Opening doors for the ordinary

Klong Toey's Mercy Centre and Human Development Foundation has helped 50,000 children learn skills for life

To kick open the door only once -- and it stays open. That's what our Mercy Centre and Human Development Foundation does.

We kick open the door for ordinary slum kids who do not have the slightest chance at scholarships or being placed in "good schools". Scholarships don't typically go to the ordinary poor. And that's what almost all of our kids are -- poor and slum-born to parents who are often absent or not worth mentioning. Their only saving grace are their grannies, wizened old souls who have often been beaten, bruised, mocked, you name it. But our slum grannies are survivors who have matured into wise leaders. Yes, lots still chew betel nut, but that's okay. It helps them with the scarring.

Because of the grannies, a few mums become stalwart, sturdy and strong too. One day they will be the matured grannies of the slum. Plus a few dads also mature well. Very few, but one in particular. I won't tell you his name, but he's doing the "family prison time". Pretty Mum was framed by some competition on the street. The competition hid a packet of drugs on her and then ran to tell corrupt cops. Prison for Mum, for sure. Mature Dad stepped up and said: "I'll say the drugs were mine. I will go to prison for you so you and grannie can raise our child in dignity."

Mature Dad kicked the door open to a better future for his child. Cost him two years in prison, but, as he said: "For my son, it's worth it." We at Mercy kept that door open. Mature Dad's son just graduated from our Kindergarten Three. Not the smartest lad in class. A fine-looking kid, but not the most handsome or the most popular or the most athletic. Good and ordinary, it was enough to get him through. Now he's headed into first grade in a proper school. Not a top-of-the-line school, because he was not top-of-the-line or top of his class. Plus, none of us have the money necessary for some of the expensive uppity schools. First grade in a proper school will serve him just fine. He's an ordinary Klong Toey six-year-old loved by all and who is enriched by all the survival skills gleaned from slum life.

It's been very quiet at the Mercy Centre lately, just not much news to share. For us, that is usually good news. All is well here as the school year winds down. Nearly 400 kids will soon be graduating from our third-year kindergarten and moving into first grade -- a massively big deal when you are of that age. So, for kids like our ordinary boy, these days are very exciting and filled with good wishes, prayers and glorious expectations.

These slum children are moving ahead in their lives today fully able to do basic maths and to make change at the 7-Eleven, and they are wily in the technical ways of smartphones, laptops, desktops, social media and such. They can write their names, say their prayers and, for the most part, read and write. Basic literacy is a huge advantage for first-graders.

But beyond these foundational skills, they also possess practical life skills. They all know how to use the commercial washing machines scattered in the many laundromats throughout Klong Toey. How to insert 20 Baht and add soap powder bought for 5 Baht at the 7-Eleven. And no dryer is needed because they know how to hang wet clothes in the sunshine to dry.

In so many ways, our ordinary is extraordinary. These kids entering first grade are sturdy, tough and street wise. It's rare to see them panic and even more rare to see a boy cry. There's a slogan in the slums: "Klong Toey boys don't cry." And it's pretty much true. They fight back or, if they can't win, they run -- fast as the wind.

Our children are different from most slum and abandoned children and will likely remain that way for the rest of their lives. Why? Because they are way ahead on the road. From our Kindergarten One to Kindergarten Three and heading into first grade, they have thrived in school and they have gone regularly to the doctor and were always fed at least one large meal a day in kindergarten. Like basic maths, these additions are easily calculated. Well-fed and well-educated ordinary slum children become extraordinarily confident and unafraid. They are proud to be Mercy School grads. Boast about it, even.

Yes, the past year has been very different. Our kids know all too well about the "Covid Ugly". They fear the nasty creature, as they should. It continues to rant and rave in the slums of Klong Toey and the other slums of Bangkok, where we have our 22 slum kitchens and kindergartens. But street-wise kids wash and wear their masks and keep at a safe distance whenever they can. They are cautious, careful.

So, for us at Mercy, it is a day-to-day working miracle seen in real time. There is no other way to explain it. Children, old folks, teachers, cooks, parents and relatives of some 2,000 children coming to our schools and kitchens every day. We diligently wear our masks, wash our hands and feet, and try never to get too close. That much is understood. But day-to-day miracles require daily nurturing, and we work hard at it. As a wise entrepreneur once said: "Never fall asleep on your success."

So, our Mercy comes in daily doses and simple rules: Go to School. Go to School. Go to school. That's Rule Number One. In School, you are safe, you are fed, you are educated, and, most importantly, you are loved. School gives your Granny and Pretty Mum and Mature Dad in prison hope for you to have a better future.

Today, some 50 years after we opened that first slum school in a slaughter house pig pen, more than 50,000 kids can read, write, pray and correctly count their change at the 7-Eleven. They are not unwitting subjects to liars, scam artists and short-changers. School Smarts + Street Smarts = Extraordinary.

We "outsiders", even if we have been here for five decades, need to always be humble. Being "a smarty pants" results in instant failure. Who are we or you or anyone to tell a slaughter-house kid what life is like when they live every day in a squalid hovel, and you/we don't? So, we have always minded our manners and asked permission to come into the slums. We always asked permission to pay respect to the slum's Sacred Shrine and even to offer flowers and to ask our blessed Mother Mary, mother of Jesus, to bless and protect us all. All of us of all faiths and religions.

After receiving permission from the guardians of the slum -- the grannies selling noodles as you enter -- we can travel with heroes and cronies alike. That way, we can talk to the kids also. Talk always in front of everyone, never alone, especially to the kids. And we never give anything to anyone -- not a donation, alms, not anything -- before asking if the person receiving the gift would be offended to receive the gift from us.

With proper respect and humility, we were able to ask anyone and everyone if they would object if their children or grandchildren went to school, right there in the slum, right in the squalor if necessary. No need for legal documents. In case of rain, any shack would do. Or just any open space. Use a large second-hand umbrella against the Sun and mats on the ground.

That's how it began. Now, a half-century later, the slum is still a salvage place of sorts, but it is drenched in the Mercy of 50,000 extraordinarily ordinary kids who are among Klong Toey's and, even, Thailand's very best.

To walk on the margins of life is blessed. To be accepted by the poor is blessed. Let us forge ahead on this blessed walk in the shadow of the rainbow.


Father Joe Maier is director and co-founder of the Human Development Foundation in Klong Toey. For more information, call 02-671-5313 or visit mercycentre.org.

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