This book motivated me to move to Bangkok. That and the winter in Chicago is bone-chilling cold. The The Gospel of Father Joe: Revolutions and Revelations in the Slums of Bangkok is a true account of a Catholic priest who moves to Bangkok in the 1970s. He is a maverick and wills his way to improve the collective lots of those who reside in the slums of Klong Toey. Over 160,000 squatters are jammed in several square miles of Klong Toey. Open sewers snake around the tightly packed homes. Father Joe is agnostic when it comes to religion, and what I mean by that, is he not proselytizing to the Buddhists and Muslims who live there. His goal is simple, to do good. His Mercy Center runs and supports 32 preschools (which the government is not providing) for an annual school enrollment of 4,200. The Mercy Center also supports Thailand’s largest AIDs hospice, orphanages, sports leagues, and a school for street kids. Father Joe also has a program sending the creme dele creme to Europe or the U.S. to earn a university degree.
As an occasional contrarian thinker I decided to holiday in Bangkok during October of 2011. Also, known as the worst flooding that Thailand had seen in over 50 years. I had been laid off from my investment sales job after Lehman imploded in 2009. I had started two businesses but still had a fair amount of free time as well as the ability to be mobile. I had recently finished the Gospel of Father Joe and had decided I would use this opportunity to visit the Mercy Center. I arrived at the Mercy Center, a large facility, and met with the volunteer coordinator. An application was filled out after my tour. My plan was to temporarily move to Bangkok for several months in 2012 and volunteer.
It was now December of 2011 and all of my emails to the Mercy Center were being ignored. My plans to move to Bangkok and volunteer at the Mercy Center seemed to be fading. I was frustrated, and the clock was ticking. I wanted to move in weeks. I reached out to one additional contact at Mercy Center and received an ambivalent response.
At this point, I was determined to volunteer in Thailand, unfortunately it was not to be at Mercy Center. In a rushed Google search, I began to email every conceivable NGO in Thailand. I ended up in the beginning of 2012 at an orphanage and day care center, in Kathu, Phuket.
So in beginning of 2012 I relocated and volunteered at the orphanage for 4 months. The nest two years found me in Bangkok for the winter, volunteering at a teenage homeless shelter and teaching English at a blind school in 2014.
But life sometimes come full circle. As I was perusing my Facebook news feed in 2014, I saw a request for volunteer English teachers. For Mercy Center. I promptly emailed the contact person and shared my interest in the position for I planned to be back in Bangkok for the winter of 2015.
This time my application was efficiently processed and I was accepted to teach in the slums of Klong Toey. I would be teaching English to five year olds at two of Father Joe’s preschools. After monitoring a class, the volunteer coordinator has me take over. Both schools were located in the same neighborhood and were a five minute walk from each other.
For two mornings a week, I would leave the overbuilt Sukhumvit neighborhood full of shiny shopping malls and overpriced high rise apartments. In twenty minutes I would be transported to Klong Toey, a densely packed neighborhood where homes in many cases resembled dilapidated shacks. The streets were simply confined walking paths.
The residents used the path as their communal living rooms. I peered into their open homes as I walked between the schools. Friends eating lunch. A baby napping on the floor. A man repairing a clock. A woman doing her laundry. I felt like a voyeur glimpsing their lives.
The average resident of Klong Toey only earns a third of what their Bangkokian peers earn. Many of them work in the informal sector/black market. That entails everything from food hawkers to fortune tellers to drug dealers to the sex trade. The community took shape in the 1950s as many rural Thais moved to Bangkok and began to squat on this government land that borders the Chao Phraya River. These slums as you might imagine have a reputations for drugs, crime, and the Thai mafia. During my five months, I felt secure and generally found the people to be very friendly and welcoming.
I was scheduled to teach 30 minutes at each class, but ended up spending closer to one hour with each group. I arrived early and left late. Thirty minutes was too quick. The beginning of class was a cornucopia of pre-school activities. Everything from light calisthenics, singing the national anthem, practicing numbers, and dancing to songs to a video. After this was finished, half the class literally crawled up the stairs, while the older children remained with me. My kids were around five years old. The Thai government does not guarantee kindergarten education and in these neighborhoods the government was not present. The Mercy Center provided this solution.
The boys and girls were attired in school uniforms. Blue skirts and white shirts for the girls and blue shorts and white shirts for the boys. The schools were hot and humid. Fans attempted to battle the heat, but the heat always won. I was usually bathed in sweat after my lesson. As elsewhere in Thailand, no one wore shoes. These were left by the door upon entrance.
The Mercy Center provided the English curriculum and materials for its corp of volunteers. In general, the kids were motivated making the classes fun to teach. And the cherry on top were the wonderful teachers who helped me. My goal was to keep them moving and engaged. The more games and contests where they could learn English the better. The reward for a job well done was a high five. A simple game would be to line up two of the children, yell out a color, and have the kids race to find that color somewhere in the room. For example, “blue!” would result in one of the kids finding a blue bag to be the winner.
Every week, I would look forward to my two mornings in Klong Toey. I also want to share with you two other special days at the Mercy Center; graduation day and my going away party. Graduation Day and Saying Goodbye.
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