Last week I was walking by our Janusz Korczak School – our informal school for street children – when Kru Pranee, a teacher at Mercy Centre for 38 years, beckoned me inside.
“Father Joe, I’m really proud of one my students, and want you to see why.”
Kru Pranee called out to the student, “Neena, come here a moment, and please tell Father Joe about our Solar System.”
Young Ms. Neena, age 8, a Cambodian girl who attends our Janusz Korczak School because she lacks the documents to attend regular government school, looked a bit nervous and shy. She wasn’t used to being front-and-center stage. The youngest in her class of 32 Korczak students, she’d rarely been called upon to demonstrate her knowledge about anything.
Nevertheless, she mustered the courage, and began: “Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars” and continued all the way to Neptune, and finished by explaining that Pluto was a dwarf planet and may not actually count as a real planet.
“Wow, that’s wonderful!,” I replied, “And can you tell me anything about what’s closer to our home? Can you name the countries that surround Thailand?”
I wasn’t sure if our youngest Korczak kids had ever studied a map of the world, but Neena was able to name all neighboring countries plus the rest of Southeast Asia, Philippines and Indonesia included. When I asked her if she could identify any South Asian countries or cities, she named Nepal and specifically earthquake-hit Kathmandu. (She knew about he Nepal and its earthquake because those who lost their lives and family members have been in our daily prayers.)
Neena may not know much about what goes on beyond her narrow universe, between her parents’ shack and the two-block walk to her Korczak School classroom, but she understands the big picture.
Neena, of course, is special, but when you have hundreds of children in your family, as we do, you discover that each child is remarkable in his or her own way. You just have to give them half a chance to discover themselves. A few examples
- Master Gan, age 7, learned the English alphabet in two hours and is our top Kindergarten student. (We found him in a local vegetable and meat market several months ago. His parents had “deposited” him with a friend when they were sentenced to long jail terms for drug offences.)
- Master Bird, age 17, who is mildly autistic yet extremely high functioning in certain areas, learned how to speak and write in English on his own when he was eight years old. Similarly, he learned a complicated computer program called “Illustrator” in a couple of hours. There isn’t much he can’t figure out when he’s motivated. He attends a special school where he thrives. He is also a fabulous older brother to our younger boys and the go-to guy when they need help with their homework.
- A collective triumph: our Mercy Classical Thai Orchestra, comprising fifteen Mercy boys and girls, receives high praise for their performances before royalty, government officials, ambassadors, and everyone else who has ever heard them.
- Over 25 highly motivated Mercy kids of all ages attend the Asia Pacific Taekwondo Academy. Among the boys, Pla Kim, age 10, has earned his second blue belt; and Miss Kung, age 14, holds a brown belt.
- Four Mercy girls – Tukatan, Bhai, Ann, and Jah – will be competing in an international soccer tournament in Singapore, while ten Mercy boys are traveling to Poland to play in their third annual international soccer tournament. The Polish competition brings together boys from around the world who live in Group Homes. Win or lose, our children will expand their worldview far beyond the confines of our slum community.
And let us not forget our Master Galong, born with a type of Downs’ Syndrome, whom we have spoken of many times before. After graduating from one of our kindergartens twelve consecutive years, he took on a job as a dishwasher at a sidewalk noodle shop. The mom and pop who run the noodle shop say he washes the bowls cleaner than anyone in the area. He gets a daily stipend (usually a few coins and a scoop of ice cream) and has bought himself a new apron.
Going to school was key for all these poor children. It’s their one and only chance in life. When you’re dirt poor, there are no seconds.
Without school, underprivileged kids don’t know what makes them unique or sets them apart from all the other kids in their kid universe. Without school, they’re stuck in a perpetual world of mediocrity, and failure.
A few weeks back we held our liveliest, happiest, and certainly most colorful celebration of the year. Our entire Mercy Centre was festooned with balloons, flowers, toys and stuffed animals. To say it was a joyous day would be an understatement. In fact, it was riotously crazy fun! It was Graduation Day for the children who attend our 23 preschools spread across Bangkok’s poorest communities. Amid glorious pomp and circumstance, over 500 poor children donned caps and gowns and received their diplomas.
As I do every year, I put on my doctoral robes, handed out each diploma, and in the end, I gave my most important speech of the year: I told the children that no matter what happens in the future – regardless whether their daddy drinks or their mommy plays cards and blows all the cash… regardless whether they have no food and feel pangs of hunger…regardless whether their home has no electricity and they can do homework only by candle light…regardless whether their parents are gone and they live with an enfeebled grandparent who doesn’t care what they do…whatever their circumstances, they must go to school.
Did the school children hear me? I think so. Did they understand me? I had them on their feet, fists pumping the air, and yelling “Go to school! Go to school. Go to school!”
We have 150 children of our own who live with us as family in our Mercy Centre. Another 560 children – the poorest children in our slums – receive our educational support from kindergarten onwards. Today, among all these children, forty-six are attending university or vocational college
Maybe seventy-five kids…maybe even one hundred!
Thank you, everybody, for your continued support!
Photos: From top: i) Graduation Day, by Ric Gazarian, ii) Miss Neena, iii) Taekwondo, by Rick Ashley, and iv) Graduation Day by Yoonki Kim