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.
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
There was nothing he could do to save his daughter, but the little girl who was left behind is a performer whose grace evokes a bygone era.
Published by Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum, March 20, 2016
She said, “I think I was dreaming. I was sleepy, but I mean, I sort of remember, and it wasn’t scary. Mum in heaven whispered ‘Ahh — ree — sah — rah ... my daughter, you’ve got to mend granddad’s broken heart and stop the pain in our family. Please do this for me, and I shall rest in peace. I didn’t mean to, but I hurt him so much.' ”
He lost his adult daughter. She married a ruffian, and that’s OK in itself, but the ruffian showed no respect. He mistreated granddad’s only daughter. And that's unacceptable.
Last week over 650 poor children graduated from our 23 slum kindergartens in Bangkok. It was a fabulous day, truly glorious, and for the graduates of our three-year kindergartens, perhaps the most important and most triumphant day in their young lives.
Fr. Joe led the ceremony, exhorting all the children to stay in school. If there are seemingly impossible problems at home, Fr. Joe told them...if they go to sleep hungry…if the roof over their shacks leaks and floods their home, if their moms play cards and their dads drink and neglect them…if there’s no money for lunch or transportation or school fees…no matter what, Fr Joe insisted, they must go to school! “Come to Mercy and let us help, but regardless, whatever the circumstances, keep advancing, keep learning, keep going to school!”
We also wish to congratulate our Moken (ethnic “sea gypsy”) children in Ranong province who earned graduation certificates from kindergarten, primary and secondary schools, as well as vocational college. Considering that not one of their parents ever learned to read and write, these children have come a long way. We are incredibly proud of them! Photos by Ric Gazarian.
I already wrote to all you good folks last week, but life here at Mercy Centre moves so very fast. And we have to keep up. A couple days ago, we wrote about the new school in the Fresh Market. This is the 2nd week and there are more new kids coming to study each day. And we’ve got a most exciting school environment – fresh fish (and some not terribly fresh), fiery chickens and ducks, aromatic vegetables and heavenly fruit. It is truly a vibrant atmosphere – you really know you are in the market place.
Then this past Saturday early evening, our talented musical group – playing traditional Thai instruments – some from olden days - and perform beautiful Thai dance – did a gig at a famous yearly folk festival at Central World called The Rhythm of the Earth World Musiq and World Bar-B-Q. Wish you could have been there. I clapped and cheered till my hands hurt and I was getting horse cheering, till one of the girls told me from the stage... ‘it’s okay Father Joe, let the other people cheer too!” And they did – over one thousand!
And now this week, our over 3,000 kindergarten kids are sitting for ‘final exams’ - Yes, we are old fashioned, (reading & writing & arithmetic) but it is so vital that the kids can read and write because for some, this will be the only education they will get their whole lives – but by being literate they can protect themselves, they can sign legal documents, read books and newspapers – take care of themselves and their loved ones.
And our make-shift schools in the construction sites flourish – nine camps – over 200 kids and adults – and again – the basics but a momentous life skill... learn to read and write Thai – most of them know how to count from when they could walk to a store for candy and knew how to count change from early on!
And our big Mercy family has gotten bigger and even more joyous. Four amazing children have moved in to our Mercy homes the last two months. Twin boys, 4 years old, came all the way from South Thailand – sat on the train for 20 hours with a worried mother. They are bright and polite, she taught them well – but they were not safe at home, she could not trust their stepfather.
So here we are and it’s not even the 3rd month of the year of the monkey! And next month is the THE day of the year – Graduation – and the kids have already started to practice, bowing and curtsying is not easy in a long robe.