Lovely Miss Sprite had the odds stacked against her before she was even born
Published in the Bangkok Post, Sunday, March 9, Spectrum Section: http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/investigation/398899/a-sprightly-angel-and-a-sacred-tree
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
Lovely Miss Sprite. Angel of the week — second year of kindergarten — winner of the colouring contest — elegantly going on five years of age. She has a voice pitched between the song of an angel and a chirping baby bird sitting on the edge of the nest, not quite ready to fly. Likes to put a leaf behind her ear — picked from that Sacred Tree behind their slum shack. Her mum used to do that too. Lovely features, she has a smile that could stop any herd of wild elephants that might be visiting the neighbourhood. As for her innate beauty? You would immediately pick her out of a crowd. There was a problem: orphan girls fetch a pretty price. But we dealt with that.
Chocolate sandwiches are her favourite food on the whole planet. Chocolate paste smushed between slices of bread. Even better still, whole chunks of chocolate in the middle without much bread. Best of all, skip the bread entirely and just gobble plain chocolate. But her disabled Auntie Gung, her second mum, won’t allow the "no bread" recipe. Says that Miss Sprite’s real mum, now dead from Aids almost a month now, and certainly in heaven, would not approve.
Miss Sprite talks non-stop like only a bright five-year-old can. She shares loads of secrets whispered at the speed of a bullet in your ear. And even though you (as a silly, grown-up adult) are not expected to understand secrets of a top-of-her-class kindergarten orphan, you are required to nod emphatically. For this you sometimes get a hug.
She’s highly practised in a special noisy game for little girls that she and her 41 friends here at Mercy invented. At least that’s what they tell us, and who, even the boldest among us, dares doubt the solemn word of 42 little girls in such serious matters? If you ask, they find your “adultness” beyond belief and they fall on the floor in fits of raucous laughter and giggles.
The game is something like laugh and giggle and jump up and down then laugh some more. Any disputes are settled by Rock, Paper, Scissors.
Even at five years of age, she has those beautiful hands — the lithe fingers of a future lit gae dancer. Proudly states to everyone her grandmother was a lit gae dancer and her mum wanted to be a dancer, but got sick first, so she, Miss Sprite will take her mum’s place.
In stray moments, she goes silent when she misses her mum, and just for these saddest of moments, she grasps a tiny locket she wears on a string around her neck, kisses it and puts it in her mouth. A tiny locket with a bit of mum’s hair.
Miss Sprite didn’t catch HIV during birth from mum, even though she was born in a Klong Toey shack without hospital-like procedures, nor from her mum’s own milk.
Miss Sprite’s story started way before she was born. When her mum escaped from their shack in Klong Toey — sleeping under tables in the fresh market where she begged for food and was protected by the women vendors. She was 13.
Why escape? An uncle living in the same shack abused her. Then threatened her if she told anyone. She tattled but no one listened. They cursed her instead.
She found the wild ones: a drug crowd under the expressway. She hung out with them because they accepted her. She never got into drugs herself. The leader of the pack she married proper-like, even though she was only 14. He became Baby Sprite’s father. He was her first love and she was for him.
Their wedding “reception” had tin tables and folding chairs borrowed from the local temple. A pavement under the shade of Klong Toey’s oldest Sacred Tree (ton tha kien) where pious believers adamantly “know” lottery numbers are revealed.
The bridal couple placed flowers at the foot of that ancient Sacred Tree, mum with a crown of sacred leaves in her hair, asking for heavenly protection. They scratched the bark to see if a winning lottery number might appear. None did. The meal featured slum delicacies of sticky rice, Klong Toey-style grilled chicken with som tam. Each guest donated 30 baht to pay for the food.
A push cart bag lady, notorious in our slum for protecting stray cats, acted as the bride’s sponsor and set the dowry at 50 baht. She also “catered” the wedding reception.
Eighteen months later, Baby Miss Sprite was born — in Grandma’s shack. Mum was not yet 16 years old. Her family name stands high in Thai Society. Poor is an embarrassment. A mum at 16 is unforgivable.
An elderly betel nut chewing midwife dealt with the birth. Miss Sprite’s father — before he meet Mum, had had a wild moment or three. Didn’t know he had the virus. Gave HIV/Aids to his new wife. She never knew, until it was too late. His blood counts are fine, for now, but has never forgiven himself for literally killing his wife, Miss Sprite’s mum.
Then one night, when Miss Sprite was almost three, her daddy kissed her and Mum goodbye. Promising, “I’ll send for you when I can.”
Several months later, a new man bullied his way in with Mum. He was not a Klong Toey man. Mum’s mother said he was bad. He was.
One day, drunk, he wanted to be alone with Mum but Little Miss Sprite was sick and crying, so he kicked Mum and stomped on the little girl’s chest. Didn’t kill her — young bones are supple — but she screamed in pain for weeks. It was a loud fracas. The police came. Mum, her nose bloody, lied. Terrified that this new man would come back and kill her and Miss Sprite. Said her former husband beat her up for leaving him for this new guy.
Sprite’s real dad heard. News travels fast in Klong Toey. He came at midnight with some friends on motorbikes. The new boyfriend was never heard of again. Word was … that he went for a swim.
A year passed. Sprite’s mum was not well. Went to the hospital: got the terrible news that she had advanced Aids. She also knew full well she was dying.
On Miss Sprite’s fourth birthday, the three generations: Grandma, Mum and Miss Sprite knelt before that Sacred Tree to seek a final blessing and protection.
Years before, mother was a nationally renowned lit gae dancer, then took sick, became slightly paralysed. The show goes on; a younger singer took her place.
Sadly she took the dress she had worn for her last performance and hung it on the Sacred Tree — following old traditions.
Next morning, the women brought four-year-old Miss Sprite to us. Mum feared for her daughter. She had nowhere else to go. Orphan girls are good money. It was horrible. Miss Sprite would not let Mum go. Finally we agreed that Mum would sleep here a few days with Sprite while she got to know the other 41 little girls who live here. Also we began taking Miss Sprite and some friends home each day after school to see her mother.
She was in bed, sick — died at 22 years of age. By the time she died, it was now safe for her husband, Sprite’s daddy. He had worked out his problems. He was there holding her hand when she died. But with his type of business, he moved around a lot. Couldn’t stay in one place too long. Came to see five-year-old Miss Sprite when he was in town.
Then a nasty scam. Half-paralysed Grandma was a “regular” at the local “ping pong” gambling game. Owed a large handful of cash. The brokers suggested she take Miss Sprite to perform as a learning novice with the best lit gae troupe in Thailand in a distant border town. Orphan girls make wonderful collateral. Grandma came to see us.
We phoned Sprite’s dad. “Please do make these people go away.” He did. Later, a penitent Grandma asked if we would go with her — bring Miss Sprite to that old tree — to seek forgiveness in a holy place.
Now a year later, Miss Sprite keeps a picture of her mum and kisses the picture each night before she goes to sleep. She doesn’t talk much about her daddy, but knows he’s out there somewhere and she’s safe.
Grandma is doing “government service” as we call it. She’ll be out — free in another two years. Got back into debt again: tried to move some “product” to pay her new debts.
I must tell you of the colouring contest. We have a big box of broken crayons and let each child draw their most beautiful picture — to keep and put in their own personal treasure of valuables. Miss Sprite drew a picture of her mum.
To conclude. Miss Waranut — nicknamed Sprite — born on a Sunday morning, according to the lunar calendar on the ninth day of the waning of the moon in the fourth month of the year of the rat, in the shade of the old Sacred Tree is at the top of her game.
Last week we held graduation ceremonies for all our students who completed their studies in our 23 slum kindergartens spread across Bangkok.These children passed all their tests and are fully prepared to take on new academic challenges in the First Grade of their local government primary schools. Dressed in graduation robes and caps, hundreds of children took part in the ceremonies. Fr. Joe, in his doctoral robe, presented each graduating student with a diploma, and concluded the ceremony with his annual exhortation to all the children to “Stay in School. No matter what – even if your mom gambles and your dad drinks and there’s no money or food at home in your shack, you must keep going to school! It’s your right! It’s your privilege! Never give up!” All photos by Yoonki Kim.
It’s not easy being a little kid in a grown-up’s world full of dangers, especially in our Klong Toey home in the center of Bangkok’s largest slum community. Even though our community has more loving moms and grannies than anywhere else on the planet – to quote a song – our Klong Toey home “is a savage place, drenched in Mercy.” And within the “savage” part are predators who want to hurt our children.
No matter how well our whole slum neighborhood looks after our young kids, these kids still encounter danger. They see horrible things on the lanes and alleyways every day and night, and often even worse things close to home, sometimes inside their own shacks, upstairs from their flat, across the catwalks, or in the homes of their relatives and friends.
How do young children know if a situation is perilous? And how can they respond in ways that keep them safe?
Last week our kindergarten students and teachers completed the “All Children Being Safe” Program that addresses the perils of violence and abuse in hard-scrabble neighborhoods like ours. We adapted this program from a successful initiative created by Ms. Angela Walsh for an Australian child protection organization (NAPCAN – The Nat’l Assoc. for Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect). The program itself is a series of books and teaching aids designed to help children in First Nation Australian communities to protect and defend themselves when they face imminent danger.
The bad guy in the Australian version is the Dingo Dog; but Dingo’s don’t mean anything to Thai children. Nor do Koala Bears or Kangaroos. So we changed all the Australian animals to their Thai counterparts – a Dingo becomes a Street Dog in our version. “Good-guy” animals like Kangaroos are replaced by a family of Thai chickens. Koala Bears are reimagined as Thai Monkeys.
This past Thursday our first Mercy Kindergarten students finished reading the entire Thai series in their classrooms. True to the spirit of the lessons they learned, our students held a giant party in celebration of “All Children Being Safe.” They invited their teachers, parents, guardians and neighbors to a feast of Thai treats and put on a pageant proudly showing everything they’ve learned. It was a brilliant celebration of children just being children!
We are most grateful that the All Children Being Safe Program, a partnership between our Mercy Centre and NAPCAN in Australia, was shepherded by the late John Frederick, a dear friend who dedicated his life to child protection and taught us many lessons we carry on today. We honor John’s memory in this amazing project – a project, we hope, will continually expand as an integral part of every Thai kindergarten curriculum.
Prayers as always, fr joe
The co-founder of our Mercy Centre, Sister Maria Chantavardom, celebrated her 84th birthday last week. God bless her! She is still incredibly active… still dynamic... and still the very heartbeat of everything we’ve ever accomplished and everything we still endeavor to do for our children and poorest neighbors. She began working with Fr. Joe when he first arrived in Bangkok’s slaughterhouse Parish in 1972. Together, Sister Maria and Fr. Joe opened the first Mercy kindergarten in 1973, and in the years that followed they developed a system of preschool education and neighborhood support that now reaches out daily to tens of thousands of poor children and families.
Photo above: Fr. Joe presents flowers to Sister Maria; below, Sister Maria and Mercy staff.
As our New Year of 2104 has begun, I would like to greet you all in gratitude on behalf of our beloved HDF-Mercy Centre.
The work that you have supported by your caring concern and financial assistance continues to flourish. We stand tall as a vital hope for many living in the slums and on the periphery of Bangkok, and our needs are ever constant.
With Thailand’s present political unrest, we have publicly announced that all 23 of our shack/school kindergartens, located throughout the city slums, are places of safety and refuge, as is our Mercy Centre here in Klong Toey. Our doors are totally open to all the nearly 3,000 children we teach daily plus their families and anyone else who needs a meal or a place to rest. Also we share our meager rice supply with the local Temple and Mosque, as they share with us.
Some may have recently wondered if I am still at the heart of our great work and if I have the zeal and strength to continue to serve the poor and especially the children of the slums.
As this New Year begins, I assure you all that I am happy and healthy, and jog (slowly) three miles most every day. I am excited about life and honored to share my days with these less fortunate of God's special ones. I see all of you as being very much a major part of my life and our commitment here at Mercy. This Apostolate would be impossible without the knowledge that you are there and thinking of us – praying with us. Don't worry. Don't blink. Together with our children of yesterday, today and tomorrow, the Sacred Flame of Mercy burns brightly in Klong Toey and we – all of us, me too, Fr. Joe – are the Keepers of that unique Sacred Flame. We are here.
Please keep us in your prayers – tell people about us - and continue your financial support. We are deeply grateful. Without your being there, we could not be here. So as we step into a New Year, the Year of the Horse, our 43rd Year in the Slaughter House and Klong Toey slums, let us renew our commitment and support for one another.
On behalf of our Mercy Center family, I thank you.
Prayers as always – Respectfully fr joe
There was so much joyous energy yesterday at Mercy... today we can still feel the vibrations.
Yesterday was Sports Day at our Mercy Kindergartens. Over 3,000 students, ages three to seven, representing the current enrollment of our 23 slum kindergartens, competed in such skilled contests as Musical Chairs, Tug of Wars, and Bean Bag Tosses.
Each school was divided into two competing teams, and each team had its own cheer leading squad, with percussion accompaniment, to inspire athletes to victory. The drum beats. The chants. The cheers. There was no shortage of hyper-fun energy in the air.
And every student came home a winner, earning a victory ribbon and a scoop of ice cream!