Way, way back, even before we opened our Mercy Centre, we had a dream for our children in the slums beside the slaughterhouse – a simple-but-profound dream shared by all the moms, dads, and community and religious leaders: we dreamed that we would send all our slaughterhouse children to school.
Sister Maria and I opened a school in a one-room shack beside an abandoned pigpen and began teaching the Catholic children how to read and write and recite their prayers.
Down the street, in a warren of alleyways, a preschool was also opened for the Buddhist children; and also the Imam opened a school in his home.
Nobody had any money back then. We asked for one baht per day from the parents. Nothing more. But even one baht was too much for many, who had nothing, and so they contributed in kind, as they were able: a grizzled piece of chicken, a small pouch of sticky rice; anything would do. And every mom, dad, grandparent and guardian wanted to contribute.
Our schools struggled but survived, until around 1975, when the Thai economy tanked. Hunger among our brothers and sisters in the slaughterhouse neighborhood was a grave concern. All our neighborhood schools were teetering, close to a collapse.
Our solution was to band together. We pooled our resources to form a Mercy Kindergarten: a one-baht-per-day preschool where the poorest Catholic, Buddhist and Muslim children could learn to read and write, where they could dance and play and sing in a safe place, a place where children come first, where children are venerated, and where children can develop to their potential.
That first kindergarten, which still exists today inside our Mercy Centre, has never shut its doors or excluded any neighborhood child. Last week, we decided it was time to celebrate the life of our first Mercy Kindergarten. We thought about waiting a year, until the school was officially 40 years old, but then why wait when the spirit moves?
It was a fabulous celebration! Everyone in the community joined in – parents, grandparents, alumni, the Imam, Monks, community leaders, and representatives from the Port Authority, the major neighborhood landowner. Naturally, the most joyous celebrants were the children and their teachers.
Nobody felt greater joy and pride than Kru Ya, who has been a teacher in our Lock 6 Mercy Kindergarten for 38 years. (Her younger sister, Kru Som, has taught in the classroom beside hers for a mere 30 years.) We asked her for her thoughts on the day of the celebration:
First, Kru Ya, may we ask, how many children have you taught to read and write?
To be honest, I lost count after a few years, but the figure is well over 1,000. The school itself has graduated more than 4,000 poor children.
How did you start teaching?
My father was the Imam of the slum neighborhood. And when he started a school in his home, even before our Lock 6 Kindergarten opened, I worked as his assistant. Once I started teaching, there was no turning back. And my sister, Kru Som, who joined me later, after she finished her studies, feels the same way. We both fell into a wonderful evocation.
Has the face of poverty changed over the years?
People in the slums may have more money today than when I started teaching 38 years ago, but drugs are a bigger problem now, and that means more violence at home. Whenever students miss two or three days in class, I stop by their homes after school to make sure they are ok. If students are in danger, I ask our legal aid teams to follow up.
What are the challenges? Have these challenges changed over time.
The hard part in teaching impoverished children doesn’t change. There are always children in every classroom who, because of malnourishment or problems at home, are not able to concentrate. If the problem is in their diet, we can give these children extra lunches, fruit, and protein snacks. If the problem is at home, we try to work closely with the parents. I try to give all my “problem” children extra attention in the classroom, during lunch, afternoon naptime, and after school.
Finally, may we ask, why have you and your sister taught for so many years at the same school?
I hope you can understand. My sister and I would not wish to teach anywhere else. We are nowhere more at home than in our classrooms at the Mercy Lock 6 Kindergarten.
A FINAL NOTE:
If you ask our teachers, students, their parents, kindergarten alumni, community leaders, and everyone who passes through our Lock 6 Mercy Kindergarten…OUR DREAMS LIVE ON!!!!
Photo above: Krus Ya, right, and her sister Kru Som, left - together they have taught at our Mercy Lock 6 Kindergarten for 68 years.