Sneaking into school after dark for scraps led a desperate boy of seven to learn vital skills.
By Father Joe Maier
Published in the Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum, July 10, 2016
He's the slum kid who once boasted, "I can write my own name." And he learned how to spell. That was a while ago, when he was six. He's 20 now, and his aptitude and fine penmanship served him well during the 18 months he served in juvenile prison. He'd pen letters for prisoners and guards -- a skill and a favour earning him "an edge" in a place where edges save you.
His nickname, Lion Tail Ben, was an edge, also. Sounds totally wild. The fact he was born, bred and reared as a slaughterhouse Klong Toey kid, that didn't hurt either. On certain streets, and in prison, "slaughterhouse" is a badge of honour. It denotes a history that commands a slum-recognisable kind of immediate respect.
The real "baddies" behind bars might prance, posture, howl and roar; anything to keep themselves safe, but slaughterhouse kids have no need to grandstand. They are automatically "hands off". In mafia-speak you might say they are "made men".
Sorry : (L to R) Liw, Bai Por, Chompoo and Bai Mon
You are family, so you get to share in the beauty and the warts and wrinkles. Just like your own family, except ours might have a few more kids. But the sweetness and the bitter alike. “The Bloom is off the rose.”
This is a horror story, but not quite. In fact, it turned out good – with a party.
Miss Chompo got sick again – violent convulsion/shock. It happened once three years ago, when she was four years old, actually, when her mother was dying of aids, but we had forgotten. She has been a normal healthy 2rd grade school girl. Plays with dolls, doesn’t like worms and creepy crawlies.
A story that should be told: The cast are seven year old Miss Chompo, the unwilling and unwitting heroine, and her three orphan mates who saved her life.
Who was to think – that three orphans, 7 and 11 year olds, would save her life.
She had stopped breathing and was turning that terrible death color. No oxygen to the brain.
A story that should be told; quick action of young children. We adults foolishly assume kids are not that smart. But they are, thus the cast, or the actors, are four.
Sunday evening last week, bed time at nine o’clock, because tomorrow is a school day, it began.
She screamed – really a death scream – and oh dear, she vomited – like across the room – not normal, and went into total shock and lost allconsciousness, she went stiff, then floppy, like a rag doll.
She had collapsed on the floor and her bed mates in the dorm dragged her - carried her best as they could to the infirmary 20 meters away. Laid her out on the floor, stuck a pillow under her head, Miss Bai Mon, the eldest, said go get the nurse... but 7 year old Liw saw she was turning that terrible death color.
She grabbed the oxygen machine and dragging it over to Miss Chompo, plugging it in – turning the nobs and dials to ‘high – full bore’, pushing the vomit aside, out of her mouth, and sticking the oxygen in the sick girl’s mouth.
By this time – literally in less than three minutes, all the 37 girls were there. Miss Bai Por was the one who ran to get the nurse, knocked on his door – got all the other girls to scream loudly, so he heard their shouts and screams.
He came immediately, adjusted the oxygen, and phoned the driver to come immediately. He did – it took about 5 minutes because his house is nearby in the slums.
By that time, they’d propped her up in a wheel chair, and got her connected to a portable oxygen tank, and she was getting a bit of color back, the terrible death color was going away, and all the time the three girls kept holding her, crying – talking to her.
They thought it was food poisoning. Spoiled noodles for lunch. And it was the ‘duck’ noodles the girls really like, so they all ate lots.
Now they know - it was much more serious. Brain scans said there is a calcium ‘spot’ in her brain. But they are giving her medicine to dissolve it.
Miss Chompo finally did open her eyes an hour later in the emergency room – a nurse said that the young girls should not be there... and the kids just glared at her – and didn’t move an inch. No way would they leave their friend. Today, days later, she is back in school, they tell us there will be complete recovery.
Left to right: Liw, Bai Por, Chompoo, and Bai Mon.
So we carry on. Someone recently gave us a bunch of fabulous Swiss chocolate candy, and this was the perfect occasion. We had a small party last night after dinner. Miss Chompo and her three mates were ‘the sponsors’ giving chocolate to all the other girls.
By Father Joe Maier
Published Bangkok Post, Sunday, Spectrum section, May 29, 2016.
Why tell this story? Why take the effort to try and remember an 18-year-old street kid who drowned in the Chao Phraya River, half snockered on drugs? So, even though dying and drowning were the last things from his mind, drown he did, die he did. And it was kind of his own fault.
What's that got to do with you or me?
Asleep, groggy, lying beside the river, the wash from a passing tug boat knocked him into the water. No problem so far; because he was the best swimmer in the bunch, the first to climb to the top of the bridge and dive the 20 metres into the river. The problem was, he cracked his skull really hard on an abutment and didn't make it back to the surface.
If these street kids were for sale, they'd be cheaper than a soi dog with mange. That sounds unkind, but it's true. Mostly, they hang out under the old Bangkok Memorial Bridge on the Bangkok side of the river.
There has been lots of international media coverage of the horrible fire in a dormitory in an all girls’ school the other night and rightly so. This is a top quality school founded to teach, especially, indigent Hill Tribe girls. It was a horrible fire that should not have happened. And like all these type of terrible accidents, the cause was a series of little mistakes turning into tragedy. The fire was in the Hill Country of North Thailand some 700 kilometers from Bangkok in a town called Chiang Rai, near the Laotian Border. The seventeen fire victims were girls from age 5 to 12, and one teacher.
We here in Bangkok together with our own slum children are terribly saddened although we did not personally know any of the victims. Nor are we connected with that particular school. However, to show solidary our own 2,500 slum kindergarten children in each of our 24 schools and ten work camps will write a letter from their class to speak of sadness , but also hope for tomorrow and prayers for the children’s families. We are not going to take up a collection, as that is not necessary, as many others are helping.
At the same time, this is a ‘wake-up’ call for safety for our own 24 shanty town old wooden school buildings. We cannot make them fire-proof, nor more than we can make the whole slum fire proof, but we can make them fire safe, meaning – IF there be a fire, our children will know what to do – they can easily escape, as has happened 3 times in the past 45 years. We have never lost a child, nor has there even been an injury. We are Blessed.
We shall write to you again soon, but this is urgent, and I do want everyone to know about this fire.
Prayers as always - my respect to you all from me and our children.
It’s a whole new strange and scary world. A world without mum or granny, and a world outside your own slum shack. A world where you are all alone, even for a little while. Your home, your shack where you live, yes it is a shack, but it’s safe. Also that’s where your pillow is, and where your teddy bear lives, the food is, and granny is, and everything that protects you, and you know you are loved. Whatever that means. Maybe this going to school business is okay, kind of, a little bit, because you walked maybe three minutes to school and granny holds your hand and you know the way home to your house just in case something happens and you have to run. Just in case. And you know some older kids – like 5 – 6 year olds who already go to school there.
Today our Thai official academic school year returns.
First day of kindergarten school in the slums – Wow. First day in school and slum kids cry & shed huge loud tears just like you and I did long ago. ‘Mamma, don’t leave me. Promise you will come back to get me. Promise. Promise.
By Father Joe Maier
Master Galong rides an imaginary motorbike and takes his teeth from his pocket to eat, but never fails to show his gentle nature.
Published by the Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum, April 24, 2016
Galong, born with Down's syndrome, was of indeterminate age. He lived on the streets and worked as a "doorman" at a low-budget karaoke joint near the Pratunam market. Always a proper gentleman, he greeted us, shook our hands and in his gravelly voice asked, "How are you?"
For sure, he did not grow up on the streets. He is much too gentle and refined for that. Plus he is healthy and well fed.
Being born, growing up and living daily on the street takes a certain roughness to survive. Master Galong does not have that roughness. He is the essence of good Thai manners. Someone raised him properly as their beloved son.
Hey guys and ladies. Wish you could have been here last week. Last week was Songkran – Thai New Year – the Water Festival. Except that might not have been room for all of you in the kiddie plastic wading pool we had - but almost. Many of the children at Mercy Centre went home for the holiday; to visit their grannies, aunties and cousins. For the ones who do not have a home, we had a great celebration right here in Klong Toey. No – not like ‘up town’ with big and dangerous water pistols and all that fancy stuff. Our kids decided to use only stuff which they knew that If they sprayed the statue of the Buddha, he wouldn’t be upset. Not these water cannons.
We fill our plastic kiddie pool with water and this year no one was safe from a splash of water or ten – it must be the coolest celebration in the shanty slums – our kids are allowed to swim and play ALL week!!
And we actually had a contest - who could splash water the best?
So lots of splashing and noise. And question: do you want to know perhaps the most beautiful musical sound on the planet? Of course you want. And the answer is simply 33 five & six & seven year old girls playing and splashing water. And after that another 30 of Mercy’s five & six year old boys splashing and singing and shouting, but more shouting that singing.
We decided to play and then pray. Maybe it should have been the other way around, but play we did and pray we did. I don’t think the Good Lord cares which comes first.
Songkran is the tradition and celebration of pouring lustral water on Buddha images and water on the hands of the elderly. We believe this is a blessing and good fortune for the year to come. Also to wash away last year’s sins. At the same time we ask forgiveness and show our respect for the elderly and in return they will gift us good wishes for the year to come. The festival also welcomes the much needed rainy season for our crops and land.
Dear everyone – each year, for the past 49 years, in one way or another, I have written an Easter story for you – as a blessing and as a ‘Thank you’ for all that you are for our children and for the poor in the slums of Bangkok.
Our kids, Buddhists, Moslems & Catholics already know the Easter story. That humble Jesus washed the feet of his Apostles – and the bad guys nailed him to a Cross and God in the Cosmos was not pleased: there was an eclipse of the sun and rumblings of an earthquake. Jesus died and Rose from the Dead three days later, and surprised everyone. No one had ever risen from the dead before, or since then. And he first went to see his mum, Mary. And for the Thai New Year coming in two weeks the belief is the same. We celebrate with a sprinkling of water on the heads of our elders – our mums and grand mums, fathers and grandfathers: asking for Blessing and forgiveness plus we attend a temple ceremony with the Monks to pray for our dead.
These ceremonies flow gently over the children’s heads and really over the heads of us all. They tell us there are no ‘broken halleluiahs’. So I think best to send you a couple pictures. Maybe that’s a good way to say Happy Easter and Happy Thai New Year. These happy faces mask great struggles, disappointments and sadness, but that we should all learn from the children of Klong Toey – learn to enjoy the moment, be grateful and ‘do your best to be the best’ – that’s really all one can ask for….
Klong Toey is like one big broken family. And our kids are brazen and cheeky enough to know what we, the kids can mend that. So every day we dare you to follow us and be joyful.
Eight years ago Master Don Ferguson, founder of the Asia Pacific Taekwondo Academy and Thailand National Open Taekwondo Championship gold medallist, was invited to exhibit his skills at a benefit event for the Mercy Centre. After learning about the children Mercy cares for, he offered to do more: if the children were interested, he and his team would volunteer to teach the children for free. Our kids thought about Master Don’s generous offer for about a half a second. They were definitely interested! On that day, the Martial Arts Life Skills program was born.
Every Sunday afternoon, thirty-five Mercy boys and girls hop into a few vans that take them to their taekwondo lesson. Master Don explains that he hopes the children gain from taekwondo the same things that he did as a kid: the importance of setting goals, tackling new challenges, and embracing structure and discipline. Taekwondo lessons involve much more than martial arts – the children learn the value of concentration and determination. Perhaps most of all they have lots of fun. The instructors constantly remind the students that if they put in effort and work hard, anything is possible.
One beautiful example of this is Miss Bas, a slum orphan who grew up in the care of her Granny before joining our Mercy family.