From Oklahoma to Borneo: Interview with Jackson and Sara Helms

Last month, midwestern natives Jackson and Sara Helms moved to Borneo to work with our partner Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI). Jackson, ASRI's new Conservation Director, served in the Marine Corps for five years and now has his PhD in Biology from the University of Oklahoma. Sara, Health In Harmony's new On-Site Partnership Coordinator, graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in Studio Art in 2014, and spent two years teaching at an elementary school for at-risk youth before moving to Borneo.

This week, we interviewed them to learn about their new roles and what they hope to accomplish during their time in Sukadana. Sara has also taken over our Instagram this week - click here to follow along and see what their day-to-day looks like!

Tell us a little bit about yourselves. What's your background? What brought you to ASRI?

Jackson: I’m an ecologist and conservation biologist. I study how animals move across landscapes to colonize new areas or invade new habitats. Sara is an artist with a background in social work. Before coming to ASRI she taught at an elementary school for homeless children and helped tornado survivors use art therapy to cope with trauma. I think our joint backgrounds naturally led us to an organization like ASRI, that does both conservation and community work.

Before becoming a biologist, I spent five years in the Marine Corps as an Arabic translator. The work required me to learn new languages and travel to other countries. It also introduced me to the harm humans cause to each other and to their environment. In Iraq, I saw how thousands of years of farming and reckless development had impoverished the country’s landscapes, and how today’s inhabitants suffer as a result. That experience motivated me to take a long term view of humans and our role in the world and to find ways to protect nature far into the future.

I discovered Indonesia a few years later. I spent a couple months here before grad school, learning about tropical conservation issues and following in the footsteps of my favorite historical biologist, Alfred Russel Wallace. I fell in love with the country and pledged to come back. When I later learned about ASRI’s work it seemed like a perfect opportunity. We emailed them, and after a few months, Sara and I found ourselves moving from Oklahoma to Borneo!


Sara: My first experience of Indonesia was visiting ASRI with my husband as a detour from our two-month honeymoon in India. We got married at a transitional time for both of us—my contract at my current job was ending and Jackson had recently graduated with his PhD in biology. This gave us a lot of freedom when deciding what to do for our honeymoon, but it also meant that the job search would be a constant part of any plans. Jackson has always had a passion for conservation and his experience traveling and studying in Indonesia was hugely impactful. I knew when he started applying for jobs that there was a chance we’d be moving to Indonesia, and when the position at ASRI came up, it seemed to make sense for us in ways that other opportunities had not.


What are each of you working on at ASRI? What do you hope to accomplish in 2017?

Sara: I work now as HIH’s On-Site Partnership Coordinator. What this means is that I am a bridge between the two sister organizations, working in communication, fundraising, and volunteer support. I also have the privilege of working as the on-site artist, and I love when people come to me with creative projects. In 2017, I hope to continue to learn Indonesian and find my niche here in Sukadana, familiarizing myself with the community and learning where and how I can be most helpful.


Jackson: As ASRI’s Conservation Director, I oversee programs involving reforestation, illegal logging monitoring, environmental education, and alternative livelihoods. Within those categories, we’ve got a few new initiatives coming online in 2017. In an innovative pilot project, we’re working with former illegal farmers and the national park to restore areas of forest that were cleared to make gardens. We’re also launching an entrepreneurship program where we help illegal loggers transition to other livelihoods, in exchange for selling us their chainsaws. Finally, we’re going to study ants and other insects that live in our reforestation sites, to see how successful we are at bringing back native animal communities. On a personal level, I look forward to perfecting my Indonesian, integrating myself into the local community, and getting to know the amazing species that call Gunung Palung home.


What have you been surprised by? What would you want to share with those who support HIH, but don't live in Sukadana?

We are constantly surprised by the generosity of people. Our neighbors in Sukadana are quick to give help, food, and time to friends and strangers alike. Last month I rode along with our Goats for Widows Coordinator, Ibu Setiawati, as she performed weekly veterinary checkups in town. At each stop, women invited us into their homes, fed us hot tea and freshly harvested bananas, and sent us away with more bananas to take home.

This sort of encounter is common. When we walk to the beach or ride our bikes in town, people often introduce themselves, ask how they can help, or give us directions. And when they ask how we are, they really want to know! Indonesia is full of genuine friendliness. On boats and buses, people rest their heads on your shoulders and kids crawl over your feet. This can seem odd to someone used to social anonymity. In the US, people isolate themselves when they shop or go out in public. We don’t often touch or joke with strangers. But in Indonesia, it’s okay to be a social human.

I think it’s important for our supporters to know that their generosity is welcome and appreciated. Their support allows ASRI staff to give back to this community that gives so freely of their time, talent, and affections each day.


What has been the most challenging part of the work?

The biggest challenge of non-profit work, especially conservation, is mutual understanding and cooperation with the people you serve. When you try to convince a community to change their routines, ways of thinking, or livelihoods, you walk a fine line between helpful intervention and harmful meddling. ASRI’s collaborative methods help alleviate this issue, as the actions we take are guided by the needs and requests of the local community. But in any environment where you work with people, there are many complex and often emotional obstacles to overcome before real change can happen.

Putting conservation solutions into practice requires patience and sensitivity, and progress can be slow. We often cannot do everything we would like or have to work on smaller scales than we had hoped. Monitoring our reforestation sites, for example, can be difficult because of laws limiting the types of scientific research that can be done. And last month, we postponed an expedition to collect native seedlings for our reforestation efforts because access roads were flooded. In another case, we were unable to buy native fruit seedlings that we needed, because local consumers had already drained the market. We are still learning to be flexible and take advantage of opportunities as they arise, and not be disheartened when things don’t work out for unexpected reasons.


Any unique stories from your time at ASRI that you'd like to share?

Indonesia’s wet season has been a shock for someone accustomed to the dry weather of Oklahoma. Afternoon thunderstorms arrive with such intensity and speed that we’re often caught off guard and get soaked through as we bike home. The other day we set up a rain trap on our porch using an old rain gutter, a broken chair, and a 4-gallon water jug. Within just two days the jug was overflowing.

After one particularly rainy spell, our neighborhood road seemed to wash away, leaving nothing but potholes and boulders. The neighborhood sprang to life. Great piles of dirt appeared overnight and everyone worked together to repair the road. Some men shoveled while others laid rocks along the road’s border. Women brought out trays of cool drinks. We joined in as well. It was a true community project and was a testament to the spirit of Indonesia. The road seems to have held, for now at least, and for that we’re grateful. While it can be exciting to feel like mountain bikers as we bounce over boulders and hills on the way to work, it’s downright luxurious to glide over freshly smoothed dirt!


Anything else you'd like to add?

We feel honored to be a part of the team, both at ASRI and Health In Harmony. Having had a lifelong interest in conservation, it is exciting to finally be able to put our talents to use in direct action. We can’t think of a more interesting way to spend our first year of marriage than moving to Indonesia, living by the sea, and working to protect rain forests.


To continue reading stories from Jackson and Sara's time in Sukadana, you can follow them on their personal blogs.

Jackson's blog:

Sara's blog:


About Darya Minovi | View all posts by Darya Minovi

Darya is the Communications and Outreach Manager at Health In Harmony, based in Portland, OR. After studying Public Health and Environmental Policy at the College of William and Mary, Darya knew she wanted to dedicate her career to protecting human and environmental health. When she's not at work, you can find Darya enjoying the great outdoors, exploring Portland's farmers markets, or watching live music.