Ex-Peace Corps man’s global trash mission
Published on: Sunday, August 25, 2019
By: Jeremy S Zabala
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Thompson (left) during his younger days in Sabah, ‘ conquering’ Mount Kinabalu.
SOME 40 years ago, he was a former teacher of Sekolah Menengah Kerajaan Kota Belud (now SMK Arshad). Paul Thompson is back on familiar ground but this time as an environmentalist – hoping to alert the global community about climate change.

Through his experience and journey to different countries and seeing various cultures, 70-year-old Thompson from Edina, Minnesota, said his excursions have been an eye opener for him to fight for Mother Nature and increasing global awareness about climate change.

It all began when he was 22 and requested to be part of America’s military. He knew that it would give him a chance to see different parts of the world.

However, an alternative appeared right on his door step as he was given the option to be part of the Peace Corps who travel around the world to give aid in various ways to other countries.


Thompson’s former home in Kota Belud when he was a teacher in a school now known as SMK Arshad.

After graduating in biology, he was looking at being drafted into the military and planned to be dispatched to be part of the force during the war in Vietnam.

“I was not interested in being in the military but I did want to see the world so the Peace Corps was a wonderful option to do something. To see the world and learn about different countries as well as different cultures.

“So I ended up joining the Peace Corps which I got my military service counted as I was also serving for my country which I thought was a good thing because I was doing something for other people.

“I had the chance to choose an area in the world so I took region number 7 which was South East Asia. Malaysia which at that time needed science and math teachers,” he told Daily Express.

Using the knowledge equipped, his service and tenure as a teacher in SMK Kota Belud was welcomed by the locals in which it was not just a relationship between teacher and students but also friends.

He also at that time taught Form Three to Five students on science and health science.

“When I was teaching, I had students who were 22 to 24-years-old. I was only 22-years-old when I was teaching,” he added.

Thompson said there was barely any issue on language barrier with the locals as most of his former students were capable in English.

“I find that my students (back then) speak better English than the young people today. Because English was the medium back then.

“It was not so hard. There are those who could not speak English very well which made it a bit difficult. But as you know, good teachers will always get help from the smart students.

“So they helped each other and I think without the other students helping me (to communicate), it would have been difficult,” he said.

Aside from being a teacher in Kota Belud, he also said he had the opportunity to share his science knowledge in Keningau before he returned to his homeland in 1975.

However, his journey as a teacher did not end there as he “dwelled” on his interest and passion to teach and decided to obtain his certificate as a teacher at elementary level.


Thompson (seated, fourth right) with Mindy (seated, third right) with former students of SMK Kota Belud (now SMK Arshad).


From educationist to environmentalist

Thompson said his experience journeying in several countries had been an eye opener not only to teach but also to appreciate the environment and its natural beauty.

Seeing the existing natural beauty in different corners of the world made him realise that such beauty should not only be appreciated but also preserved.

“Really understanding the local people, understanding the local culture and religion are of great interest to me and how they think about the earth, animals and nature.

“We went on a nature walk in Kinabatangan and learnt about these herbs that were growing in the jungle and how they are being used for toothaches, pregnancy and stomach upset as well as headaches.

“I think if everyone understood more about living with nature and not trying to conquer it, we would all be better off,” he added.

While being a teacher as well as being “in love” with nature and its beauty, he said he would also carry out volunteering works for several environmental organisations in their cause.

He also said this was vital for the people to understand as in certain countries, the natural resources that are abundantly found could help in various ways, especially involving the medical field.

Unfortunately, Thompson said this will be “eradicated” if the awareness level among the local community of respective countries are low, especially on climate change.

Before retiring in 2008 as a teacher, he said concern over the global climate change inspired him to take part in the mission of delivering the messages to other people even when he had to start at the very basic level.


Thompson and Mindy with locals and former students of SMK Kota Belud, (now SMK Arshad) carried out a gotong-royong activity in Kota Belud during their recent visit to Sabah.

He started his work as a volunteer in a group known as the Citizens Climate Lobby in 2007.

“I was a fulltime teacher until before my retirement in 2008 where prior to that I was introduced to the group where I have been resiliently carrying out programmes with others in the hopes of alerting the world of the current climate change issue.

“I have been working with different groups as well. I started collaborating with young people which then continued with families to get their neighbourhood, communities and eventually their cities to sternly take necessary action towards the serious change,” he added.

Thompson said this has been his main work for the past 11 years after his retirement. He went through great lengths to meet people of various professions to ensure that the highlighted points of climate changes are projected to the global eye.

He said this involved travelling to different countries – again – in order to spread the message not just to the general community but also politicians.

“I have mostly carried out my job as an environmentalist in the United States of America but I did go to Paris in 2015 for the United Nations’ climate meetings.

“This was a two-week conference to motivate the leaders but most of the meetings were every ineffective in mobilising governments to take action.

“Previously, in 2009 I went to Copenhagen, Denmark while in 2010 I visited Cancun, Mexico as well as Durban, South Africa in 2011 for the same purpose,” he said.

Following his numerous travels and awareness programmes, Thompson said he decided to spread Citizens Climate Lobby’s message in Asia, especially countries that he once called home.

Aside from being its initiative, he said the idea of carrying out the recent “No Plastic” talk in Kota Kinabalu was not only from their side but also organised by his former students in SMK Arshad.

He also expressed gratitude towards those who attended the talk as it not only showed that there are people in Sabah who have been working to ensure the environment is maintained but also that the Sabahans are aware of the importance in preserving mother nature.

“Not only the local people’s representatives showed that they are committed and sincere in helping these non-governmental organisations but the people themselves have shown their passion towards the environment.

“People cannot do this themselves. They have to work with unity and when they work in community – they will feel the sense of empowerment and that is essential to building a real effort that politicians will listen to.

“We often say that politicians do not create political will, they respond to it and so it becomes a good business for them to do the right thing because people are demanding it, then things will happen,” he added.

Thompson has been carrying out his mission alongside his wife, Mindy. The resilient couple has been spreading the word in the hope of tackling climate change.

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