rights for these Indigenous people, many of whom are refugees from Myanmar.
Used to strong connections with other Christians, Samranpriwan got to know people who identify as nonreligious on Holden’s staff. She saw how LGBTQ guests and staff were supported, a topic she says Thai culture struggles with. She met women pastors. An aspect of her role with the CCT is organizing and teaching workshops on gender, especially among traditional Karen families.
“Piano is such a social person, and staff were really enthusiastic about ramen night,” said Stacy Kitahata, one of Holden’s three executive directors. “Plus, it was great to have someone helping facilitate the process of Piano coming.”
“She was able to connect with kids and develop trust in a really beautiful way, and she loved, loved, loved them.”
Kitahata knew that any prospective ELCA International Camp Counselor would have been nominated by their church body, have visas and tickets ready, and have completed some cross-cultural training. “We could feel confident being open to the process because we knew we would get someone who had already been vetted,” she said.
Samranpriwan was more than vetted. “It was wonderful to have such a qualified and committed volunteer in Narnia,” said Elli Vegdahl-Crowell, lead for children and youth services. “She was able to connect with kids and develop trust in a really beautiful way, and she loved, loved, loved them.”
Besides new friendships and memories of hiking and seeing snow, Samranpriwan took home more confidence in communicating with the CCT’s English-speaking partners around projects in the areas of gender justice, agriculture, health and international partnerships.
Vegdahl-Crowell and other Holden Village staff are still benefiting from her gifts and presence, and what she shared about Thailand and the Karen people. And they miss her ramen.
Samranpriwan credits God for connecting her with the program, and with her summer at Holden. “God was preparing this plan for me,” she said. “It was a blessing.”