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She found her calling at the age of 70 !

Updated: Mar 13, 2019

Do you think it’s too late to find/follow your calling?

Bernice Koehler Johnson has found and followed her calling at the age of 70 !

She is 86 now and she has accomplished more, after her retirement age, than most people do in their life time !

Watch a two minutes video on her life journey and her achievements.

Read her full story to know her experience, who helped her to start the charity school for refugee, her learning and challenges she faces while running this school.

A military junta controlled Burma from 1962 to 2010, during which time the country’s economic and educational systems deteriorated so much that more than one million children were deprived of an education. A large number of the illiterate belong to the Shan ethnic group.

When Shan families could no longer survive in Burma, when their homes and lands were confiscated, they fled to Thailand. In Thailand, they are considered migrants and work at the worst jobs the country has to offer. They receive subsistence wages, seldom enough to allow them to feed their families and send their children to school. Without an education, the children are at great risk of being lured into the sex and drug trades in Thailand.

Bernice is the founder of Schools for Shan Refugees charitable organization established to help Shan refugees in Thailand get an education. Since 2004, she has been helping Shan refugee children who live in migrant camps get a basic education, a process that also helps their Shan teachers earn regular wages.

Her foundation has been supporting approximately 200 Shan children who have fled from Burma to Thailand. Despite attending classes taught in a foreign language and despite their poorly paid parents’ struggle to pay their share of school expenses, all of the children in their tuition program pass their yearly exams.

Inspirational Beings team got an opportunity to interview Bernice.

Please tell us about your education and personal background?

I grew up on a farm in northern Minnesota where a beloved aunt taught me to read at the age of three, a skill that opened the world to me and that remains a source of comfort and inspiration. At the age of six, I started walking two miles each morning to a one-room country school, where I enhanced the reading and writing skills that continue to brighten my days.

After graduating from eighth grade at the age of twelve, I attended four years of high school in the nearby town of New York Mills. That’s where a cadre of unconcerned teachers and my natural tendencies conspired to turn me into a happy-go-lucky good time girl, more concerned with having fun than learning.

My parents were farmers, uneducated in the ways of the world. We did not know that college scholarships for good grades existed. What we knew was that my family could not afford to help me attend university. So rather than working for good grades, I played away the days, waking up with a jolt when I realized my high school frolic was over. My friends were going to college. I would go to work.

Fortunately, high school shorthand and typing classes had qualified me for secretarial jobs, so I worked in the clerical field for many years, including following my marriage at the age of nineteen and again after the birth of my two sons. It was only at the age of thirty-eight, once my sons were in school all day, that I enrolled in a community college. I studied part-time, making sure I was always home to prepare meals, as the custom of the time decreed, but my days were now blessed with a return of the joy of learning I had known as a child.

Over the years, my husband and I had grown apart. We divorced and I found a better paid but more demanding job that left me with little time to attend classes and write papers. Still, I plodded along, taking one class one quarter and another class the next quarter, until I was fifty years old, when I got a Bachelor of Science Degree. Afterward I continued to study, earning a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing at the age of sixty-two and another Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies at the age of seventy.

2. Tell us why you felt like starting this mission of teaching and transforming lives of Shan refugees in Thailand?

At university, I tutored English as a Foreign Language to help pay tuition fees. Realizing that I could continue to make some money and see the world at the same time, I started answering advertisements to teach English in foreign countries. The university was on a quarter system at that time, so for three or four months every year I would escape frigid Minnesota winters by teaching English in warmer places, returning to my studies when the jobs ended. I chose assignments based primarily upon the areas of the world I wanted to visit: Bali, Spain, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Ecuador, Turkey.

Then I saw an advertisement to teach English to Shan youth between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, refugees who had escaped from Burma to Chiang Mai, Thailand. I saw them in my head: a hopeless, helpless group of people. Intimidated by the thought of trying to teach youth who had endured so much hardship, I fought with myself about applying, imagining they would be concerned primarily with survival and that learning English would be difficult and uninteresting for them. Just before the application due date, I applied for the job. I wanted to see that part of the world.

The first class I taught changed my mind about the kind of people Shan refugees might be. Far from hopeless, they were excited about learning English, excited about meeting their first American, excited about possibilities for their future. And they were far from helpless: Most had experienced great difficulty getting into Thailand. Two of them had been arrested and sent to detention centers for lack of proper immigration documents. Afterward, one had returned to work at an illicit factory job. The other student, who had been a Buddhist monk in Burma, fled after detention to a Thai monastery and once again picked up a begging bowl. The school administrator herself had crossed the Burma/Thai border at the age of six, strapped into a basket atop a horse’s back. She started this school in Thailand for youth from Shan State when she was seventeen years old. These were no ordinary young people. There was nothing hopeless or helpless about them.

I fell in love: with them, with their eagerness to learn, and with their determination to succeed. That love deepened when they told me about their motives for being there; they wanted to help their people; they wanted to do good in the world. It was something I, too, had wanted to do, ever since reading “Little Women” in grade school and realizing one did not have to be wealthy to help others.

Two of my most diligent Shan students, Sai Soe and Hark Murng, asked me to accompany them to a housing area for working refugees, a shanty town of shelters slapped together from bamboo, plastic tarps, and other salvaged materials. The camp was hidden from the main roadway by a large housing project. Shan construction workers existed in the shadows of fine houses they had erected for those who had the privilege of Thai citizenship. It was 2002, and migrant children were not allowed to attend Thai schools. Instead of studying, they stayed home and played games like kickball while their parents worked ten-hour days. The camp we visited was built to serve only the most basic needs. Residents had to stumble over rutted ground to reach sloppily built outhouses; a concrete water trough like those used to water animals had been erected so workers could scoop out water from them for bathing and for washing clothes. Several slanted poles with lights at top provided night-time illumination. Sai Soe and Hark Murng wanted to start schools in camps such as this. They wanted Shan children to get an education.

After I had completed my teaching assignment and returned to the University of Minnesota, thoughts of the children and their dilemma swirled through my mind and mingled with the words of a Mary Oliver poem, “The Summer’s Day.” The poem concluded with the lines, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I was seventy years old. It was time to decide. I would try to help Shan refugee children get an education.

3. What are some of the key challenges you encountered in life while pursuing your mission?

There were two key challenges to making my newfound dream of helping Shan refugee children come true. One, was finding interested people to help me in my mission. Two, was raising money to turn dream into reality. The first person to join my efforts was my former personal banker, Josh Kletschka, who became a compassionate co-worker. In 2008, Josh and I started the charity “Schools for Shan Refugees.” Josh was a font of ideas. He supported one of my first fundraising efforts by arranging to have me speak at a concert in a bar that I might never have visited. Now, ten years later, he remains a major source of counsel and support, advising his co-workers of our mission and encouraging them to donate to the Shan on a monthly basis, as he does. And we decided I should start speaking about the Shan at churches and other locations where attendees might be inclined to support under-privileged children. Very few Christian churches were interested in helping the Shan, perhaps because they are Buddhist; and in the beginning people often asked why I was not doing something to help children here at home. The latter question became easier to explain once the answer was fully formed in my own mind: The world is one. Children need help wherever they may live. It is up to us (their elders) to facilitate their well-being. Our mission eventually found a home in a small northern Minnesota town, where members of the non-denominational Unitarian Universalist Church of Underwood have become a significant source of support for our education projects. We have also acquired more dedicated board members, who are generous donors. However, fund-raising remains our biggest challenge.

4. What did you learn from those challenges?

The challenge of finding dedicated board members and donors has led me to the realization that we must spend more time reassuring benefactors about the importance of their contributions, letting them know we could not help the children get an education without them. We must express our gratitude more frequently for their support and provide information about accomplishments of both the children and the young adults, including the former Shan refugees who teach them.

I have also learned to ask for help. You can help! You may donate through Pay Pal at our website:

Or you may contact me by e-mail and I will give you more suggestions about how to donate:

5. What’s your mantra for life? What keeps you going in tough times?

I have no specific “mantra for life.” But I inherited a stubborn nature from my Finnish mother, who embodied a quality called “sisu,” defined by Finlandia University as “strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity. Sisu is not momentary courage, but the ability to sustain that courage.” When things get difficult, I call my mother to mind and toughen up!

6. What’s your guidance to society and youngsters?

In whatever country I find myself, I remember always that the world is one. World-over people suffer the same joys and disappointments. Everyone struggles to reach their goals. Everyone needs help. To the children and youth of all countries I say, “follow your dreams.” For dreams really do come true!

7. What is your favorite quote/role model or personality and why?

One source of inspiration is a poem by Virginia Adair, who published her first collection of poetry at the age of eighty-three. The following lines seemed written for me: Forgive me life the famished ache to swing across eternity—My line hold fast and do not break—I do this for my hunger’s sake. Because Adair was in her 80s when she published that first book, her work induces in me an attitude of “If she can, I can too”. I am also inspired by another poet who came to prominence only in his later years, William Butler Yeats. I particularly love these lines from “Sailing to Byzantium”: An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, unless soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing for every tatter in its mortal dress. I remind myself of Yeat’s words and “louder sing” by simply rejoicing in each day.

Finally, the last line of Mary Oliver’s “Summer Day” poem lives within me. In my head, I have changed the wording a bit. It has become: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life [today]?

Today I choose to exercise and eat well so I can remain healthy and continue to help Shan children from Burma get an education.

The video is prepared by

Dheepthi Sundaresan

8th grade Student, Adams Traditional Academy School, Phoenix, Arizona, USA.

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