The story doesn’t end here

October 22, 2007

Although we are boarding a plane for Los Angeles early tomorrow morning, the story doesn’t end here.  Yes, as we walk around Mercy in the final days, we are saying our tearful goodbyes and answering the inevitable question, “When will you come back?”  We’ve made wonderful new friends and renewed old friendships.  We’ve chosen another child to sponsor, helped how we can, and we know it can never be enough.

We’ve hugged children who may not make it another year.

But it really, really is not about us.

It is about

the girl who lived on a garbage pile with her brother for over a year before someone brought them to Mercy to live, the boy who was a fabulous soccer player until he gave into the slum mentality – sniffed glue with the other boys and now his brain is gone  – and he spends his days in the open-air hospice at Mercy,  and the little girl whose grandfather dropped her off at Mercy and cried when he left.

And it is about

the kindergarten teachers (slum moms themselves) who pooled their meager earnings and bought desserts for the hundreds of kindergarten students on their last day of class and then eagerly asked me to join them, the staff at Mercy who work tirelessly for little pay taking care of the children year-after-year, Sister Joan ~ 76 years old ~ who still goes out into the worst areas in her huge truck delivering milk to waiting babies,  Father Joe ~ who with his organizational skills could have been at the head of the Catholic Church ~ but has instead lived for 37 years in these desperate slums and who still cares so much that when giving a speech talked about when two children died in one day he almost lost his faith…

That is the reality.  That is what this is about. 


Mother, I know you are watching me…

October 17, 2007

Disclaimer: Parts of this post may be hard to read. It also may be long. So I’ve warned you.

Last Sunday Michael and I traveled to Cha-am Beach, Petchaburi, with 53 children (ages 3 to 13), many of them HIV+, ten Thai staff, two other Western volunteers (CJ from Malaysia and Allison from England), and the entire cabin crew from a Quantas Airlines flight. Are you intrigued yet? I was.

Three hours after leaving Bangkok traffic behind, we arrived at Usanee’s husband’s family’s guesthouse and restaurant in Cha-am, Thailand. The Quantas cabin crew, with only three hours sleep from a flight delay, were only in Thailand for one day. As supporters of Mercy, they sponsored this special trip to the beach for the children. On Sunday, after everyone arrived, the “Aussies” took all 53 children swimming in the Gulf of Thailand (a five-minute walk from the guesthouse), bought them ice cream cones, gave them individual gift packs, and cooked them a huge, seafood barbecue dinner.

CJ, Allison, Michael, and I were invited on the trip because…well, just because that’s how it works at Mercy. Usanee, the executive director, came to us earlier in the month and asked us to join the group for several days. We don’t ask questions when opportunities arise, we find out when and where to be, pack our bags, and go. We were all so glad we did!

The Quantas crew were lovely people, and as the day wore on, we got to know them individually. One crew member told me they work with AIDS kids in Africa too. One of the crew, on his own, had shopped for, purchased, and made up 53 gifts bags. He had packed them ALL in his luggage and schlepped them to Cha-am for these kids.

We swam, played soccer, laughed, played games, and the children crawled all over us. The barbecue was fired up and everyone pitched in to help. Early evening arrived and our joy was tempered when the kids suddenly began to line up. Usanee explained the children were lining up for their medicine: a sobering reality to our perfect day.

Medicine dispensed, we set the picnic tables for eighty people and feasted on crabs, rice, kabobs, and pineapple. The Aussies drank beers while the children laughed and played. What a picture it made!

I glanced over after dinner and noticed the children lining up again. We looked at one another quizzically. They were in rows this time, as if for choir practice. Although the children were staying all week, Usanee explained that the Quantas crew had to leave soon and the children were going to sing them a parting song: a humble gift for all that the Quantas crew had done for them.

Usanee said to us: “This song is a sad one. It is about how the children feel without a mother or father. How it makes them feel different. And how it makes them wonder what it would be like to have parents. ”

The children sang and the rest of us were thankful for the darkness as we feverishly wiped away our tears. Of course, we had little miss bossy Tukattan, age three, in the front row, pushing the little boy next to her, so some things are the same all over the world.

When they finished, Usanee spoke again. She told us that the last line of the song could be interpreted as:

“Mother, wherever you are, I know you are watching me.”

The children ran to say goodbye to their sponsors before they boarded the bus back to the airport, and everyone began crying. It had been such a marvelous day and the children were overwhelmed and then sad to see it end. To give everyone privacy, I walked over and began to help the house-moms wash dishes when a woman on the Quantas crew walked over to me, a crying kid on each arm. She had a pleading look in her eye. I knew that look. She said to me, “They are ALL crying. Is it okay?” Her eyes pleaded with me. I knew what she was thinking, “Are we doing more harm than good? Is this enough?” I’ve fought those same demons. I gently nodded and told her it was okay. It would be okay, I told her. What else could I say?

Getting ready to leave Mercy Centre for the sea. The children are excited as the big bus arrives!
Getting ready to leave Mercy Centre for the sea. The children are excited as the big bus arrives!

The entire Quantas cabin crew in the water with the children!
The entire Quantas cabin crew in the water with the children!

The children line up to sing their farewell song.
The children line up to sing their farewell song.

To the sea

October 14, 2007

Sunday a.m.

We’re off to the seashore with children from Mercy.  It’s a once-a-year big deal for them. 

We are headed to Cha-am, Petchaburi, in a big bus with a lot of lovely children.  Michael and I plan to stay until Wednesday.  And I am sure I’ll have a story or two…

 More later,  Deb

To stop being a tourist, sometimes all you have to do…

October 12, 2007

“To stop being a tourist, sometimes all you have to do is start standing still.”

Standing still today at The Mercy Centre, we said our first goodbye.  Father Joe is leaving this Sunday on a trip to Canada and the United States for fund-raising.  Since Michael and I are leaving this weekend for the seashore with the HIV+ kids, and then we are leaving for home on October 23, we will not see Father Joe again as he won’t be back to Bangkok by the time we leave.  We met up in the courtyard of Mercy today and he gave us a travel blessing a la Father Joe and until we meet again: 

Irish Blessing a la Father Joe:

May you have enough to eat – salmon

May you have enough to drink – Guinness beer

And may you always pick winning horses at the racetrack.

Then, as touching as when we first wrote to him that we were coming this time and he wrote back to us: Welcome Home, today as we took our leave he asked us to Come back home soon.

Fast-forwarding through our weeks here

October 10, 2007

Our days fly by here. And every day brings miracles and sorrows; a mix-up of emotions that make the days dissolve one into the other in rapid succession, like fast-forwarding a movie on your DVD player. Imagine raising 200 children, being responsible for their upbringing, education, food, clothing, health matters, and emotional issues. That is what Father Joe and his staff do on a daily basis.Oh, then there’s the 4,000 other kids they are educating, feeding, and clothing in the outreach preschool program in the slums.

Michael and I take it in on a daily basis and try to make sense of the “accident of birth” issue. By happenstance, you are born in the United States into an upper class family with two loving parents, or you are born to a poor single mom in Klong Toey who got AIDS from her husband (who got it God knows where) before he ran away and so you land at Mercy Centre to live out your days. And you are all of six years old. And you did nothing to deserve either life, good or bad.

So I don’t know if this story is happy or sad: maybe sad because the child is sick, but maybe happy because he has found his way to Mercy.

I have two definitely happy stories for you: one from Mike’s class today and one from mine. Mike had a book in his woodshop that he was reading in between his classes. When Mike told the young boys to draw a picture for the top of their piece of wood, one lad went over into the corner, drew the entire cover of Mike’s book, wrote the words of the title, Searching for Buddha, then showed the perfectly executed picture and words to Mike. Oh, and read them aloud in English. Amazing.

Second story: One of my eighth-grade girls with an attitude completed a personal essay for me and the last question was: Who is your hero? Expecting her answer to be something junior high schoolish, Britney Spears or the like, I was a teary mess when she stood up and read her essay aloud and for the final question answered,
“My hero is Father Joe.”

Enough said.

Photos have been uploaded

October 5, 2007

Dear Friends and Family,

Today I uploaded thirty photos into Kodak/Ofoto.  Many of them are pictures of things I have written about in this blog.  If you didn’t receive an email inviting you to view the photos, send me an email and I will invite you into the photo album site.  Feel free to share my pictures with others who are interested!   Love, Deb

Our work at Mercy ~ or why we are here…

October 5, 2007

We’ve settled into a routine at Mercy.  Michael has two classes a day, every day ~ Monday through Friday ~ older boys in the morning and younger boys in the afternoon.  They crowd around in the hot, stuffy ramshackle woodshop and Michael does his best at teaching them woodworking while simultaneously making sure (around the power tools) that everyone leaves with ten fingers.   The older boys are building actual pieces of furniture and the younger boys are working on small wooden boxes for themselves. 

On previous trips,  I have been like a fly to honey around the little ones at Mercy: the cutie patooties who kill me every time I walk by their classrooms.  You’d have to be dead to not get taken in by their little faces ~ 30, 40, or even 50 four- and five-year-olds in one classroom.  They “wai” me [hands in prayer position at their chests] as I walk by, and I am a goner every time.   

However, this trip I have been teaching older children and adults: probably better use of my time, for sure, but still…I miss my little ones, so I make excuses throughout the day to go and visit them.  Officially, this is how my work here looks:

Wednesdays and Fridays:  I teach English to three of the Mercy employees: Tip, Tue, and Nee (two women and one man).  They were asking for English lessons from the staff before I arrived and so I was asked to begin a class for them.   They are a great group and we have a lot of laughs during the class.  Improving their English will help them get better jobs.

The first week I was here, I was asked to test, evaluate, and interview three eighth-grade Mercy girls.  The purpose was to pick one of the three to be pulled out of regular Thai school and sent to an International English School and then next year overseas to a prep school where Mercy has been awarded one full scholarship.  They only have one spot, so like Solomon, they asked me to make the decision on which girl should go.  This has turned into a difficult situation, as in the interview with me (conducted, of course, in English) they ALL THREE told me that they didn’t want to go overseas!  But they did it in an adorable, yet maddening way.  Girl A said she thought Girl B should go.  Then Girl B said she thought Girl C should go.  You get the idea.  I had to report this to Usanee, the Executive Director, who was frustrated because the girls hadn’t told any of the Thai staff that.  Just me.  I don’t know how this situation will turn out.  Stay tuned, I guess.

In the meantime, a gap student just arrived.  Americans may not know what a Gap Year is, but it is a brilliant idea that other countries adhere to.  Students take one year off between graduating from high school and going to college, usually to travel or do volunteer work.  Thus, CJ arrived from Malaysia two days ago and began working with me.  Boy, is she wonderful! Bright and energetic, and no surprise to me, headed to Ivy League Dartmouth College next year.  CJ will be volunteering at Mercy for her Gap Year.  

Next Monday, we will be team teaching five days a week.   We will have 3rd and 4th grade girls in the morning, 5th and 6th grade girls in the afternoon, and then my three 8th grade girls who don’t want to go overseas later in the afternoon.  As I only have two more work weeks here, I will help CJ come up with a plan to teach all these children, and then leave them in her competent hands.