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.
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 1973, 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
There was so much joyous energy yesterday at Mercy... today we can still feel the vibrations.
Yesterday was Sports Day at our Mercy Kindergartens. Over 3,000 students, ages three to seven, representing the current enrollment of our 23 slum kindergartens, competed in such skilled contests as Musical Chairs, Tug of Wars, and Bean Bag Tosses.
Each school was divided into two competing teams, and each team had its own cheer leading squad, with percussion accompaniment, to inspire athletes to victory. The drum beats. The chants. The cheers. There was no shortage of hyper-fun energy in the air.
And every student came home a winner, earning a victory ribbon and a scoop of ice cream!
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.
by Fr. Joe Maier
Published in Bangkok Post, Sunday Dec. 23, Spectrum section:
Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Angels travelled from high heaven to tell the news to a small group of shepherds guarding their sheep by night. And of course, the children woke up when they heard the angels speaking to their parents and then singing their heavenly song about the birth of the holy child, and the children were dazzled by the light of an unknown star in the sky.
The music was so beautiful that the children began to sing along with the angels. The shepherd mums said: ''Hush don't be so bold.''
The angels responded: ''That's fine, let the children sing along with us.''
They taught the children the words, so they would remember the song later.
Our children here at Mercy Centre like that story. To them, it's perfectly normal that angels would come to visit and children would sing along with them.
Of course, it also makes sense that the angels could speak Thai and even take a few minutes to show the children how to play the melody on our traditional Thai musical instruments, so that the children could sing and play the melody after the angels had gone back up to heaven.
As the story goes, that very night these shepherds hurried across the hills to see the holy child and to show respect, bringing their children with them because they also wanted to see the baby Jesus.
Visiting the stable and manger where Jesus was born, some of the children fell asleep in their mothers' arms and the blessed Virgin Mary said, ''Why don't you spend the rest of the night here and return in the morning, when it's light and safe. Let your men go home to guard the sheep for the rest of the night.''
Our Klong Toey slum kids like the idea of the shepherd kids going to visit baby Jesus, and maybe bringing along a couple packets of instant noodles – the staple food of homeless kids – just in case. Many of our kids remember being hungry on the street, and they couldn't be sure if baby Jesus and his mum and dad had food.
So our slum kids said that if they'd been there on that night so long ago they would have pooled their lunch money to buy some really spicy dishes from Auntie Owe's food cart down the street from here and share with the shepherd kids and Mary and Joseph. Auntie Owe makes the hottest food in all of the Klong Toey slum, and always gives a bit extra to kids. The way the Mercy kids figure it, shepherd kids wouldn't get to eat spicy Thai food very often. It would be a real treat.
And our slum kids said that if they really could have seen Mary, Jesus' mum, they knew for sure that she'd be prettier than any of the statues of her. Plus, her name was easy to remember – in Thai it would be ''Malee''.
When our children heard of Jesus' humble birth in a manger with the animals close by, one of our girls recalled proudly what her mum told her of how she was born. It was on a wooden foot bridge crossing a stream because her mum was on the run from some bad guys. Our Moken sea gypsy kids from South Thailand said maybe Jesus was born on a wooden boat that sailed the high seas like they were and they thought he would be happy in that life, as they were.
Then the bad guys come into the story. They somehow got word when Jesus was born that this was a child from Heaven. This was unacceptable. They figured this child might grow up and take away their power and money. So the nasty big boss – a guy named Herod – said: ''Find this child from Heaven and kill him. In fact, kill all the baby boys around there, just to make sure. We don't even want this child on planet Earth.''
Our kids understand about bad guys, and how they were coming to hurt Jesus and take his mum and dad away, and maybe even kill them all; at least put them in jail and baby Jesus would be given to strangers and would be all alone without his mum and dad.
Our twins, nicknamed Pizza and Peanut, can identify with that. The police came to take away their own mum because they said she liked drugs. They know that Jesus' mum would never take drugs. They said that they'd never hurt baby Jesus and that their mum and dad wouldn't either.
In our children's world in the Klong Toey slum, dads disappear and mums sometimes have to leave for a while. And so they understood that Mary and Joseph had to leave to escape from the bad guys.
Our five- and six-year-old sisters, Miss Pancake and Miss Off, couldn't remember because they were too small, but their mum told them they got car-sick when she took them on the bus to get away from some bad guys. They were on the run until their uncle, a nice policeman, had a chance to talk to the bad guys and tell them not to hurt mum.
Mary and Joseph journeyed for nine days south to a small hamlet called Bethlehem just outside Jerusalem.It was Joseph’s historical roots, as he was a long distant relative of King David of centuries before. They traveled, forced, by military edict, because the Roman Empire, which ruled the country at that time, had commanded every family head to return to their ancestral home, register, and pay a tax there to government of Rome.
The song the angels sang that night, the light of an unknown star that covers the whole heavens –wherever you are – and the trials and tribulations of Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus all made perfect sense to the children.
So to quote an old song that is very popular at the Mercy Centre: ''May you and your children stop to listen, join in the angels' song, as their music sings along the strings and fills that lonely place between Earth and sky. And know they are singing for you and I.''
Merry Christmas from Father Joe and all the kids.
A super special day and honor! Yesterday the Israeli community celebrated its 60th anniversary of friendship with Thailand at our Mercy Centre. And what better way to celebrate together than by teaching our youth how to create culinary delights?
In a morning session, acclaimed Israeli Chef Mika Sharon taught our Korczak School students the art of preparing heavenly chocolate treats.
In the afternoon session, Chef Mika was joined by Thailand’s own Chef McDang to teach our Korczak kids and local Israeli children how to make Egg Rolls.
That evening, all Mercy children dined on mouth-watering Egg Rolls and ambrosial Chocolate Balls.
Side bar: Between culinary classes, Fr. Joe led H.E. Ambassador Simon Roded and members of Israeli consulate on a tour of the food vendors who ply their trade along the 70 Rai Streets around Mercy Centre. Among these vendors was Miss Moey, a chef in her own right, who has been serving her customers Thai treats for over 40 years (and put two of her children through university in the process). She says she would like to retire but her customers insist that they can’t live without her cuisine.
Our foundation’s Royal Patron, HRH Princess Srirasmi, visited Mercy Centre today to celebrate her birthday together with our Mercy children.
A few of many memorable moments:
Our children renewed their vows to the Princess to be good and study hard.
Our Mercy Children’s Orchestra, which had been practicing every day for weeks, played a beautiful classical Thai song to near perfection.
HRH Princess Srirasmi made special time to sit with our own Nong Peh, a blind and disabled Mercy child. Nong Peh doesn’t know much about princesses, but she loved the affection she received; and returned it in kind by singing her favorite nursery school song, “The Lady in the Moon.”
During lunchtime, Princess Srirasmi visited our Mercy kindergarten. In each classroom she exhorted the school children to eat their vegetables!
Hundreds of neighborhood children joined in the festivities, which included five huge tubs of homemade coconut ice cream.
Following her visit to Mercy Centre – as she did on previous visits – HRH Princess Srirasmi gave honor to our poor neighbors in the 70 Rai neighborhood who had come to send their birthday wishes. The Princess spoke personally with our neighbors, asking about their circumstances, their families, and livelihoods; and wished everyone, young and old, great happiness.
(Photos below: i) HRH Princess Srirasmi with Nong Peh; and ii) in a Mercy kindergarten, encouraging the school children to eat healthy.)
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.