The soft pitter-patter of footsteps across a dusty Phuket playing field is followed by a cacophony of giggles as a group of students - the girls dressed in blue and white and the boys kitted out in khaki - skip to their English class at Kalim School.
Kalim School students, from left: Teeranai Tiyangnoi, aka ‘Pepsi’, Atasit Pamperm, aka ‘Tim’, and Watchara Jeerasupon, aka ‘Hadis’, recently enjoyed a ‘make your own country’ exercise using computers purchased with foreign donations in the wake of the 2004 tsunami. Students were tasked with creating their own countries. They had to think creatively to create a hypothetical country name, national dish, flag, climate, population and culture. PHOTOS BY FRASER MORTON
Some of the children are holding hands; others kick a frazzled football. Many of the girls are wearing hijabs, others are bare-headed.
About half are Muslims, the rest are Buddhist, with a smattering of Christians, but they are united in that they are all victims of the tsunami that destroyed their school and devastated their gentle lives five years ago, on Boxing Day, 2004.
Just after 8am on the morning of Dec 26, 2004, a giant wave reared its head in the Andaman Sea and slammed into Kalim School, situated just 20 yards (18.3m) from the beach.
It was a Sunday, so the school was nearly deserted, but the building was obliterated.
Just 5km north, 347 students from Kamala School were getting out of bed, brushing their teeth, pulling on their clothes or making plans for a play day.
The wave crashed onto Kamala beach, swept across the beach road, demolished the school's 2-foot-high (0.61m-high) outer wall and roared across the playground towards the main classroom buildings.
The insubstantial structure of the school never stood a chance against the forces of Mother Nature.
Two students, a teacher and five parents were killed on school grounds that Sunday morning, but many students lost parents who were at work in nearby areas.
Education must go on
In the immediate aftermath, the surviving 347 Kamala School students and 16 teachers set up temporary classrooms at the nearby Kamala Bay Garden Resort and the Phuket Has Been Good To Us Foundation ("the Foundation") came to their rescue and is giving those students their futures back by providing them the education they need.
US restaurateur Thomas J McNamara put in place plans to rebuild Kalim School, and with 5 million baht donated by local expat businesspersons, he established the Foundation, which launched a visionary free-of-charge language programme to teach the children English and to equip them with employable language skills.
The English programme at Kalim School was recognised by state education authorities in March 2006, and remains fully funded by the Foundation.
Kalim School, which cost 34 million baht to rebuild, reopened on May 15, 2006, with 100 students. The Foundation immediately launched a three-year pilot programme, with an initial annual budget of 1 million baht.
Kamala School officially reopened to Grades 1 to 3 in May 2007 under the Royal Patronage of His Majesty the King of Thailand's Rajaprajanugroh Foundation.
Tourism and English
Mr McNamara once said, "Education is a gift that stays with you forever. You can't sell it and nobody can take it away from you." His daughter Mrs Fleur Birch-Atkinson, a current director of the Foundation, says her father felt the English programmes in Phuket at the time were lacklustre and failed to teach useable and employable skills.
"He wanted to teach students to speak fluent English so that they could eventually find well-paid jobs in Phuket's lucrative tourism industry," she says.
"He wanted to use the pilot Kalim English Programme as a model, and to eventually implement the Foundation programmes in schools all over Phuket and nationwide," she continued.
Mr McNamara lost a battle with cancer in Nov of 2008, but not before seeing his dream flourish. He was 62. His widow, Mrs Pensri McNamara, also serves on the Foundation's board.
A month before Mr McNamara died, the Foundation's six full-time teachers established The Coconut Club, an after-school programme tasked with energising and optimising the talents of 150 orphaned students based at Kamala School.
The pedagogy at the Coconut Club uses play therapy - such as board games, building blocks and social role play - to instil self-confidence, interaction among all students, and to teach the concept of sharing.
This year, levels were expanded to include Grades 1 to 6, with the total number of students involved in the programme now at 582 - 112 students at Kalim School and 470 at Kamala.
During the Foundation's fledgling first months, Mrs Birch-Atkinson recruited the Foundation's first director of education, Briton Kate Cope, whose unique approach focused on the economic and cultural context within which the orphaned youth of Phuket are living and learning.
Cope designed a curriculum centred on an interactive and visually-stimulating "educational playground in the classroom" setting. This concept emphasized the students learning phonics rather than spelling, and building confidence through nurture rather than authoritarian teaching principles.
Free education not cheap
The Foundation singularly provides government schools with an English curriculum, trained teachers and the appropriate resources at no cost to the schools, says Mr Carl Osmar a 30-year teaching veteran and director of education for the Foundation.
Residential students from the Phuket Has Been Good To Us Foundation’s after-school programme tried their hand at silk screening last August, when volunteer artists Steve Tothill and Wan Pantharat held a daylong course at the Foundation’s offices in Kamala. Orphaned twins Jareun Narinthong, aka ‘Nai’ (fourth from right) and Jessada Narinthong, aka ‘Ten’ (far right), later sold their works at the Foundation’s ‘A4 Art Exhibition’ for 1,000 baht each. The Foundation relies heavily on the good will of volunteers and donors to make such activities possible.
But delivering free education doesn't come cheap.
Director of Operations Tina Hall says last year the annual operating costs for the Foundation topped 4 million baht, a 3-million-baht rise on the first year, due to the Foundation's expansion to reach more children.
One million baht was raised in donations during the previous fiscal year, with just over 1.75 million baht raised through fundraising events and 1.25 million baht in one-off pledges.
"It costs just 10,000 baht to sponsor a child's education and after-school activities for one year," Mrs Hall says.
Every little bit helps the Foundation, and the school programmes depend on donations and volunteers to make the "gift that keeps on giving" possible.
Tops in quality, dedication
Mr Osmar says most foreign teachers on Phuket became teachers with limited skills after completing a 4-week Tefl (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course. "In contrast, our teachers are fully qualified and work under my guidelines. We provide the necessary professional support, advice, encouragement and in-service training."
Teachers are constantly monitored and lesson-plan meetings are held weekly, he says. "This ensures that a wide range of teaching methods and resources for each age range is employed."
Full-time Foundation teacher and Opportunity Coordinator, US national Ashley Nelson, says the Foundation went further than teaching on-site, and helped to cultivate student interests by hosting a variety of Saturday and after-school fun and hands-on programmes.
"If a student loves art and wants to be a painter, we will provide the necessary materials and a supportive environment for them to be creative," she says.
"If a student is interested in skateboarding or break-dancing, we endeavour to find the equipment and volunteers to coach them. But we need donations and volunteers to achieve this," she says.
Mr Osmar helps his teachers to create and pool resources that are not only educationally sound but also culturally relevant to Thailand and practical in Phuket. The Foundation's teachers are especially dedicated. "Our teachers are simply remarkable," he says.
"Our teachers stay on site at least four evenings a week with extra-curricular activities and parts of most weekends."
In search of donations
Even with limited funds and no government financial support, the Foundation's class sizes never exceed 20 students, while most government schools in Phuket have between 40 and 60 students in each class.
This year could potentially see the Foundation's reach expanding into international donor bases, according to full-time teacher and part-time communications and finance officer Sarah Foster-Gross.
The Foundation is seeking to be designated as a charity in the UK and the US, which will give it that added level of credibility that some donors require.
She says many Phuket expatriates receive income from overseas and would be entitled to tax rebates on their donations once the Foundation is designated as a charitable foundation in their home countries.
Earlier this year, representatives of the Canadian-based children's charity Right To Play, which works under the guidance of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, came to Kamala School and surveyed many of the students, Ms Foster-Gross says.
Sue Ultmann, also a board member, says there are around 80 foundations and charities on Phuket vying for donor funds, as there are very few government funds available.
Mrs Birch-Atkinson says the Foundation is educating the future workforce of Phuket's tourism industry.
"The business community would be wise to look to the long-term benefits of supporting Phuket's young," she says. Therefore, organisations such as the Foundation are critical to the long-term growth, education and prosperity of Phuket.
School is their life
School is the life of these orphaned children. It is a place where their perceptions are moulded, and where perceptions of the outside world are delicately shaped by their teachers.
Many of the orphaned students have adopted their teachers as their extended family, so strong is the bond they have with the Foundation staff. Providing positive role models is essential in any student's life, but for the students of Kalim and Kamala schools, it is especially important.
Eleven-year-old twins Jareun Narinthong, aka "Nai", and Jessada Narinthong, aka "Ten", lost both parents in the tsunami and have lived at Kamala School for the past three years, while their elderly grandparents, in ailing health, are unable to care for the energetic pair. Thanks to the Coconut Club, the twins have learned to skateboard, swim and paint.
The twins often comment that their parents are "lost [at sea]", and that when they grow up, they want to be volunteers for Phuket's Sea Rescue Service [to search for their parents at sea].
Another long-term residential student is Faosee Waharuck, aka "Ben", 10, whose parents were among the thousands who perished in Phangnga province. Now, says Faosee, his teachers are his new "family".
Although the Foundation caters extensively to children affected by the tsunami, some come from different circumstances.
Brothers Sahachai Saengphet, aka "Auy", 14, and Kasidit Saengphet, "Boi", 12, were enrolled in the Foundation's English programme last year after spending most of their young lives working on their family's farm in northern Thailand.
Before they came to Phuket, they had never met a foreigner, and had never been to school.
Their futures looked bleak before their family enrolled them in the Rajaprajanugroh Foundation programme, and because of their academic inadequacies, they were placed in classes with students six and eight years their junior, respectively.
They were ridiculed by the younger students for a perceived substandard intelligence. But only one short year later, the brothers' academic progress has been exponential, with both now serving as teacher's aides.
Sahachai in particular has discovered a new passion. Last March, he was one of 10 students who took part in a workshop held by a visiting US photographer.
A month later, 20 photographs taken by the students of settings on Phuket were sold at the Foundation's "The Big Picture Auction" alongside works by more than 40 professional photographers.
The 200,000 baht raised was pumped back into the Foundation.
Sahachai's photograph sold for 1,000 baht, and he now plans to be a photographer.
Scotsman Fraser Morton is a Phuket-based journalist and desk editor for the 'Phuket Gazette' newspaper. His articles have appeared in the 'News of the World', the 'Bangkok Post', the 'New Zealand Daily Herald', the 'Daily Mail', and the 'London Evening Standard'. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on 087-263-0494.
About the author
- Writer: Fraser Morton