In a small impoverished village in northeastern Thailand, children are playing on an elementary school playground dedicated in honor of a Brainerd Police sergeant.
Even Sgt. Becky Putzke finds the notion to be a little "wacky," despite the fact that her name can be found on the playground's entrance sign.
While many Brainerd residents may know Putzke, an 18-year department veteran, they may not be aware that she, along with her sister, Lynne Putzke, donated $1,000 to build the playground in 1997. Now Putzke is using the money she's saved from working overtime during the past couple of months to build another playground for $1,000, or roughly 40,000 baht in Thailand.
Brainerd Police Chief John Bolduc had no idea that Putzke was helping Thai schoolchildren by funding the construction of playgrounds, but the news came as no surprise.
"I think she's a very generous person," said Bolduc. "She does a lot of things for other people that many people don't know about. She's very humble about those things."
Putzke learned about the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand Adopt-A-School program when her sister lived there and for three years taught at an American international school. She now teaches in Superior, Wis. A woman that Lynne Putzke was taking Thai language lessons from worked with the adopt-a-school program and told her about it. The program encourages American businesses and its employees in Thailand to donate funds to needy schools in rural Thailand. They can donate funds to buy a playground, water tank, school library, football field, volleyball court, water filtration system or a computer set.
Putzke chose to fund a playground because she said a playground is the heart of a community, a gathering place for children and their families. In the poorest of communities, a playground is like a community center, she said.
"The playgrounds, from my perspective, are like an outside classroom," said Putzke. "They teach math, physics, coordination and cooperation. They don't know they're learning because they're having fun."
During Christmas of 1997, Putzke visited her sister in Thailand. Lynne Putzke had a surprise for her. The elementary school held a dedication ceremony in honor of the two women and they were able to attend. The women were treated almost like royalty at the celebration, which included dances by the schoolchildren.
"It was very humbling to see that kind of appreciation," said Putzke.
The playground, although new, appears like an old-fashioned American playground, with metal swings and equipment. The Thai playgrounds aren't as fancy as those in the U.S. but then, the children love them anyway.
Putzke said the Thai school officials tried to translate her first name onto the large sign posted at the entrance of the playground, but apparently "Becky" doesn't translate so well in Thai. The large sign reads "Pukey Putzke."
"We had a good laugh over it," said Putzke with a smile. "But they (the Thai school officials) were mortified."
That was in 1997. The years passed and Putzke has been busy. About two months ago someone brought up Thailand during a conversation. It made Putzke think once again about funding another playground in the country. She contacted the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand to make sure they still had the adopt-a-school program and went to work -- literally. Putzke set aside all the money she earned working overtime for the Brainerd Police Department during the past two months for a playground in Thailand. She now has the $1,000 she needs to fund the construction of a playground in Thailand and is working on wiring the money abroad. A few colleagues also have donated money to help her reach her goal.
"Working overtime so strangers can play may seem a little wacky," said Putzke with a laugh. "But it's just setting a priority. Sometimes you just have to take the time to give back. So many people have been kind to me over the years that there's that obligation. I want to give back."
Putzke also volunteers within the Brainerd community. She said it was a heartwarming experience to see children enjoying a playground she helped build for them.
"I believe real strongly one person can make a difference, whether it's this program or helping out the neighbor next door," Putzke explained.
For more information on the adopt-a-school program in Thailand, contact the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand at its Web site at www.amchamthailand.com.
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