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.
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.