Where are they now?
A whimsical, piano-shaped building in Thailand offers a welcoming place for children and adults with disabilities to engage in occupational therapy and performing arts lessons, teaching them life skills and expression. It also embodies the extensive efforts of retired St. Olaf faculty Michael and Ann Leming to give back to a country that has meant the world to them.
For 30 years, Mike Leming, an emeritus professor of sociology/anthropology, and Asian Studies, and Ann Leming, a retired education instructor, have been committed to sharing their talents with Thailand. Their work resulted in the Rajanagarindra Institute of Child Development (RICD) piano building in the city of Chiang Mai, home to the Interact Thailand performing arts program for people with disabilities.
The five-story building opened in 2015. It provides a variety of therapies to people from across northern Thailand, including music, dance, and speech therapy. RICD clients stage shows in its two theaters to showcase their talents while also helping to expose Thai society to people with diverse disabilities. To recognize the Lemings’ eight-year effort to raise money, awareness, and drive for the building, Thai Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn gave them gold medals, a high honor.
For the Lemings, achieving their goal was reward enough. “It was a dream come true. It was wonderful,” says Leming of seeing the piano building become a reality. Their devotion to Thailand and their deep connection to the Thai people and culture were crystallized when the couple first came to the country as St. Olaf Term in Asia faculty supervisors. “I fell in love with Thailand in 1990,” says Mike Leming. “The people are very present and caring.”
The Lemings, who taught about 11,000 St. Olaf students during their 40 years at the college, also led study abroad programs to Thailand for 28 years. Their Spring Semester in Thailand program allowed students to dive deeply into Thai arts and culture while completing internships in their majors.
The couple got the idea for the arts program in Thailand after seeing a performance by the Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, a training and inclusion program in St. Paul, Minnesota, for people with disabilities. The Lemings approached Artistic Director Jeanne Calvit to ask if she would be interested in establishing Interact Thailand in Chiang Mai. She loved the idea, and within two months she and the Lemings were working with RICD leaders to create arts therapy and training programs for its clients.
The piano building was the dream of RICD Director Samai Sirithongthaworn, now deputy director general of Thailand’s Department of Mental Health and Ministry of Public Health. Yet Thai leaders were reluctant to build the fanciful structure because they didn’t see the benefit of arts training for people with disabilities, Leming says.
That all changed when 20 public and mental health government officials watched an Interact Thailand performance and saw firsthand the positive benefits that arts training can have on people with disabilities. People who rarely spoke and interacted with others were now collaborating, doing improvisation, and performing fearlessly. Before long, the government committed funding for the piano building.
Thailand continues to be an integral part of the Lemings’ lives. They live in Thailand for three to four months each year, own a home there, and speak the Thai language. They also continue to raise funds for Interact Thailand and its clients. Mike volunteers for two weeks annually, teaching English and practical theology at the Xavier Learning Community, a free university run by the Catholic Church and the Jesuits in Chiang Saen, Thailand Most of the students are tribal people from the mountain areas. “It’s incredible to work with the poorest of the poor,” Leming says. “Together, we can do amazing things.”