From roots to wings

Former Miss Universe revisits her mother's hometown as part of the Rural Teaching Scholarship Programme

Back in the 80s, when beauty pageants were still a rarity that took place only once or twice a year in Thailand, the Miss Thailand beauty pageant was almost a national celebration, with people nationwide eagerly anticipating who would be crowned the most beautiful woman of the year. Thailand’s entrant in the 1988 Miss Universe contest, Porntip Nakhirunkanok, only 19 years old at the time, did not disappoint. Towering over other Thai women at 173cm tall, with her dazzling smile, sharp features and heartwarming charms, she definitely fit the Miss Universe title.

Photos courtesy of POLYPLUS

Anyone who was around during the 80s is likely to remember when Porntip was crowned Miss Universe, the second Thai woman to receive that honour in the pageant’s history following Miss Universe 1965, Apasra Hongsakula. Porntip’s victory instantly won her the status of national darling, but there was, and still is, more to her than a pretty face. It is her kind heart, her humble manner and her sincere efforts in helping Thai children that has kept her in the heart of Thai people for decades after she has passed the crown on.

Porntip, also known as Bui, is far from a diva, despite her title, beauty and wealth. She is surprisingly friendly and down to earth, whether it is with an acquaintance or a total stranger. She even jokes about her married name, Simon, which, she admits, continues to raise quite a few eyebrows.

“At my children’s school, everyone calls each other by their first name, but I am the only one referred to as Mrs Simon,” laughed Porntip, who, after marrying American businessman Herbert Simon, is known as Bui Simon in the US.

She could have changed her name to something more glamorous, like many Thai celebrities do, but she is far too proud of her roots to change it. At a very young age, her mother Sornglin Supakosol took her and her sister to the US to start a new life.

“Growing up, my mother always talked about her upbringing in Ubon Ratchathani and how simple life was. Growing up in the States, I had everything, so my mother always taught me how to appreciate everything, whether it’s what we ate or what we wore. She talked about how, when she was young, she had nothing. She worked in the rice fields. She always shared the story of her childhood even though life has changed so much. It’s always good to remember your roots and that’s why I wanted to bring my children here today,” said Porntip on her recent trip to Nongkung School in Ubon Ratchathani, a small school located in the rural suburbs of the province, where her mother studied as a little girl.

The trip was to announce the launch of a new building sponsored by Porntip’s Angels Wings Foundation, a non-profit organisation she created in 2002 to assist the underprivileged children of her native country of Thailand. Since its inception Angels Wings has built schools, provided educational scholarships, healthcare and many other critical services for the youth in Thailand. The 4 million-baht building is named after her mother as a token of appreciation.

“Baan Nongkung is my dear mother’s hometown and most importantly my mother studied at Nongkung School, so I was always motivated to return and improve the educational standards for the students and community at Nongkung School. We have built new classroom buildings at the school and it has warmed my heart to see the students so happy with their new surroundings and much more eager to go to school every day. These children show great character and potential despite their modest resources and dilapidated facilities. We are pleased to be able to provide these astounding young students with a new structure and supplies to help support and encourage their educational environment for a promising future.”

Porntip was in good spirits throughout the day, even though it was sizzling hot and she had not had a bite to eat from morning to late afternoon. Her smile was sincere and unwavering. She did not even mind walking on the school’s muddy ground in her gorgeous white high heels. The look on her face as she saw her mother’s name on the building was definitely an Instagram moment.

It was the first time that Porntip’s 10-year-old son Sean, together with her adopted daughter Sophie had made the trip to the school. She loved her mother’s story and has instilled that in her children as well. “I told my children on the way to the school that it’s because of my mother that we are who we are today. It started here, where her life started, as a little girl who grew up and moved to America. She created the opportunity for me and my sister to go to school there. She worked two jobs to put me and my sister through school. It was a tremendous job because she did not speak English. She worked very hard to raise me and my sister. I will never forget that,” said Porntip with palpable pride. “It shows how far she has come, from a little girl on the ground to a woman with her name on the building. That’s a long way.”

In addition to the donation to the school, Porntip has also initiated the Teach For Thailand project as part of the Teach for All Project, a global campaign that seeks to diminish the confines of educational inequality so that children in all types of communities are granted quality education. Teach for Thailand, which was just recently established, brings newly graduated students to small schools throughout Bangkok to teach and reform classroom standards. The qualified team teach not only core subjects of Maths and Science, but also aim to foster the overall importance of education.

“The Teach for Thailand efforts help build a network and that will be great for the school system. It strengthens their education, starting in Bangkok and growing to other provinces,” she explained.

Another ongoing project is the Rural Teaching Scholarship Programme, a programme that provides academic funding for university students with excellent grades but financial difficulties, operating since 2010. Upon graduating from the scholarship programme, the students return to their hometowns as teachers, to educate the children of their village and to bring promise of hope and further education.

“Rural teachers have the intelligence, the heart and the care to be teachers, but they don’t have the support. I’m very proud to give them the opportunity to go to university and when they’re done, they get to go home and teach the children in their community. That’s important because the Bangkok children should not be the only ones who have good education. I go to rural areas to help bring better education to the provinces.”

Porntip is known for her efforts in improving the lives of Thai children but her work is not limited to only the young. She is a firm believer in role models and education.

“It has to start with the teachers. You need to have good teachers to mentor the children and to be good role models. They have to think of their duty, their hometown and their country,” said Porntip. “I really want the teachers to be the heroes that they really are. I think people forget how important teachers are. Next to the parents, the teachers are the ones that are mentoring our future. I want to give them the respect and honour that they deserve.”

Establishing a firm foundation for education brings a better future, she believes. Although it is easy to just donate money to poor children, Porntip is more passionate about teaching children how to succeed in their future.

“I know people don’t get as involved with education [as other charities] because they don’t see benefits overnight. It takes time, like anything that’s valuable. We can’t eat if we don’t plant the seed to grow our food. It’s the same thing with the school system. We have to plant seeds so the children have these fruits when they grow up and help the next generation. That’s what we try to do in the Angels Wings Foundation — to find the important seeds that we can build the community and educate happy kids.”

The former beauty queen feels blessed to have everything she does, but even more thankful that she has the opportunities to help others. She has been actively involved in charity work since she won the title at 19 years old. Today, at 47 years old, her passion and devotion for philanthropy has become her mission in life.

“I’m very blessed to have all this, I know that. It’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it that matters. In life, if you have an opportunity, you should use that opportunity to be of service, whether it’s to your family, your community or your country, whatever your status is.”

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