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 1972, 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 2014 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!
Best Christmas and New Years Wishes from our House Moms, House Dads, Social Workers, and our Mercy Children. Photos of our Mercy Child by Taryn Wilson.
by Fr. Joe Maier
Published in Bangkok Post, Sunday Dec. 23, Spectrum section:
Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Angels travelled from high heaven to tell the news to a small group of shepherds guarding their sheep by night. And of course, the children woke up when they heard the angels speaking to their parents and then singing their heavenly song about the birth of the holy child, and the children were dazzled by the light of an unknown star in the sky.
The music was so beautiful that the children began to sing along with the angels. The shepherd mums said: ''Hush don't be so bold.''
The angels responded: ''That's fine, let the children sing along with us.''
They taught the children the words, so they would remember the song later.
Our children here at Mercy Centre like that story. To them, it's perfectly normal that angels would come to visit and children would sing along with them.
Of course, it also makes sense that the angels could speak Thai and even take a few minutes to show the children how to play the melody on our traditional Thai musical instruments, so that the children could sing and play the melody after the angels had gone back up to heaven.
As the story goes, that very night these shepherds hurried across the hills to see the holy child and to show respect, bringing their children with them because they also wanted to see the baby Jesus.
Visiting the stable and manger where Jesus was born, some of the children fell asleep in their mothers' arms and the blessed Virgin Mary said, ''Why don't you spend the rest of the night here and return in the morning, when it's light and safe. Let your men go home to guard the sheep for the rest of the night.''
Our Klong Toey slum kids like the idea of the shepherd kids going to visit baby Jesus, and maybe bringing along a couple packets of instant noodles – the staple food of homeless kids – just in case. Many of our kids remember being hungry on the street, and they couldn't be sure if baby Jesus and his mum and dad had food.
So our slum kids said that if they'd been there on that night so long ago they would have pooled their lunch money to buy some really spicy dishes from Auntie Owe's food cart down the street from here and share with the shepherd kids and Mary and Joseph. Auntie Owe makes the hottest food in all of the Klong Toey slum, and always gives a bit extra to kids. The way the Mercy kids figure it, shepherd kids wouldn't get to eat spicy Thai food very often. It would be a real treat.
And our slum kids said that if they really could have seen Mary, Jesus' mum, they knew for sure that she'd be prettier than any of the statues of her. Plus, her name was easy to remember – in Thai it would be ''Malee''.
When our children heard of Jesus' humble birth in a manger with the animals close by, one of our girls recalled proudly what her mum told her of how she was born. It was on a wooden foot bridge crossing a stream because her mum was on the run from some bad guys. Our Moken sea gypsy kids from South Thailand said maybe Jesus was born on a wooden boat that sailed the high seas like they were and they thought he would be happy in that life, as they were.
Then the bad guys come into the story. They somehow got word when Jesus was born that this was a child from Heaven. This was unacceptable. They figured this child might grow up and take away their power and money. So the nasty big boss – a guy named Herod – said: ''Find this child from Heaven and kill him. In fact, kill all the baby boys around there, just to make sure. We don't even want this child on planet Earth.''
Our kids understand about bad guys, and how they were coming to hurt Jesus and take his mum and dad away, and maybe even kill them all; at least put them in jail and baby Jesus would be given to strangers and would be all alone without his mum and dad.
Our twins, nicknamed Pizza and Peanut, can identify with that. The police came to take away their own mum because they said she liked drugs. They know that Jesus' mum would never take drugs. They said that they'd never hurt baby Jesus and that their mum and dad wouldn't either.
In our children's world in the Klong Toey slum, dads disappear and mums sometimes have to leave for a while. And so they understood that Mary and Joseph had to leave to escape from the bad guys.
Our five- and six-year-old sisters, Miss Pancake and Miss Off, couldn't remember because they were too small, but their mum told them they got car-sick when she took them on the bus to get away from some bad guys. They were on the run until their uncle, a nice policeman, had a chance to talk to the bad guys and tell them not to hurt mum.
Mary and Joseph journeyed for nine days south to a small hamlet called Bethlehem just outside Jerusalem.It was Joseph’s historical roots, as he was a long distant relative of King David of centuries before. They traveled, forced, by military edict, because the Roman Empire, which ruled the country at that time, had commanded every family head to return to their ancestral home, register, and pay a tax there to government of Rome.
The song the angels sang that night, the light of an unknown star that covers the whole heavens –wherever you are – and the trials and tribulations of Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus all made perfect sense to the children.
So to quote an old song that is very popular at the Mercy Centre: ''May you and your children stop to listen, join in the angels' song, as their music sings along the strings and fills that lonely place between Earth and sky. And know they are singing for you and I.''
Merry Christmas from Father Joe and all the kids.
A super special day and honor! Yesterday the Israeli community celebrated its 60th anniversary of friendship with Thailand at our Mercy Centre. And what better way to celebrate together than by teaching our youth how to create culinary delights?
In a morning session, acclaimed Israeli Chef Mika Sharon taught our Korczak School students the art of preparing heavenly chocolate treats.
In the afternoon session, Chef Mika was joined by Thailand’s own Chef McDang to teach our Korczak kids and local Israeli children how to make Egg Rolls.
That evening, all Mercy children dined on mouth-watering Egg Rolls and ambrosial Chocolate Balls.
Side bar: Between culinary classes, Fr. Joe led H.E. Ambassador Simon Roded and members of Israeli consulate on a tour of the food vendors who ply their trade along the 70 Rai Streets around Mercy Centre. Among these vendors was Miss Moey, a chef in her own right, who has been serving her customers Thai treats for over 40 years (and put two of her children through university in the process). She says she would like to retire but her customers insist that they can’t live without her cuisine.
Our foundation’s Royal Patron, HRH Princess Srirasmi, visited Mercy Centre today to celebrate her birthday together with our Mercy children.
A few of many memorable moments:
Our children renewed their vows to the Princess to be good and study hard.
Our Mercy Children’s Orchestra, which had been practicing every day for weeks, played a beautiful classical Thai song to near perfection.
HRH Princess Srirasmi made special time to sit with our own Nong Peh, a blind and disabled Mercy child. Nong Peh doesn’t know much about princesses, but she loved the affection she received; and returned it in kind by singing her favorite nursery school song, “The Lady in the Moon.”
During lunchtime, Princess Srirasmi visited our Mercy kindergarten. In each classroom she exhorted the school children to eat their vegetables!
Hundreds of neighborhood children joined in the festivities, which included five huge tubs of homemade coconut ice cream.
Following her visit to Mercy Centre – as she did on previous visits – HRH Princess Srirasmi gave honor to our poor neighbors in the 70 Rai neighborhood who had come to send their birthday wishes. The Princess spoke personally with our neighbors, asking about their circumstances, their families, and livelihoods; and wished everyone, young and old, great happiness.
(Photos below: i) HRH Princess Srirasmi with Nong Peh; and ii) in a Mercy kindergarten, encouraging the school children to eat healthy.)
To be an orphan on Father’s Day – even at best, it’s pretty tough.
Last week, on Father’s Day, which falls on our King’s birthday, our children expressed their love in song for their King; and the local Abbot and myself led our children in blessings and prayers. A friend, who understands – who lost his own son in a car crash – dropped by with loads of goodies for all our children. Cake and Ice Cream can wipe away lots of tears. Especially when it’s a surprise! There was much to enjoy and celebrate.
But our children can’t help feeling a little bit lost and even betrayed on a day dedicated to their absent fathers. They believe, perhaps more than the rest of us, in the sanctity and joy of a loving family. I bring this up because I want to explain by example the case of young Miss Dao. That's her in the photo below on the far right with her friends at Mercy.
Nong Dao, now age nine, joined our Mercy family when she was just a toddler. Her older brothers Dik and Duk joined us a year earlier, but her mom, who was dying of AIDS, wanted to hold on to Dao a little longer, see her take her first steps and hear her say “momma”: her first words. Mom died at home when Dao was five. Dao was there, holding her hand when she died. Her dad had left when mom got sick.
After her mom died, Dao would visit her grandma on most weekends, and often cried herself to sleep when she came back to Mercy Centre on Sunday evenings.
Last week grandma died. It’s not easy being a nine-year-old orphan girl. It’s even harder to be a young orphan without even a grandma. I attended the cremation with Dao, Dik and Duk, as I do whenever our children lose their loved ones. Miss Dao cried a lot, but one of our house moms overheard her whisper, “don’t worry Granny – I’ll be okay. I’m a big girl. “
People may think our children have no family or that they are totally uninvolved. The truth is, almost all our children have family somewhere. And because they live apart, there’s often a yearning to return to make things whole. Our children recognize that family time is precious.
We try where we can. We try to make them feel that every day at Mercy is Father’s Day and Mother’s Day and Children’s Day all rolled into one.
Our kids are indomitable, resilient, and full of hope.
There’s much news to share with you about Mercy. Here are just few notes of recent events:
New Mercy Kindergarten for Sea Gypsies.
We have been teaching kindergarten in Koh Lao, an island village of destitute ethnic Mokan, since 2008. We started by turning a large dilapidated shack on stilts into a classroom, but since the shack was technically on land, we had issues with the landlord. Also, the shack continuously flooded during high tide.
With support from the Jan & Oscar Foundation and Lloyd George Asia Foundation, plus cooperation from local government, we just completed the construction of a real kindergarten, again on stilts but far enough away from the shoreline that nobody can claim the land.
The new Jan & Oscar Kindergarten officially opened in November. Over 50 ethnic Mokan children attend daily. It’s a revolution in education. Not one of their parents ever learned to read or write. None.
Rebuilding whole neighborhoods after fires.
Two sweeping fires recently devastated whole neighborhoods in our slums – one in the Pai Sing To community; the other in Rom Klao. Hundreds of families were left homeless.
Thanks to an outpouring of support from our friends, we were able to care for all the fire victims, provide emergency funds and gifts, get the kids back to school with new books and uniforms, raze the dangerous structures still standing, remove the rubble; and build new homes. Friends of Mercy made a huge difference in their lives. Thank you!
Our street kid students learn advanced technology.
Street kids are fearless, even in a classroom: they’re not afraid to learn anything. If you don’t believe me, please come visit our Janusz Korczak School, a special, informal school for street children, migrant children, and poor children who have no other place to learn, play and make friends.
A volunteer teacher, Kru Pearl, has been teaching our Korczak kids how to build websites, create their own computer applications, and program computers. Here’s just one example: an introduction to our Korczak school made by the kids themselves:
All of this programming seems impossibly difficult to me; but street kids, as I mentioned, aren’t afraid of anything.
Leadership training for the poorest children in the slums.
We took almost 150 neighborhood kids camping last month. These kids are poorer than most other slum kids, and we’ve been sponsoring their education ever since kindergarten. If we didn’t support them, they’d likely be helping their parents collect recyclable garbage on the streets or doing menial work far below the minimum wage.
At leadership camp, these kids learn about life beyond their shack in the slums.
They’re smart, alert, curious and caring.
Over 50 children we’ve been sponsoring since kindergarten are now enrolled in vocational colleges and universities. One former Mercy child, Miss Wanwisa, is now a doctoral candidate in neuroscience in Atlanta.
You don’t want to sell any poor kid short. Give them just a gentle nudge, and they can jump over any hurdle.
Finally, as Christmas draws nearer, the energy and excitement in our Mercy Centre surges upward. Please come visit. It’s a beautiful here, and you are always welcome. You are always a part of our Mercy family.
On the occasion of HM the King’s 86th birthday, we wish all our friends in Thailand and around the world a very Happy Father’s Day.
Today our children, kindergarten students, teachers, social workers, and many neighborhood moms and dads gathered at Mercy Centre to pay their respects. Blessings were given by the local Abbot, and Fr. Joe. Since children are an essential part of every Father’s Day, our kindergarten students performed a traditional dance in honor of our King. Happy Father's Day, everybody!
By Fr. Joe Maier
When 'ya ba' hit the Klong Toey slum she was caught up in the maelstrom with so many others. Now she's come out the other end battered and infected but the same gentle creature she's always been
Published Nov. 17, Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum Section
This is the harsh story of our own Miss Mott and the home-grown, inbred violence and drug savagery that seeped into Klong Toey's Slaughter House a few years back. Miss Mott was Slaughter House-born in the Year of the Rabbit – the most gentle of creatures – destined never to hurt anyone or anything but with predators all around.
Her family had a shack with a window facing the canal, right next to the Slaughter House smuggler's dock, and that's where she grew up. She was nine and baby sister seven, when their dad finally stopped his TB coughing. Died in his sleep.
The district health clinic people came, wearing masks for protection, together with the fire department. They torched the clothes, moldy bedding and the whole shack to destroy the TB germs. The Chinese Benevolent Foundation took his body to the temple. The shortest of prayers were chanted, then immediate cremation that very afternoon, as the temple also does not favor TB corpses. A kindly maiden auntie attended, plus Miss Mott and her younger sister.
Mum didn't bother to come. Angry at her dead husband and his TB, she had gotten herself tangled up with a local garbage truck driver. She climbed up into his big green smelly truck, waved goodbye to her daughters and rode off into the sunset.
We had the girls checked for TB and miraculously, they were OK. With mum gone and the house in ashes, their auntie took them in. A famously ferocious lady around the Slaughter House, she had long lived alone except for her cat (an experienced animal, accustomed to ''sizing up'' and then walking away from rats almost as big as he). She dwelt in a wooden shack, a box really, above an active pigpen. The walls consisted of throwaway packing crates tacked together. Leading down to the cement floor of the pigpen was a ladder with three steps that was pulled up at night by an old throwaway piece of plastic twine.
The furnishings consisted of a rickety wooden food cabinet, cups filled with water placed under the legs to keep the ants from crawling up; a fan, one light bulb, a sleeping mat and a mosquito net. Bathing and clothes washing was done in the pigpen during the day after fresh water was put into the vats. A pot served as a toilet that was emptied in the morning into a runoff trough leading back into the canal. When the girls came, auntie borrowed two more plates, bowls and drinking glasses from the temple plus sleeping mats and a second mosquito net from us. To get in and out of the 'house', Miss Mott and sister had to step around the sleeping pigs.
Working in the Slaughter House is not easy and there were always stimulants to fight the exhaustion from the nightly butchering of pigs, cattle and water buffalo, but this usually meant leaves from the kratom tree, at 10 leaves for 1 baht. Then suddenly, a new ''stay awake'' drug came to the Slaughter House like a death plague.
In a matter of weeks the new drug was on sale everywhere. Prices were higher, but the new powder dissolved in liquid and sold for 10 baht a shot was stronger, quicker and longer lasting. Next it appeared in pill form, lethal and addictive. The new business of supplying the pills needed errand girls and boys, but especially girls, as folks think they are more dependable.
The Slaughter House of Klong Toey quickly changed into a savage place. The neighborhood was no longer safe. Thievery skyrocketed. You couldn't even hang clothes on the line outside your shack. Money was borrowed at 20% interest per week. No way to pay it off really, except to join the drug trade. The lives of our girls here were shattered. They were proposing to the men driving the trucks that arrived early each early morning to bring in the pigs and getting jobs in bars and ''tea houses'' as their gangster pimps strutted around. Everyone was caught in the maelstrom.
Miss Mott, now 14 and five years now living above the butchering pens, was the ideal errand girl. Everyone knew her: smart, sassy and slaughter-house wise. She and baby sister, 12, were among the Slaughter House's most trusted drug runners. They knew where and when to buy, from whom and at what prices, and there were always tips for quick, safe-delivery.
The girls went to school only maybe, and for the first time in their lives, they had money to buy enough to eat, with some left over for auntie. And even fish heads for the cat.
That same year Miss Mott moved out from auntie's home and took up with a boy she really liked. But after a couple weeks she realised, broken hearted, that he just wanted to use her to get money for his drugs. She said: ''I have my dignity. I can buy and sell drugs myself – besides, I don't sell to kids.'' So she walked.
But she was so discouraged that she decided to try drugs – just once. Her baby sister panicked – begged her not to do it; but big sister was distraught, and so it began.
Although she was still under legal age, a Slaughter House girl friend got her a job as a cleaning lady in a downtown bar. That's when she decided to learn English. Somewhere along the line, she'd picked up the HIV virus and spent some time in prison. She met this foreign guy – moved in with him to improve her English (although he didn't know that was her main reason). She'd taught herself how to read and write Thai by the time she was six by reading comic books and watching cartoons and figured the same formula would work for English. She got this foreign guy to buy her English-language comics and subscribe to TV channels showing English cartoons. She stayed with him about 18 months, and learned a good bit of English.
About that time, she became a ''cover girl,” something she instantly regretted, and that's why she left him. He gave her some product, got her to pose and asked her to demonstrate the finer points of heroin injection. Then he sold the photos to a lurid underground magazine. I understand that the photos won an art award somewhere in Eastern Europe.
When she saw the magazine in the foreigner's apartment, she went back to Klong Toey to meet some people she knew, got some product and placed it on his kitchen table. Then she gathered up her clothes, left him sleeping in the apartment, went back home to Klong Toey and phoned the police.
She had some money he'd given her so she and baby sister re-built the old home next to the smugglers dock that was burned down years after dad passed away. She moved her maiden auntie and the experienced cat from the pig-pen shack and sold it for 1,000 baht.
Baby sister was going to school quite regularly now. She had stopped being an errand girl and she watched in horror at her sister's addiction.
Just before they re-built their old shack, she watched a delivery go bad. Someone had ''taken the shilling'' – been paid off. She watched the ''drop man'' go down in a hail of .44 caliber bullets fired by an army special team brought in for the hit. A long-time neighborhood cop who was a kindergarten classmate of her dad years before watched it all. He asked baby sister: ''Little daughter, do you have any product?'' She said, no, she'd delivered it all, and he said: ''Run and don't ever make another delivery again.''
Baby sister remembered what he told her.
With the shack re-built, they were together again as a family, at least for a while. Miss Mott was now the bread-winner. She would come and go. Do her own thing. Still into drugs. Don't ask questions.
The same neighborhood cop asked Miss Mott to come to the station one afternoon. He said he was sorry – he remembered how he had fought the communists beside her dad in Laos, but the law is the law, and she was certainly a suspect. The urine test proved there were drugs in her system. Plus, she was really dumb. She had missed three of her monthly parole dates at the police station. The judge gave her two years.
So now she's back in the federal women's prison. It's probably the safest place for her right now, and her English skills serve her well.
Non-Thai speaking prisoners need to communicate with non-English speaking guards. Miss Mott translates. And with this, favors come, like cookies and cake, instant coffee, when visitors bring presents. She particularly likes doughnuts. Plus, if you're a Klong Toey Girl in the women's prison ... Well, there's a bit of space, because no one fancies several of Klong Toey's finest lasses paying a midnight visit in the ward.
There's much more to tell, but to hit the highlights, both maiden auntie and the experienced cat died of natural causes last year. Baby sister has a good-paying secretarial job with a shipping company in Klong Toey Port.
Miss Mott remains a Slaughter House girl born in the Year of the Rabbit, and she'll be free again in less than a year. The prison supplies anti-virals for her HIV and she is healthy for now. She says she's got lots of energy – still young at 42.
''I'm off the drugs after 30 years, and the HIV is dormant. And before it's too late, I'd really like to be a mum,'' she says.
There's a girl she met in the prison dying of cancer, and she has a two year old and a three-year-old living with her frail, sickly grandmother. For sure, the children will be orphans, so Miss Mott told the girl: ''I'll take your kids for you and even bring them to the temple when you die, and I'll look after granny.''
She figures she has just enough years left to raise the kids proper – just like they were her own blood ... and she promises to be the best mum the Slaughter House has ever seen.