Since we opened our first preschool forty-one years ago, we’ve built and operated dozens more. We build them in the poorest neighborhoods, where children have no access to a preschool education and no place to learn their Thai ABC’s or play with other children. Today, counting our Mokan “sea gypsy” school in Ranong, we operate 23 kindergartens for poor children, with a total enrollment over 2,500 students and an alumni population approaching 45,000.
Not one of our schools has ever stood alone like an island in the slums. Woven deep into the fabric of everyday life, our preschools are the liveliest spots in their neighborhoods – always at the very center of a small but teeming and pulsating universe. From early morning to late afternoon every school day, our children’s voices can be heard reverberating in song and cheer up and down the narrow pathways surrounding each kindergarten.
When the bell rings at the end of each school day, and all the moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas come to to pick up their children, our schools become the central meeting place in the slums, a place where people share neighborhood news and gossip. On weekends our schools hold wedding parties, holiday celebrations, and informal “town hall” discussions. Our social workers do much of their outreach from our kindergartens. During floods and emergencies, our preschools double as shelters.
It is a great honor that slum communities allow us to teach their children – an honor that grows over time as the preschool alumni continue their education, graduate from primary and secondary schools, vocational colleges and universities, get married, raise children, and come back to their kindergarten as adults to give thanks to their teachers. Many of our alumni are now Mercy kindergarten teachers, returning to teach in the very same classrooms where they first learned to read and write.
For generations of poor children, graduating from a Mercy preschool has been a proud rite of passage on their way to tackling life’s tougher lessons.
Recently the communities we serve have shown their gratitude in ways that truly humble all of us at Mercy. They have organized traditional Buddhist merit-making ceremonies on behalf of our Mercy Kindergartens.
In a traditional Thai Buddhist merit-making ceremony, people collect small bank notes from friends and neighbors, and place them on the branches and twigs of what’s called a “money tree.” When the branches are full and there are no more twigs left to hold any more bank notes, the merit makers carry the trees to their local temple and present them to the temple monks, often for the benefit of a specific temple project. On the way to the temple, the merit makers sing and dance in celebration of the joys of giving.
The Mercy Kindergarten ceremonies closely follow these traditions with only a few slight differences. Instead of winding their way down the road to their local temple, our merit makers sing and dance their way through their slum to our Mercy Kindergartens, where the temple monks await them. The community members present the money trees to the monks, who then give blessings to our kindergartens. Father Joe follows with Catholic blessings. And all the money on the trees is directed to our schools.
Some people may think it odd that a traditional Buddhist ceremony includes a Catholic blessing, but that is the nature of Mercy. Our schools, like our Mercy Centre, are a small part of a much larger spiritual landscape. We give thanks together, pray together, receive blessings together, celebrate together, and love one another like brothers and sisters as one family, one community.
We stand together with the poor.
More photos here.