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.
The School: Hong Rien Kong Nuu
At the end of the work day, when construction workers return to their campsite, a corrugated metal gate, marked simply with a "Camp 2" sign and list of safety regulations, represents a passage between two worlds. Luxury high-rise condominiums lining the street loom overhead. Down below, inside the gates, are the makeshift homes of the families of the workers who build the expensive condos, shopping malls and glitzy restaurants popular with Bangkok’s expatriates and wealthy Thais. The contrast in the daily lives of families living just a few hundred meters away from each other could not be starker.
Just past the campsite’s front gate, there’s a mud-track lane strewn with scattered toys that leads to a large sign. “Hong Rien Kong Nuu” it reads in Thai, or “My Classroom”. The school is housed in a single room constructed of wood planks, with low benches for the 18 students to sit side-by-side in rows. Tables are covered with worksheets, notebooks, crayons and erasers. Children ranging from ages three to twelve team-up with friends to ponder math problems, trace Thai letters, and draw pictures.
Happy New Year - the Year of the Monkey!
Our Thai Chinese neighbors and each of us wish you all "Xin Jia Yu Yi - Xin Ni Huad Xai” or “Happy New Year,” as we say in our local Chinese dialect, spoken here in the Klong Toey slums and throughout Bangkok.
All our children know the Blessing – it’s easy to say, if you practice a bit; especially for our kids when they receive the Ang Pau (the Red Envelope, containing their New Year’s Gifts). Which, true, they can immediately spend for candy, but we suggest (gently) to the children that they keep the money, so they will have money all year (as goes the ancient saying, and as Chinese grandmothers tell their children).
We hope every day of your New Year will be brilliant and beautiful. Yes, I imagine there will be a bit of sadness, as all of us might go through some unpleasant moments, but mostly joy.
The first rhythmic sounds started around 7:30 last Friday morning. Ta dah dum! Ta dah dum! Ta dah dum! Ta dah dum! Dum! Dum! Dum! Gradually the beat of drums, tom-toms, and tambourines grew louder and louder.
Ceilings shook, walls vibrated, furniture trembled.
There’s an unwritten law regarding the nature of five- and six-year-old kids: If you give them a drum or any percussive instrument and ask them to play, they will go wild. And they will not stop until their instruments break or are taken away.
And just to prove this beautiful natural law, our entire Mercy Centre reverberated from building to building, wall to wall, floor to ceiling with the sounds of Children’s Day.
Children’s Day in Thailand always falls on a Saturday, but we celebrated a day early to accommodate the 2,500 students attending our 23 weekday kindergartens.
Of course, every day is Children’s Day in a kindergarten, but it is especially so when there is something extra special to celebrate. And Boy! Oh Boy! Our students got into the spirit of the moment, starting with a magnificent parade down the streets of their slum communities.
Kids marched, kids danced, kids beat their drums, kids shook their tambourines, kids waved placards, kids shouted out “WE ARE CHILDREN AND WE LOVE BEING CHILDREN.” Our children would have been happy to march for miles and miles. They would have been happy to march all day and all night, and start again the next morning.
But there was more fun to be had back in the playgrounds beside their schools, maybe even more fun than they've yet experienced in their young lives. They were to engage in a monumental event. A contest of heroic proportions.
We divided all our students into two teams – the Orange and the Green – and let them duke it out in a rumble of games and contests of skill, ranging from three-legged races to tug-of-wars. The teams had their own cheerleaders and percussionists, who, with epic volume and energy, encouraged their classmates to victory. Moms and dads and grandmas and granddads cheered from the sidelines. Between events, their children sat on their laps.
By the end of the day, every child came home with a well-earned medal. Every kid was a winner!
This Children’s Day was the 43rd we’ve celebrated in our kindergartens. Some things - beautifully, blissfully, thankfully - never change. Children love beating on drums…and celebrating life.
Fr. Joe Maier
When we first met a poor ten-year-old girl named Oraya, we didn’t know she was exceptional. She didn’t appear much different from the countless bedraggled street kids we meet every day. Oraya came from a broken home, and ended up in the care of an Aunt, a street food vendor, who could not afford to keep her niece in school.
Oraya wanted nothing more than the chance to go to school, make friends, and play with other kids her age.
There’s nothing unusual about poor kids wanting to go to school. Pretty much all of them do.
We enrolled Oraya in our education sponsorship program so she could complete first grade, and hoped that, with tutoring and outreach at Mercy Centre, she would stay in school, maybe even thrive.
A poor five-year-old Cambodian girl named Panda says in perfect Thai: “This morning I studied English. Now I am solving multiplication problems. I love coming to school! My teacher, Kru Rat, teaches me new things every day."
Welcome to our special school for children living in the Sukhumvit Soi 24 construction workers camp. While their parents are working in nearby construction sites, these children attend our humble, one-room school, on-site in the workers camp. Most of these children are Cambodian and lack the Thai identity papers required to attend regular public schools.
They rarely leave the camp. But going to school opens up their eyes and takes them beyond their narrow universe. And it gives them the experience and joy of learning in a safe place where kids, no matter how poor or what their circumstance, can just be kids.
Their teacher, Kru Rat, has seen over one hundred children come and go during her three years at the school. She tells us, “My students are quick and clever learners. Like every child, they deserve the chance to go to school. Besides, living in a worker camp can be harsh and dangerous. When they can read, write, and understand the Thai language, they will be better able to look after and protect themselves.”
Currently we operate six construction camp schools throughout the city. Photos by Diane Durongpisitkul.