Last week, twenty Bangkok slum children – the very poorest of the poor – took a long bus ride to Ranong province and then hopped a boat to Koh Lao to help a destitute island village of ethnic Mokens, the sea gypsies of Thailand.
It is quite unusual for these children to explore the world beyond their own slums. They know every crack in the pavement (if there is any pavement) near their own shacks, but nothing of museums, galleries, parks, or neighborhoods in the “nicer” parts of town.
These twenty children, ages sixteen to twenty, are exceptional and so we invited them to participate in an exceptional Leadership Training Camp. They are the brightest and most motivated of our “Sponsorship Kids,” the kids whose education we sponsor because their parents or guardians have no money to send them to school – no money for the most basic school fees, uniforms, books, stationery, lunch or transport.
For five days, our sponsorship kids engaged with the sea gypsy children in Koh Lao in a variety of activities. In the process, they learned about the value of helping others, the harmony of village life, and the difficulties of being “outsiders,” as the sea gypsies most definitely are, in the modern world.
Activities included plenty of hard labor, such as clearing a path from the seaside village to the hilltop water well, collecting tons of recyclable garbage along the shoreline, and lugging heavy construction materials to the site of our new kindergarten for the island children. But it also included loads of fun. Our Leadership Youth organized and refereed an incredibly high-spirited Sports Day for all the sea gypsy children of Koh Lao, a day filled with side-splitting laughter as the children competed in their first ever “water-balloon toss” and “three-legged race.”
By the time our slum children returned to Klong Toey, they knew a lot more about the ways of the world and how to help in ways that make a difference.
After a devastating fire, the Rama 9 community is whole once again. Thank you so much for your support!
Last April a fire ripped through an old squatter-slum community in the Rama 9 neighborhood. In total fifty-one homes were destroyed or badly damaged, leaving 178 residents homeless, including 61 children and eleven grandmoms and granddads.
Most adults in this slum community work as day laborers, maids, security guards, motorbike messengers, and street food vendors who sell noodles, fruit and snacks from their mobile carts. On a good day these families are able to earn the legal minimum daily wage (300 baht - approx. US $10).
Like most slum residents, before the fire they were already over-burdened with household debt. Following the fire they had lost all that they had ever called their own.
The community leaders and residents asked our Mercy Centre to assist them, as we have in the past for dozens of communities throughout the city following major slum fires.
Our outreach and housing teams worked hand in hand with the community, starting with emergency aid, including food and shelter. We also helped organize the community in petitioning the government welfare and housing departments for aid in rebuilding their homes; and these petitions were succesful: the local governement did provide some support and in doing so recognized those left homeless as legal residents.
There were obstacles all along the way. Even removing the debris left in the wake of the fire was a major hurdle.
(Newly rebuilt homes. Mercy Centre was responsible for rebuilding almost forty new homes, which include plumbing, a toilet, and electricity.)
Your support for Mercy Centre provided the materials and labor to help the Rama 9 community reubild. Your gifts allowed families to stay together. Your gifts meant that the moms and dads did not have to quit their jobs, go further in debt, and move their families to a distant slum neighborhood. They could still work close to home. And their children could attend the same schools, including the neighborhood kidnergarten, which we built and operated for the community for many years. The children could keep their old friends, too, and grow up together in the neighborhood they have always considered home.
On behalf of everyone here at Mercy Centre and the entire Rama 9 community, we wish to extend our most heartfelt thanks.
A rooftop view of the rebuilt Rama 9 community.
Link to review here. Full text below: Reviewed by Greg Barrett, author and journalist
First, full disclosure. I wrote the book on Father Joe Maier, the cursing, curmudgeon, can-do priest of Bangkok. Literally. The Gospel of Father Joe, it was titled. But that 315-page effort doesn't preclude me from being honest with you about his latest book, The Open Gate of Mercy: Stories from Bangkok's Klong Toey Slum. Frankly, if I didn't keep it real he'd probably break my kneecaps. (That part is figurative. I think.)Father Joe, who turns 73 on Halloween, is a native of working-class Longview, Washington, but he has lived among the poorest of the poor in Thailand for some forty years. In 1971, long before Mother Teresa was a holy icon and eight years before she won the Nobel Peace Prize, the great nun of Calcutta visited with Father Joe in Bangkok's flood-prone shantytowns. Father Joe showed her the Klong Toey slums that house tens of thousands of homeless families, and as they walked the rickety catwalks that hold the poor aloft (barely) over dung-brown lakes of sewage, Mother Teresa fell quiet. Seeing mile upon soggy mile of the desperate poor she declared Bangkok's abyss to be every bit as sorrowful as the squatter camps in Calcutta. Leaving, she made one request of Father Joe. It was a doozy.
Thursday October 4th, 2012 – 8pm
At The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand
"An Evening with Father Joe: Slum Priest"
Father Joe will talk about his 40 years in Klong Toey and the adults and children behind the stories in his new book, “The Open Gate of Mercy.”
From the Foreign Correspondents Club off Thailand:
Father Joseph Maier, the priest of Klong Toey slum, is a familiar figure in Bangkok and beyond. Since 1967 Father Joe has lived among the poorest of the poor in Thailand and Laos, and since 1972 he has served as the Parish Priest to the Catholic community in the slaughterhouse neighborhood in Klong Toey, Bangkok, which is how he became known as "The Slaughterhouse Priest."
I will miss the day-to-day life at our beautiful Mercy Centre.
After 22 years here, the last six years as Executive Director, I am taking everything I have learned from Fr. Joe, Sister Maria, our children, our patients and all my co-workers to explore new opportunities outside of Mercy Centre, especially those opportunities relating to HIV/AIDS home-based and community care.
It’s impossible to explain how much I will miss Mercy: the rhythm of life here is almost unbearably lovely – the daily celebrations of our children, the chorus of cheers and laughter coming from our kindergartens, the dignity of the elderly grandmoms and granddads who drop by as a part of our Mercy family. There is nothing I have ever seen or experienced like the joys of Mercy.
But while I am giving up my day-to-day duties at Mercy, I will continue to work on Mercy’s behalf and will help lead our teams as we conduct HIV Homecare workshops for community health organizations in Thailand, Laos, Bhutan and the areas bordering Burma. I will also continue to help coordinate with our sister charities - Mercy Centre UK and Mercy Centre Australia.
Please continue to support us and help in every way you can. Our Mercy Centre remains a beautiful celebration of life.
Over 2, 500 slum children attend daily.
Our schools follow the Thai national kindergarten curriculum; and our school children learn to read, write, count, play, dance, say nice words, fight germs, and sing the old songs, the same ones our mothers and grandmothers taught us when we were young.
Our daily school fees -10 baht (30 baht = approx.US $1) per student - cover just a small fraction of the real costs to operate our schools. Although this 10 baht fee does not come close to covering expences, it empowers the parents and guardians to take ownership of their neighborhood school and value their children's education.
The daily school fee is waived for over 20% of our students - those whose parents and guardians are destitute.
One in five children who enters our schools is malnourished. All children receive a nutritious hot lunch, protein snacks, fruit and milk every school day.
In recent years we have formally handed over 11 Mercy preschools to their slum communities. These long-standing schools have helped to strengthen the surrounding communities to the point where the community leaders and parents can now operate their own schools themselves without our daily assistance. We remain as advisors to these schools and provide counsel and resources whenever needed.
In the past 40 years, over 40,000 poor children have graduated from our kindergartens with a head start as they enter government primary schools.