Khru Lek, a gifted educator of sea gypsy children, was once addicted to drugs, but her mother's tough love helped her answer her true calling
By Father Joe Maier
Published by Bangkok Post, August 21, Spectrum Section
'Teacher! Miss teacher! Miss teacher! You be teacher!" That's what an old crazy woman who lived under the Three Soldiers Bridge used to shout at Lek. As early as she remembers, every time she walked by that bridge, the old lady would turn those words into a chant, "You be teacher! You hear me? You be teacher!”
And so she is today, but nowhere near the slaughterhouse or the Three Soldiers Bridge.
Now she rides a longtail boat 45 minutes each school day from the city of Ranong to the island of Koh Lao, where she teaches 60 sea gypsy kids in a rickety wooden shack that floods ankle-deep in the high tides. Sometimes the mums have to carry the kids on their backs, wading thigh deep in the water, from their stilt shacks to the rickety school.
Khru Lek is a gifted teacher. Brilliant. Even magical. And the sea gypsy children adore her. Her school children can say with pride, "We learn to count, to read, to write our own names, to dance, to sing, to tell stories, to play new games, to brush our teeth, to fight germs, to say nice words, to make friends."
When Khru Lek teaches the children how to count, they in turn teach her the numbers in their own Moken (ethnic sea gypsy) language.
Father Joe and Sister Maria would ask these questions to every slum neighbor they met every day, starting forty years ago when they first came to the Slaughterhouse in Klong Toey.
Some slum neighbors answered they were hungry, so Fr. Joe and Sister Maria gave them nutritious food with small sacks of rice. Others were sick, so Fr. Joe found a good doctor and started Bangkok’s first mobile medical clinic in the slums. To the question, “Are your children going to school?” nobody ever said “yes.”
Father Joe and Sister Maria opened Mercy’s first slum kindergarten in the Slaughterhouse in 1972 . It would be the first of dozens of Mercy Kindergartens to spring up beside bridges and railway tracks throughout the slums. Over 40,000 children have graduated from our Mercy schools!
A Role Model KindergartenLast month the Thai Ministry of Education named our Lock 6 Mercy Kindergarten a Role Model School for poor children, based on the quality of its teaching, student development, and administration. This award for excellence means that the Thai government will be using the lessons we’ve learned over the past 40 years in the operation of hundreds of government slum schools throughout Thailand.
Early this morning we celebrated Mother’s Day at Mercy Centre and gave honor to Her Majesty the Queen on her birthday and to all of our House Moms and all the moms who are a part of our Mercy Family.
Monks from our local temple, Wat Saphan, joined us at Mercy Centre. Since our local temple is also a “half-way” home and treatment centre for many poor adults addicted to drugs, we each gave gift bags of rice, canned foods, milk, and other essentials for the adults in their care. The Monks prayed and blessed our home and family. The schoolchildren from of our Flat 12 Kindergarten performed in dance. And everyone at Mercy Centre sang together for the love of our Queen, our mothers, and our children. It was another beautiful morning at Mercy Centre. (2011 Mother's Day Photo gallery here. Previous Mother's Day gallery here.
Last week marked the beginning of Khao Pangsa (known in English as Buddhist Lent), a period of spiritual renewal in the Buddhist calendar. To commemorate the teachings of Lord Buddha and pay respect to the Monks who make merit on our behalf, our house moms, teachers, street workers, social workers, children, and students representing our eight kindergartens in Klongtoey – over 800 men, women and children in all - paraded to Wat Saphan, our local temple, where we made merit and received blessings. The photo gallery tells the story, here. Photos by Alex Ashley. Related gallery here.
We've got the one family picture of baby Puk Pik. That's it - a picture that his dad somehow missed when trashing the rest. Taken eight years ago when he was a baby, maybe six months old, with his real mum holding him and dad standing by. Puk Pik is nine now, an orphan until a few weeks ago.
A slum-dressed lady who said she was his auntie brought him to us, then disappeared into the dawning day.
Now there's proof of his past. We found dad - hiding, avoiding us, whatever you want to call it - and dad had the picture.
Puk Pik's dad had kept the picture hidden almost nine years from his new wife. He knew she'd go into a rage because he promised she was the only one. His first and only. He told our social workers his new wife doesn't know about his HIV either.
For four decades, Father Joe has been a beacon of hope for some of Bangkok's poorest children. Now two filmmakers are hoping to document his inspiring life
By Annemarie EvansAn Irish-American priest talks to the camera as he sits at a table in the slums of Klong Toey, Bangkok, Thailand. It's September 2009. Father Joseph Maier describes how a hospital contacted him asking if he could look after a little girl who was blind and had Aids. She had been run over - by her parents.
"This is where you really wonder about the world," the then 69-year-old priest says. "You can understand warlords and pimps and addicts doing these horrible things. But the parents? Oh, boy! [They] used and abused this child and then tried to kill her. I'm not sure if the devil would compete on this level."
It's one of several disturbing scenes in a 15-minute film, which its two Australian filmmakers want to turn into a 90-minute documentary, called Father Joe and the Bangkok Slaughterhouse. The central character is Father Joe, a charismatic Redemptorist priest from the United States, who has been living in the Klong Toey slum since 1973. Shortly after he moved in, he set up the Human Development Foundation and its Mercy Centre, which now employs 330 people and runs 22 kindergartens, as well as a hospice, four orphanages and several other establishments, across Bangkok. "The Slaughterhouse" is a particularly poor area, set around the Klong Toey abattoir, where pigs are killed at night.