What a glorious day at Mercy Centre! Today 532 slum children received their diplomas at our annual Mercy kindergarten graduation ceremonies.
This is definitely not a typical graduation ceremony. It’s more beautiful for one thing - also more riotous and just plain more fun.
Of course, there are moments of solemnity and pomp. Children wear ceremonial robes and caps. And I don my doctoral robes and present diplomas to each child. When every child has a diploma in hand, I congratulate and exhort the children to stay in school. By the end of the ceremony, the children are cheering together, "We will stay in school!"
These young graduates can feel the importance of the day.
The ceremony is also filled with childhood innocence and joy, accentuated by festoons of colored balloons, garlands of flowers wrapped in cartoon characters (notably Angry Bird, whoever he is?), and lots of make-believe stuff.
Moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas, sisters, brothers, aunties, uncles – the whole family joins in the celebration. We want our school children to remember this day for life!
Thank you so much for making this day more beautiful.
Some street kids call her “Teacher.” Others, especially the younger ones, call her “Mom.” To many kids who have known her for years, she takes on the honorific title of “Big Sister.”
Ms. Narisaraporn Asiphong, a long-time Mercy social worker, is a trusted friend to every street child she meets in her daily rounds of the Sanam Luang, Saphan Phut, and Rim Klong Lawt neighborhoods.
This past week she received further recognition and a new title, this time not among the kids themselves but rather among her peers, at the “Professor Pakorn Aungsusing Foundation” annual award ceremony. Her title for the award ceremony: “Best Street Social Worker in Action.”
Ms. Narisaporn will do everything within her reach to protect her street children and find them a safe haven. She reunites children with grandparents and family; finds her children safe day-jobs; enters them in schools, the monkhood, or wherever they may get a second chance at being children. She makes arrangements for their weddings, for the birth of their children, and sadly, all too often, for their funerals.
We know how remarkable Ms. Narisaporn really is; and we feel justly proud that others, both her children and professional peers, feel the same way.
On Mothers Day, the children in her care always bring her flowers.
More about Ms. Narisaporn and our social workers here.
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.
This morning over 300 slum kids, ages three to seven, battled for victory in their first ever team competition during our Mercy Kindergarten Sports Day. The kids were divided into two teams – The Pink and The Blue – in contests that ranged from relay races and musical-chairs to tug-of-war face-offs. The cheers and chants were deafening!
The only glitch of the day happened during the relay races because both The Pink and The Blue had a bit of trouble passing the batons to their teammates. After several false starts, The Pink eventually won. The Blue surged back, though, in the tug of war; and both teams earned top honors in musical chairs. The contests ended with each kindergarten student receiving a victory medal, a present, and an ice cream cone: a lovely first lesson in the joys of camaraderie.
Then all the children returned to their classrooms to take a well-earned afternoon nap. Photo gallery here.
Most people don’t go out of their way to visit our patch in the slums, known as “70 Rai,” between the port and a spaghetti bowl of highway on-and-off ramps.
Taxi drivers tend to refuse fares to 70 Rai. They say it’s not worth the risk.
It’s true, 70 Rai has earned its reputation as a nexus of drugs and crime the hard way – by having more than its fair share of both. But it’s also true that during the day and much of the night, Moms, Grandmas, and kids rule the streets. Photos by Yooni Kim. Visit the gallery here.
It’s a beautiful day for street kids when they can have as much fun as possible without any fears.
Last week over sixty kids of all ages joined in our end-of-year Street Kid Party at Mercy Centre.
The train station kids joined the party in large numbers, followed by the Lumpini Park kids and the kids who live under bridges (many from Rama III bridge in particular). The kids who sell garlands on street corners came with one of our social workers. Street kids joined us from as far away as Samut Prakan. And there were babies and toddlers, too – the offspring of teenage street couples – who arrived in tow with their young moms and dads.
Preparations for the party began earlier that same morning when we took the children to a large open air market, gave them five hundred baht each, and told them they could buy whatever clothes they wanted. No surprises here: almost every kid bought new blue jeans and t-shirts: the boys selected the coolest patterned t-shirts – mostly black, emblazoned with nonsensical English words – while the girls went for soft colors with flowers and hearts. The boys bought baseball caps; the girls, lipstick.
The kids felt confident, proud, ready to celebrate, and happy to have a day dedicated just for themselves in a safe place, where they could play hard without worries and feast on their favorite street food until they were full. (We hired street vendors to cook anything they wanted for free.) Nobody was going to arrest these kids at Mercy Centre. Nobody was going to hassle them. Nobody was going to pick on them or beat them up or take their money.
A few of the highlights:
First came warm greetings and New Year’s wishes from our social workers and representatives of other child welfare organizations as well as the Hualamphong train station police. All of us asked the children to call or visit us whenever they were in danger or needed our help in any way. We told them we would always be here to protect them on the streets and in our shelters.
Father Joe urged the kids to have as much fun as possible throughout the day and to prepare for a New Year filled with hope and joy. He pantomimed carrying a large sack of rocks, which represented the anger they may feel for their families, the police, and all the injustice in their lives. And he urged them to throw the sack away; to relieve themselves of the burden of their anger; and to embrace every day fresh and hopeful, with friends who care for them.
The kids understood and agreed to try.
Then came the games and festivities!
Kids were divided into teams and competed for glory in three-legged sack races, tug-of-war face-offs, balloon tosses, and other contests requiring camaraderie and companionship.
We are not sure which team won; we aren’t even sure if anyone kept count. But we are quite certain that each contestant came out a winner for the day.
But just to make sure… we had prize drawings that included gifts for every kid who joined in the party. Every child went home (“home” being a make-shift living space under a bridge, in an abandoned building or on the street) with a New Year gift.
We will continue looking out for our children on the streets and protecting them as best we can throughout the New Year. These children are always welcome to come live with us at Mercy and are always a part of our extended Mercy family. (More photos of the party - visit our gallery here.)