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.
Way, way back, even before we opened our Mercy Centre, we had a dream for our children in the slums beside the slaughterhouse – a simple-but-profound dream shared by all the moms, dads, and community and religious leaders: we dreamed that we would send all our slaughterhouse children to school.
Sister Maria and I opened a school in a one-room shack beside an abandoned pigpen and began teaching the Catholic children how to read and write and recite their prayers.
Down the street, in a warren of alleyways, a preschool was also opened for the Buddhist children; and also the Imam opened a school in his home.
Nobody had any money back then. We asked for one baht per day from the parents. Nothing more. But even one baht was too much for many, who had nothing, and so they contributed in kind, as they were able: a grizzled piece of chicken, a small pouch of sticky rice; anything would do. And every mom, dad, grandparent and guardian wanted to contribute.
This year we started a trash bank for the school children attending our Klongtoey Nai and Romklao Mercy Preschools. It’s a beautiful concept that we hope to expand to all our Mercy kindergartens in the near future.
The program logistics are really quite simple: Every Friday morning, our students bring recyclable trash to school that they and their parents have collected in the previous week. The trash is weighed and valued accordingly, converted into savings, and deposited in each student’s savings pass book.
After an extended stay in a local children’s hospital, our darling, Nong Fon, has returned to Mercy. Her best friend at Mercy, Nong Peh, is overjoyed.
For those who don’t know them, Nong Peh and Nong Fon are blind, disabled girls who have continuous life-threatening health issues. They are also exceptionally kind and loving.
Nong Fon and Peh sleep, wake up, dine, nap, play, laugh, and cry together, and often communicate in made-up words in a their own private language.
When they are not conversing, they hold hands.
For the past year, doctors have been trying to control Nong Fon’s seizures, and in the process she’s been taken to and from a local children’s hospital many times. The nurses adore her. They say she’s an angel. So we know she’s is well taken care of when away from Mercy. (Maybe she’s the one who is taking care of her nurses.) But it’s sad for us when she’s not here at Mercy. And Nong Peh misses her terribly.
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.
It’s an awesome time of the year here in Thailand. Totally awesome.
Flowering trees are in full bloom with every color of the rainbow: so bright and delicate and beautiful, it’s breathtaking. And our kids are taking advantage of every minute of their summer holidays. For at least the next few weeks, they have no mandatory daily duties, no classes to attend, and no obligations apart from looking after themselves and behaving well. They simply get up each morning and try to figure out what they need to do to capture every potential moment of joy during their summer holidays.
The Thai New Year water festival was crazy fun. Imagine: Four full days of splish-splash. Someone gave us a plastic wading pool 24 inches deep and we filled it with the garden hose water. And our five- and six-year olds (especially the girls) were at the top of their splashing game. Best splashers in the whole slum. Stopping only to eat. No, they weren’t forgetting their past pains, but rather embracing the moment. Slum kids who have been hungry on the streets never forget. Even though here at Mercy, there are always double or triple portions, the kids never forget those days when they were hungry.