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.
By Father Joe Maier
The "three grandmothers" is the most famous story in the old part of the slum known as the Klong Toey slaughterhouse. The kindergarten kids love the story and ask the teacher over and over to "tell us again" before their afternoon nap at school.
One of the teachers is the granddaughter of one of the notorious grandmothers. She’s the one who convinced Ms Joy’s mum to let her stay in school, and "was there" when Ms Joy needed to cut and sell her hair. But more on that later.
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.
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
The sacred tree is a mysterious thing to many, but not to a group of six- and seven-year-old orphans in Bangkok’s biggest slum
There’s a really big tree with roots all over the place and beautiful deep green leaves shaped like a Valentine’s Day heart. It's a nice tree, but it’s slightly unkempt. However, Auntie Gung and our children say it’s fine for a sacred tree to be unkempt. And this is a sacred tree with a sacred spirit, or angel. It's called a dhon pho tree in Thai and it’s in the back of the Klong Toey slum flats.
Auntie Gung visits the tree about once a week and brings some of our girls, if they want to go, and a regular visitor is Miss Sprite, whose mum died of TB and HIV/Aids a few months ago. Auntie Gung tells the children she believes she is protected by the spirit of the tree, as is Miss Sprite.
Auntie Gung had been with us for 10 years and remembers the day six-year-old Miss Sprite arrived after the cremation of her mum. The spirit knows that Miss Sprite’s mum died of TB-HIV/Aids because Auntie Gung told it so.
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.