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
The co-founder of our Mercy Centre, Sister Maria Chantavardom, celebrated her 84th birthday last week. God bless her! She is still incredibly active… still dynamic... and still the very heartbeat of everything we’ve ever accomplished and everything we still endeavor to do for our children and poorest neighbors. She began working with Fr. Joe when he first arrived in Bangkok’s slaughterhouse Parish in 1972. Together, Sister Maria and Fr. Joe opened the first Mercy kindergarten in 1972, and in the years that followed they developed a system of preschool education and neighborhood support that now reaches out daily to tens of thousands of poor children and families.
Photo above: Fr. Joe presents flowers to Sister Maria; below, Sister Maria and Mercy staff.
As our New Year of 2014 has begun, I would like to greet you all in gratitude on behalf of our beloved HDF-Mercy Centre.
The work that you have supported by your caring concern and financial assistance continues to flourish. We stand tall as a vital hope for many living in the slums and on the periphery of Bangkok, and our needs are ever constant.
With Thailand’s present political unrest, we have publicly announced that all 23 of our shack/school kindergartens, located throughout the city slums, are places of safety and refuge, as is our Mercy Centre here in Klong Toey. Our doors are totally open to all the nearly 3,000 children we teach daily plus their families and anyone else who needs a meal or a place to rest. Also we share our meager rice supply with the local Temple and Mosque, as they share with us.
Some may have recently wondered if I am still at the heart of our great work and if I have the zeal and strength to continue to serve the poor and especially the children of the slums.
As this New Year begins, I assure you all that I am happy and healthy, and jog (slowly) three miles most every day. I am excited about life and honored to share my days with these less fortunate of God's special ones. I see all of you as being very much a major part of my life and our commitment here at Mercy. This Apostolate would be impossible without the knowledge that you are there and thinking of us – praying with us. Don't worry. Don't blink. Together with our children of yesterday, today and tomorrow, the Sacred Flame of Mercy burns brightly in Klong Toey and we – all of us, me too, Fr. Joe – are the Keepers of that unique Sacred Flame. We are here.
Please keep us in your prayers – tell people about us - and continue your financial support. We are deeply grateful. Without your being there, we could not be here. So as we step into a New Year, the Year of the Horse, our 43rd Year in the Slaughter House and Klong Toey slums, let us renew our commitment and support for one another.
On behalf of our Mercy Center family, I thank you.
Prayers as always – Respectfully fr joe
Best Christmas and New Years Wishes from our House Moms, House Dads, Social Workers, and our Mercy Children. Photos of our Mercy Child by Taryn Wilson.
To be an orphan on Father’s Day – even at best, it’s pretty tough.
Last week, on Father’s Day, which falls on our King’s birthday, our children expressed their love in song for their King; and the local Abbot and myself led our children in blessings and prayers. A friend, who understands – who lost his own son in a car crash – dropped by with loads of goodies for all our children. Cake and Ice Cream can wipe away lots of tears. Especially when it’s a surprise! There was much to enjoy and celebrate.
But our children can’t help feeling a little bit lost and even betrayed on a day dedicated to their absent fathers. They believe, perhaps more than the rest of us, in the sanctity and joy of a loving family. I bring this up because I want to explain by example the case of young Miss Dao. That's her in the photo below on the far right with her friends at Mercy.
Nong Dao, now age nine, joined our Mercy family when she was just a toddler. Her older brothers Dik and Duk joined us a year earlier, but her mom, who was dying of AIDS, wanted to hold on to Dao a little longer, see her take her first steps and hear her say “momma”: her first words. Mom died at home when Dao was five. Dao was there, holding her hand when she died. Her dad had left when mom got sick.
After her mom died, Dao would visit her grandma on most weekends, and often cried herself to sleep when she came back to Mercy Centre on Sunday evenings.
Last week grandma died. It’s not easy being a nine-year-old orphan girl. It’s even harder to be a young orphan without even a grandma. I attended the cremation with Dao, Dik and Duk, as I do whenever our children lose their loved ones. Miss Dao cried a lot, but one of our house moms overheard her whisper, “don’t worry Granny – I’ll be okay. I’m a big girl. “
People may think our children have no family or that they are totally uninvolved. The truth is, almost all our children have family somewhere. And because they live apart, there’s often a yearning to return to make things whole. Our children recognize that family time is precious.
We try where we can. We try to make them feel that every day at Mercy is Father’s Day and Mother’s Day and Children’s Day all rolled into one.
Our kids are indomitable, resilient, and full of hope.
There’s much news to share with you about Mercy. Here are just few notes of recent events:
New Mercy Kindergarten for Sea Gypsies.
We have been teaching kindergarten in Koh Lao, an island village of destitute ethnic Mokan, since 2008. We started by turning a large dilapidated shack on stilts into a classroom, but since the shack was technically on land, we had issues with the landlord. Also, the shack continuously flooded during high tide.
With support from the Jan & Oscar Foundation and Lloyd George Asia Foundation, plus cooperation from local government, we just completed the construction of a real kindergarten, again on stilts but far enough away from the shoreline that nobody can claim the land.
The new Jan & Oscar Kindergarten officially opened in November. Over 50 ethnic Mokan children attend daily. It’s a revolution in education. Not one of their parents ever learned to read or write. None.
Rebuilding whole neighborhoods after fires.
Two sweeping fires recently devastated whole neighborhoods in our slums – one in the Pai Sing To community; the other in Rom Klao. Hundreds of families were left homeless.
Thanks to an outpouring of support from our friends, we were able to care for all the fire victims, provide emergency funds and gifts, get the kids back to school with new books and uniforms, raze the dangerous structures still standing, remove the rubble; and build new homes. Friends of Mercy made a huge difference in their lives. Thank you!
Our street kid students learn advanced technology.
Street kids are fearless, even in a classroom: they’re not afraid to learn anything. If you don’t believe me, please come visit our Janusz Korczak School, a special, informal school for street children, migrant children, and poor children who have no other place to learn, play and make friends.
A volunteer teacher, Kru Pearl, has been teaching our Korczak kids how to build websites, create their own computer applications, and program computers. Here’s just one example: an introduction to our Korczak school made by the kids themselves:
All of this programming seems impossibly difficult to me; but street kids, as I mentioned, aren’t afraid of anything.
Leadership training for the poorest children in the slums.
We took almost 150 neighborhood kids camping last month. These kids are poorer than most other slum kids, and we’ve been sponsoring their education ever since kindergarten. If we didn’t support them, they’d likely be helping their parents collect recyclable garbage on the streets or doing menial work far below the minimum wage.
At leadership camp, these kids learn about life beyond their shack in the slums.
They’re smart, alert, curious and caring.
Over 50 children we’ve been sponsoring since kindergarten are now enrolled in vocational colleges and universities. One former Mercy child, Miss Wanwisa, is now a doctoral candidate in neuroscience in Atlanta.
You don’t want to sell any poor kid short. Give them just a gentle nudge, and they can jump over any hurdle.
Finally, as Christmas draws nearer, the energy and excitement in our Mercy Centre surges upward. Please come visit. It’s a beautiful here, and you are always welcome. You are always a part of our Mercy family.
Our social workers are working hand in hand with the Rom Klao community, following the devastating fire that left 400 residents without shelter. Just two weeks after the fire, real progress is being made. This community will become whole again.
Our thanks go out to all our friends for your generous support.