A preschool in the Myanmar village of Thanlyin was never much to behold — just three thatched-roof shacks with dirt floors in a town with no paved roads, electricity or running water, said Fremont native Kirsten Koehler.

But the place she visited on a humanitarian mission last year sounds like a fantasy land compared with what's left of it after Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar earlier this month.

About 50 percent of the buildings were destroyed and 80 percent were severely damaged, including the preschool, said Koehler, who is in e-mail contact with the school's headmaster.

Rebuilding has proven difficult, Koehler is told, because of runaway inflation and rising prices for building supplies and diesel fuel, which powers the village's water pumps.

"It's more of just a logistical disaster," Koehler said of the village that is far enough inland to have avoided the storm surge believed to have killed more than 100,000 people.

Last year, Koehler, a Mission San Jose High School graduate studying in Colorado, and her husband, Greg Martinez, learned about the school while getting ready for a vacation to Southeast Asia. After contacting the headmaster, they paid a visit and brought with them school supplies, eyeglasses, toothbrushes, soccer balls and other items donated by friends and family.

Now they are hoping to come to the aid of the village once more by raising money to help rebuild the school. They plan to send money directly to the headmaster, thereby circumventing the military regime, which has been accused of stealing aid packages and doing little to help the victims of the cyclone that struck May 2.

The school had about 15 students and catered to the village's poorest children — many of whose mothers earn less than $1 a day carting water for wealthier residents, Koehler said. The kids, who were studying English, greeted the couple enthusiastically and were quick to play with the soccer balls and coloring books they brought.

"It kind of makes you realize that kids are kind of universal," Koehler said.

The biggest hit among the supplies they brought were Polaroid cameras that allowed many of the mothers to take their first family portraits. Since returning from the trip, the couple has started Sense the World, a nonprofit group sending relief packages that include items to serve the five senses, such as hearing aids, reading glasses and toiletries.

Fremont reporter Matthew Artz can be reached at 510-353-7002 or martz@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read his blog at www.ibabuzz.tricitybeat.com.

HOW TO HELP
Anyone interested in contributing to Sense the World can go to its Web site at www.sensetheworld.org or send a check to Sense the World, 1864 Terry Street, Apt. 4, Longmont, CO 80501.