Eight years ago Master Don Ferguson, founder of the Asia Pacific Taekwondo Academy and Thailand National Open Taekwondo Championship gold medallist, was invited to exhibit his skills at a benefit event for the Mercy Centre. After learning about the children Mercy cares for, he offered to do more: if the children were interested, he and his team would volunteer to teach the children for free. Our kids thought about Master Don’s generous offer for about a half a second. They were definitely interested! On that day, the Martial Arts Life Skills program was born.
Every Sunday afternoon, thirty-five Mercy boys and girls hop into a few vans that take them to their taekwondo lesson. Master Don explains that he hopes the children gain from taekwondo the same things that he did as a kid: the importance of setting goals, tackling new challenges, and embracing structure and discipline. Taekwondo lessons involve much more than martial arts – the children learn the value of concentration and determination. Perhaps most of all they have lots of fun. The instructors constantly remind the students that if they put in effort and work hard, anything is possible.
One beautiful example of this is Miss Bas, a slum orphan who grew up in the care of her Granny before joining our Mercy family.
Last week over 650 poor children graduated from our 23 slum kindergartens in Bangkok. It was a fabulous day, truly glorious, and for the graduates of our three-year kindergartens, perhaps the most important and most triumphant day in their young lives.
Fr. Joe led the ceremony, exhorting all the children to stay in school. If there are seemingly impossible problems at home, Fr. Joe told them...if they go to sleep hungry…if the roof over their shacks leaks and floods their home, if their moms play cards and their dads drink and neglect them…if there’s no money for lunch or transportation or school fees…no matter what, Fr Joe insisted, they must go to school! “Come to Mercy and let us help, but regardless, whatever the circumstances, keep advancing, keep learning, keep going to school!”
We also wish to congratulate our Moken (ethnic “sea gypsy”) children in Ranong province who earned graduation certificates from kindergarten, primary and secondary schools, as well as vocational college. Considering that not one of their parents ever learned to read and write, these children have come a long way. We are incredibly proud of them! Photos by Ric Gazarian.
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