Lovely Miss Sprite had the odds stacked against her before she was even born
Published in the Bangkok Post, Sunday, March 9, Spectrum Section: http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/investigation/398899/a-sprightly-angel-and-a-sacred-tree
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
Lovely Miss Sprite. Angel of the week — second year of kindergarten — winner of the colouring contest — elegantly going on five years of age. She has a voice pitched between the song of an angel and a chirping baby bird sitting on the edge of the nest, not quite ready to fly. Likes to put a leaf behind her ear — picked from that Sacred Tree behind their slum shack. Her mum used to do that too. Lovely features, she has a smile that could stop any herd of wild elephants that might be visiting the neighbourhood. As for her innate beauty? You would immediately pick her out of a crowd. There was a problem: orphan girls fetch a pretty price. But we dealt with that.
Chocolate sandwiches are her favourite food on the whole planet. Chocolate paste smushed between slices of bread. Even better still, whole chunks of chocolate in the middle without much bread. Best of all, skip the bread entirely and just gobble plain chocolate. But her disabled Auntie Gung, her second mum, won’t allow the "no bread" recipe. Says that Miss Sprite’s real mum, now dead from Aids almost a month now, and certainly in heaven, would not approve.
Miss Sprite talks non-stop like only a bright five-year-old can. She shares loads of secrets whispered at the speed of a bullet in your ear. And even though you (as a silly, grown-up adult) are not expected to understand secrets of a top-of-her-class kindergarten orphan, you are required to nod emphatically. For this you sometimes get a hug.
Last week we held graduation ceremonies for all our students who completed their studies in our 23 slum kindergartens spread across Bangkok.These children passed all their tests and are fully prepared to take on new academic challenges in the First Grade of their local government primary schools. Dressed in graduation robes and caps, hundreds of children took part in the ceremonies. Fr. Joe, in his doctoral robe, presented each graduating student with a diploma, and concluded the ceremony with his annual exhortation to all the children to “Stay in School. No matter what – even if your mom gambles and your dad drinks and there’s no money or food at home in your shack, you must keep going to school! It’s your right! It’s your privilege! Never give up!” All photos by Yoonki Kim.
It’s not easy being a little kid in a grown-up’s world full of dangers, especially in our Klong Toey home in the center of Bangkok’s largest slum community. Even though our community has more loving moms and grannies than anywhere else on the planet – to quote a song – our Klong Toey home “is a savage place, drenched in Mercy.” And within the “savage” part are predators who want to hurt our children.
No matter how well our whole slum neighborhood looks after our young kids, these kids still encounter danger. They see horrible things on the lanes and alleyways every day and night, and often even worse things close to home, sometimes inside their own shacks, upstairs from their flat, across the catwalks, or in the homes of their relatives and friends.
How do young children know if a situation is perilous? And how can they respond in ways that keep them safe?
Last week our kindergarten students and teachers completed the “All Children Being Safe” Program that addresses the perils of violence and abuse in hard-scrabble neighborhoods like ours. We adapted this program from a successful initiative created by Ms. Angela Walsh for an Australian child protection organization (NAPCAN – The Nat’l Assoc. for Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect). The program itself is a series of books and teaching aids designed to help children in First Nation Australian communities to protect and defend themselves when they face imminent danger.
The bad guy in the Australian version is the Dingo Dog; but Dingo’s don’t mean anything to Thai children. Nor do Koala Bears or Kangaroos. So we changed all the Australian animals to their Thai counterparts – a Dingo becomes a Street Dog in our version. “Good-guy” animals like Kangaroos are replaced by a family of Thai chickens. Koala Bears are reimagined as Thai Monkeys.
This past Thursday our first Mercy Kindergarten students finished reading the entire Thai series in their classrooms. True to the spirit of the lessons they learned, our students held a giant party in celebration of “All Children Being Safe.” They invited their teachers, parents, guardians and neighbors to a feast of Thai treats and put on a pageant proudly showing everything they’ve learned. It was a brilliant celebration of children just being children!
We are most grateful that the All Children Being Safe Program, a partnership between our Mercy Centre and NAPCAN in Australia, was shepherded by the late John Frederick, a dear friend who dedicated his life to child protection and taught us many lessons we carry on today. We honor John’s memory in this amazing project – a project, we hope, will continually expand as an integral part of every Thai kindergarten curriculum.
Prayers as always, fr joe