Last week was the official beginning of the new school year in Thailand. For our House Moms and Dads at Mercy, who take care of almost 180 children, the whole first week is a super big deal.
On the day before the actual first official school day, we took an informal (and very unscientific) survey to see which group among our Mercy children was feeling the most excitement. Here’s what we found out:
Our teenagers, especially our boys who live on our farm, were 101 percent joyful at the prospect of returning to school. After spending much of their school holiday tilling the fields and planting rice and vegetables, they said they are looking forward to less strenuous activities like dissecting frogs in biology class and figuring out algebra. (One boy, Ek, age 20, is now earning a vocational college degree in agriculture in Kanchanburi province. He says he will return to our Mercy farm after graduation to teach the other boys best methods and practices.)
Our middle-schoolers said they couldn’t wait to get back to their old friends and new studies. They were ecstatic!
Our eleven children who attend local vocational college and universities know what they want to do and are taking their next academic steps with confidence, their eyes wide open. Or so they say. If they change their minds, we won’t mind, as long as they keep going to school.
Of course, our first grade students – we have eight total – were beaming, almost electrified, by their joy at the prospect of the first day of class.
They couldn’t believe, after graduating from our three-year kindergarten, that they would finally be going to a real “BIG KID” school. On the day before their first day, they prepared by putting on their new uniforms, sharpening their new pencils, and placing their books and stationery in their new book bags. (Kind of makes you wish you were a kindergarten teacher.)
Our House Moms said that our First Graders were beside themselves with anticipation and could barely fall asleep. They giggled and whispered secrets to one another long into the night.
And the first day of school did not disappoint!
For our house moms and house dads, sending our kids off to school on that first day was a huge relief.
Imagine having to fit out 180 growing children with shoes and uniforms, backpacks, stationery, books, plus transportation, lunch, and after school allowance. Plus candy money for our 31 primary school children.
Plus… imagine the logistics of transporting kids to over two dozen different schools every day – public, parochial, and international schools, special needs schools, vocational colleges and universities.
What the new school year means to Mercy:
The Janusz Korcaak School. Over 40 children attend our special street kids school – kids who have no other place to learn or make friends, including street kids, kids with minor disabilities, and several Cambodian kids who lack the documentation required to enroll in formal public schools.
Kindergartens. Over 2,500 students are attending our 23 slum kindergartens throughout Bangkok, which include two construction camp preschools, one in Samut Prakarn, the other, surrounded by high rise luxury condos, in a tiny street running between Sukhumvit 24 and 26.
Education Sponsorships and Emergency Sponsorship Funds. Children in our kindergartens whose parents cannot afford our 10 baht (30 US cents) daily fee also can’t afford the costs of uniforms, books, and stationery. We take care of the school costs for these children and enroll them in our education sponsorship program. Over 350 of the very poorest children currently have Mercy education sponsors, from kindergarten onward.
Reform Schools. Through the Thai juvenile courts, we have arranged to look after more than forty former street kids who have been placed in government reform schools. When they complete their academic school year, many will join us back in Mercy.
Education for Sea Gypsy Children. In Ranong Province on the island of Koh Lao, we supervise the education of over 100 ethnic Mokan children. The young ones are enrolled in our kindergarten on the island while their older brothers and sisters are boarded in our home in Ranong, where they attend primary and secondary schools. Two of the oldest children are now earning vocational college degrees. Is this a revolution? We hope so! (Not one of their parents on Koh Lao ever learned to read and write.)
This morning I passed a first year kindergarten classroom filled with three-year-old girls and boys singing the “Elephant Song” in glorious unison, just as their moms and grandparents and great-grandparents sang before them. Such a beautiful site!
For four full days our children gathered at the community stadium behind our Mercy Centre for a professional basketball camp, brought to Mercy by the US Embassy and conducted by Top Flight Academy. With plenty of exercise, laughter, joyful competition, delicious food (thank you, Sunrise Tacos), and lots and lots of rehydrating fluids, it was the perfect warm up for the new school term. Photo gallery here.
How do young children develop lifetime learning skills? Local news Channel 3 reports that our Mercy Kindergartens - which have taught over 40,000 poor children how to read and write in the past 41 years - are paradigms in preparing children for their formal education. Our Mercy kindergarten studentsgain the skills to propel them successfully into primary school and far beyond.
Our foundation's Executive Director Fr. Wirach Amonpattana tells the Channel 3 reporter, "When Thai children have access to quality education at an early age, they become valuable long-term resources to their communities. A strong early education is like the base of a sturdy ladder, motivating children to advance upward in their studies with self confidence."
Please click on the link below to see the entire story - in Thai language only:
Let me tell you the story of Master Gan - a new child at Mercy Centre. A mighty five-year-old, he’s the spirit of Songkran and Easter rolled into one. Right now, he’s not at the top of his mental and physical peak because he’s got chicken pox, but that won’t hold him back for long.
He’s Songkran – Our Thai New Year Water Festival:
Overhearing a conversation about our Songkran holiday plans at Mercy – the part about asking elders for a blessing, pouring lustral water over their hands, and seeking forgiveness…
Master Gan thought about it a moment, and said he wanted some extra lustral water to go back to the Klong Toey market to see Uncle Duck Vendor and ask a blessing from Uncle.
Also ask for a bit of forgiveness:
Because he, Master Gan, and that stray cat had sometimes teased the ducks Uncle was selling from his stall in the marketplace. Also he wished for forgiveness from Heaven Above to help Uncle. Master Gan knew that Uncle Duck Vendor always prayed before butchering the ducks, but that he prayed in Chinese, and was afraid the ducks might only understand Thai.
Uncle didn’t speak Thai very clearly and only knew the Chinese prayers his mother had taught him long ago. Thus, he was afraid to go to the Temple to make merit – thought people would laugh at him. Plus Uncle has pride and dignity. He is a proper duck vendor. If the ducks, failing to understand his Chinese prayers, didn’t quack in unison… well, that wasn’t Uncle’s fault.
Also and most important of all, Master Gan wanted to ask Uncle Duck Vendor for a blessing for his (Gan’s) parents in prison, and of course, not to forget the cat who slept daytimes near Uncle’s rented market stall.
True, neither the stray cat nor his parents can speak or understand Chinese, but maybe that’s okay, Gan reasoned.
AND MASTER GAN IS EASTER, TOO. His life is an Easter/Songkran celebration, even in his present state with chicken pox.
And we, too, like Gan, ask for blessings.
That for our children – reminded by this Easter/Songkran moon - we must re-consecrate our Sacred Rituals to ask the Sacred Fire to warm us. We must ask the Air to bless our children so that people and plants and animals can breathe. To make the Water pure again, so our brothers and sisters the fish can live and flourish. And we ask a blessing to Mother Earth herself that she can grow trees and flowers and protect us.
And we resolve to stop being so mean spirited and hurting everything and thus everyone. It’s spring time, the time to plant. It’s the most sacred time in Thailand – Easter and Songkran.
Our Thai Easter and Songkran Moon is the same moon in the heavens – the brightest moon of the year.
How Gan Joined Our Mercy Family:
It began this way. There was a police shoot up, with guns pointed up at the sky, not at people, but about that in a minute….
Early each morning, our main cook finishes her food purchases in the Klong Toey fresh market no later than four a.m. except on rainy squally days. (I should mention that our cook has got a sharp eye for both stray kids and stray cats.)
Sunday, three weeks ago, before Songkran and a month before Easter, our cook was in the back section of the market where they sell chickens, ducks, and fresh fish. A young boy holding a stray cat, both a bit ragged, came up to her.
It was barefoot Master Nong Gan. He approached our cook and said just what he says to every kind-looking adult in the market: “I’m good at carrying stuff. Do you need any help?”
Our cook raised her eyebrows, slightly, Thai style. Gan continued, “My name is Nong Gan, and I help out Uncle Duck Vendor here in the market while my dad and mum are away with the police for a while, but they promised they would come back soon, and I hugged my mum ‘cause she was sad and I promised I’d be okay and I would save my money to buy her some ribbons for her hair. I’d keep them for when she comes back. Because the policeman said, she couldn’t wear ribbons, and my mum cried, and then the policeman said, ‘well, maybe, sometimes.’”
Our cook was impressed with Gan’s torrent of words and the way he expressed himself. She asked her market cronies, “Who takes care of this boy and his cat?”
One of them pointed to a grizzled duck vendor and said, “that old guy over there with the gimp leg, butchering ducks.”
It turns out that Uncle Duck Vendor shared an adjoining shack with Gan and his parents. When the police came to arrest his parents – firing warning shots in the air – Gan crawled out through the window and hid under Uncle Duck Vendor’s shack.
When Uncle came home a couple hours later, Master Gan, totally spooked from the noise of gunfire and the apparent disappearance of both his parents, would not talk or eat for two days. Uncle didn’t know what to do, so he gathered up Master Gan and put him on the back of his motorcycle with the basket full of ducks and drove to his stall in the market.
That’s when that stray market cat came up and made friends with Master Gan and after a while, he joined the cat, eating some left over rice together.
Uncle Duck Vendor said he keeps an eye on Gan as best he can and brings him along to the morning market, but between butchering ducks and haggling with his customers, he’s too old to look after a little boy, plus a stray cat, too, even though the stray cat pretty much looks after himself.
Uncle Duck Vendor also mentioned that during quiet moments when he has no customers, Nong Gan was teaching himself how to read. Uncle Duck Vendor, who spoke only broken Thai, felt disappointed that he couldn’t help much.
What to do? Our Mercy Centre offered to help look after Gan, and the community elders talked. No neighborhood bad guys had noticed Nong Gan or tried to use him. He would be the perfect mark – and a most profitable catch – for any human trafficker. Even easier and more convenient, any drug dealer could use Gan as a mule for local drug sales.
They all agreed with our cook that we would take care of Gan, if Gan would also agree. He nodded his okay. But he also insisted that he would come to the market often to help Uncle Duck Vendor, especially when counting change because Uncle couldn’t count very fast. And that we help let Gan learn to read and write, and if he didn’t understand, we would explain. And Gan insisted that he keeps the stray cat. We blinked on the cat. Told Nong Gan it was a “stray.” If the cat stayed with us, fine. But you can’t force a stray to live anywhere.
So it was settled. Next step: we – that is, Nong Gan, our cook, our legal aid team, and Uncle Duck Vendor (some ladies in the market promised to sell ducks for him that day) – immediately set off to visit Nong Gan’s parents in prison and asked them to give our Mercy Centre temporary guardianship over their son.They did.
Gan has joined us as our newest Mercy child. We’re honored, of course. True to his spirit, and really, his genius, he has convinced our cook to buy duck for Sunday’s big meal. Our kids are on school break for now, but Master Gan talks about going to kindergarten with great anticipation.
Uncle Duck Vendor teaches him market Chinese; and here at Mercy, he speaks to everyone he meets who looks like they might also teach him a little English. As we suspected, the stray cat has returned to the market, and Nong Gan goes each morning to help Uncle Duck Vendor count change, in case he gets confused with the bigger bills…and also to feed the cat.
Wishing all our friends a Happy Songkran and Blessed Easter.
Here is a behind-the-scenes look at our Mercy Children's Classical Dance Troupe and Orchestra, practicing with their teachers, as they do every Sunday (and often on weekdays) at Mercy Centre. This program is made possible by New York musicians, Mick Moloney, Donie Carroll and friends. All photos by Diane Durongpisitkul.
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.