Written by Yaiza Morales.
The S.M.I.LE. Project does much more than bring smiles to the faces of the youth in Luang Prabang, Laos. Michael Sebastian, founder and director of the project, doesn’t only offer FREE English classes, but he also provides nutritional aid, and healthcare assistance to the most vulnerable children of this city, including Buddhist monks and novices. With a background in Dharma and Meditation teachings as well as life coaching, Michael is more than a teacher to these youngsters. He is their mentor, spiritual guide, and a father figure.
The inspiration for this project came to life after Michael’s first visit to Luang Prabang in 2008, when he visited for a few days and taught two novice monks English. Their desire to learn and pleads for him to return and continue his lessons, motivated his return. Michael described that an “internal awareness or calling” triggered his decision. Something inside him said that he just had to come back to Luang Prabang. He explained: “we all have different alarm clocks and they are all set at different times. My alarm went off, and that’s that. It was my time.” In 2010, he decided to leave his life in California behind, in order to pursue his dream of making a difference in the lives of the Laotian youth.
Yeng Cha, an orphaned 17-year-old local, was one of The S.M.I.L.E. Project’s first students and is one of many children whom Michael has lovingly taken under his wing. He remembers how excited he was when Michael offered to teach him English at the temple for free. When they met, Yeng Cha had no place to live. Determined to help, Michael got his former Meditation students in San Francisco to sponsor one year of rent for Yeng Cha in a nearby room, which currently houses six orphaned young adults. Michael teaches daily English classes at no cost to as many as fifty students at a time! His dedication was more than evident, as he expressed that he has committed himself wholeheartedly to caring for these children, and if that means skipping a meal so that they can have food on their plates, so be it. Medical care, schooling fees, and food are just some of the contributions he selflessly provides. The S.M.I.L.E. Project’s funds are scarce, and they live day to day. When asked about how he would be acquiring much needed donations for his project in the future, Michael calmly replied, “How will it happen? I don’t know. It’s a mystery. But I am willing to live in the mystery.” Faith and the generosity of kind-hearted souls has kept the S.M.I.L.E Project alive to this day.
Moved by his story, I was compelled to help out in that instance, and offered him all the money I had in my pocket. Although it was not much, I told Michael that I just wanted to put in my little grain of sand. He replied, “One little grain of sand can grow into a mountain.”
To learn more about The S.M.I.L.E. Project and how you can contribute your little grain of sand, click here. You are welcome to come visit and participate in the English classes if you are in Luang Prabang, or send in a much needed donation so that Michael can continue to fulfill his dream of seeing these children lead happy and healthy lives that are free from suffering and harm.