Last week I was walking by our Janusz Korczak School – our informal school for street children – when Kru Pranee, a teacher at Mercy Centre for 38 years, beckoned me inside.
“Father Joe, I’m really proud of one my students, and want you to see why.”
Kru Pranee called out to the student, “Neena, come here a moment, and please tell Father Joe about our Solar System.”
Young Ms. Neena, age 8, a Cambodian girl who attends our Janusz Korczak School because she lacks the documents to attend regular government school, looked a bit nervous and shy. She wasn’t used to being front-and-center stage. The youngest in her class of 32 Korczak students, she’d rarely been called upon to demonstrate her knowledge about anything.
Nevertheless, she mustered the courage, and began: “Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars” and continued all the way to Neptune, and finished by explaining that Pluto was a dwarf planet and may not actually count as a real planet.
“Wow, that’s wonderful!,” I replied, “And can you tell me anything about what’s closer to our home? Can you name the countries that surround Thailand?”
I wasn’t sure if our youngest Korczak kids had ever studied a map of the world, but Neena was able to name all neighboring countries plus the rest of Southeast Asia, Philippines and Indonesia included. When I asked her if she could identify any South Asian countries or cities, she named Nepal and specifically earthquake-hit Kathmandu. (She knew about he Nepal and its earthquake because those who lost their lives and family members have been in our daily prayers.)
Neena may not know much about what goes on beyond her narrow universe, between her parents’ shack and the two-block walk to her Korczak School classroom, but she understands the big picture.
Neena, of course, is special, but when you have hundreds of children in your family, as we do, you discover that each child is remarkable in his or her own way. You just have to give them half a chance to discover themselves. A few examples
And let us not forget our Master Galong, born with a type of Downs’ Syndrome, whom we have spoken of many times before. After graduating from one of our kindergartens twelve consecutive years, he took on a job as a dishwasher at a sidewalk noodle shop. The mom and pop who run the noodle shop say he washes the bowls cleaner than anyone in the area. He gets a daily stipend (usually a few coins and a scoop of ice cream) and has bought himself a new apron.
Going to school was key for all these poor children. It’s their one and only chance in life. When you’re dirt poor, there are no seconds.
Without school, underprivileged kids don’t know what makes them unique or sets them apart from all the other kids in their kid universe. Without school, they’re stuck in a perpetual world of mediocrity, and failure.
A few weeks back we held our liveliest, happiest, and certainly most colorful celebration of the year. Our entire Mercy Centre was festooned with balloons, flowers, toys and stuffed animals. To say it was a joyous day would be an understatement. In fact, it was riotously crazy fun! It was Graduation Day for the children who attend our 23 preschools spread across Bangkok’s poorest communities. Amid glorious pomp and circumstance, over 500 poor children donned caps and gowns and received their diplomas.
As I do every year, I put on my doctoral robes, handed out each diploma, and in the end, I gave my most important speech of the year: I told the children that no matter what happens in the future – regardless whether their daddy drinks or their mommy plays cards and blows all the cash… regardless whether they have no food and feel pangs of hunger…regardless whether their home has no electricity and they can do homework only by candle light…regardless whether their parents are gone and they live with an enfeebled grandparent who doesn’t care what they do…whatever their circumstances, they must go to school.
Did the school children hear me? I think so. Did they understand me? I had them on their feet, fists pumping the air, and yelling “Go to school! Go to school. Go to school!”
We have 150 children of our own who live with us as family in our Mercy Centre. Another 560 children – the poorest children in our slums – receive our educational support from kindergarten onwards. Today, among all these children, forty-six are attending university or vocational college
Maybe seventy-five kids…maybe even one hundred!
Thank you, everybody, for your continued support!
Photos: From top: i) Graduation Day, by Ric Gazarian, ii) Miss Neena, iii) Taekwondo, by Rick Ashley, and iv) Graduation Day by Yoonki Kim
It’s an awesome time of the year here in Thailand. Totally awesome.
Flowering trees are in full bloom with every color of the rainbow: so bright and delicate and beautiful, it’s breathtaking. And our kids are taking advantage of every minute of their summer holidays. For at least the next few weeks, they have no mandatory daily duties, no classes to attend, and no obligations apart from looking after themselves and behaving well. They simply get up each morning and try to figure out what they need to do to capture every potential moment of joy during their summer holidays.
The Thai New Year water festival was crazy fun. Imagine: Four full days of splish-splash. Someone gave us a plastic wading pool 24 inches deep and we filled it with the garden hose water. And our five- and six-year olds (especially the girls) were at the top of their splashing game. Best splashers in the whole slum. Stopping only to eat. No, they weren’t forgetting their past pains, but rather embracing the moment. Slum kids who have been hungry on the streets never forget. Even though here at Mercy, there are always double or triple portions, the kids never forget those days when they were hungry.
I wish all of you a Happy New Year as I try to catch up and keep everyone in our Mercy loop.
During the Songkran holidays, we invited our elderly slum neighbors to Mercy Centre. Just over 500 came to party, to bless, to celebrate, and to remember days of yore.
Together we danced, feasted, received blessings from our local Monks, and blessed each other – forgiving and being forgiven by pouring lustral water over each other’s hands and sprinkling flower petals over our aging heads – and then we danced some more.
The next day, after Mass, friends brought a whole tub full of ice cream for our children, more than enough for all. (Note some kids had two and even three scoops!). Then all the kids came to the porch of my house and poured water over my hands and feet; and I blessed them as is a New Year tradition here.
Later, that same afternoon, we held a three-hour meeting with a slum group that is being forcibly evicted. We also held a follow-up meeting the next day. The situation is not so simple: after being threatened and bribed, 120 families have moved while over 50 families remain.
Worse, their community kindergarten was closed. That’s horrible and totally unacceptable.
At the second meeting, we announced to the community that their school would be re-opened the following morning. We borrowed our two best teachers from another one of our schools – teachers who have taught for over 30 years in our kindergartens. That first morning, four children came to class; by afternoon a dozen arrived; and now a few days later, 20 children are back in school.
We had operated this kindergarten for many years before handing it over to the community to run themselves. But now with all the landlord troubles, the community leaders asked us to take over the school again.
The next day, we also prepared the legal documents to go to court to fight the forced eviction and to stop throwing people out on the street.
The community held emergency meetings, elected new community leaders with our assistance, and formally asked us to come back and teach.
I guess what I am trying to tell you is that our days are filled with heavy duty industrial-type community-organization stuff – the stuff that slums and dreams are made of.
I almost forgot to mention: we had a party last week at Mercy for most of the street kids and street families who dwell under the Rama 3 Bridge that included a luncheon, a medical check up, and vaccinations.
Meanwhile our legal aid teams have been dealing with many street problems, including terrible sexual abuse, stabbings, drug sales – all of it nasty stuff. Oh! And three new boys arrived in our homes, each one abandoned because his parents were drug-addled or in jail.
All the above happened in a span of just a few days: celebrations to harsh realities – evictions, abuse, childhood abandonment – and back to celebrations. That’s the heartbeat of Mercy.
We wish our friends from around the world a Happy Thai New Year filled with blessings, peace, good health and an abundance of joy! Today we invited our elderly neighbors to Mercy Centre for a celebration of Songkran, the Thai New Year. Hundreds upon hundreds of dear, elderly friends joined in the festivities with our Mercy staff and children; and together we danced, feasted, received blessings from our local Monks, and then danced some more. Father Joe also gave blessings to our elderly attendees, gently pouring lustral water on their hands and wishing them a New Year filled with joy. As they do on every Songkran, our neighbors sang the old songs and showed our children the true meaning and joy of a traditional Songkran.