Thursday, April 11, 2013

Graduation Day: One Boy's Success Story

Top's file photo from late 2007 or early 2008

[Long posts tend to make my eyes glaze over, too, but today's story has a true happy ending, so I'll break it into two parts. Bear with me here.]

Those of you who've read posts here the past few years have seen stories about the Pattaya Street Kids Support Project, a small but highly effective U.K. charity I've had the privilege of being involved with for a number of years now.  Today and tomorrow I'm going to share a true story to show that it works... it really does.

The nickname for the somewhat dour-faced boy at the top is Top, and this is a truncated version of the years I've had the opportunity to help him build a foundation for his future.  Back in the beginning he rarely smiled; if I could catch him smiling at all the first couple of years I visited I counted myself lucky.

At the very start of 2008 on my first visit to speak with the folks on the ground for the PSKSP (being the skeptic I can sometimes be) it soon became clear this was an honest, transparent group and not merely a black hole to throw funds into as many are. More on that another time.

Top with the other contest winners

That initial investigative visit I was asked to judge a student photo contest. Around 30 kids had been given disposable cameras (the cameras and processing paid for by the visiting treasurer himself as a treat for the kids) and they had been told there would be an "international writer and photographer" doing the judging. Since I'm a writer from the USA,  do take a lot of pictures and happened to be handy I was handed a bag of processing envelopes and invited to "have at it". Two days later I was taken to the school for the awards presentation. The boy in the center of the photo above is Top, although I didn't know it at the time.

Right after the presentations I'd I overheard the teacher of this short, quiet and painfully shy "winner" tell my host that if there was nobody she knew of to sponsor Top that his schooling was finished, as his sister, who was barely an adult herself and was raising him alone, couldn't afford to get him through his final years. Their mother had left them on their own some years before when times had gotten tough, and I've never heard much about the father other than he'd taken off when both of the kids were small. Top was being raised by a sister who worked hard but was just unable to keep up. They had a roof over their heads, but it was "iffy", at best.

Top stood silently with his head down, saying nothing - but I knew he'd heard his teacher; if he'd been a turtle I suspect he'd have pulled completely into his shell. I'd already agreed that trip to school fees for one more student than I'd budgeted for, but what do you say to a child in a case like this? "Sorry, kid... you'll just have to make ends meet however you can in life - I need those three extra Starbuck Mochas a month"? I doubt many of you could. I couldn't.

I can be selfish, but actually standing there and hearing that about a child who was within reach of some sort of hope I just couldn't turn away. Through the translator I told the teacher "He'll be paid for. Please plan on him attending and keep him on the registration role." As part of the whole "saving face" thing we've already covered Top was to be told about this later in private by his teacher instead of in front of the group, but I left there that day with hope for his future.

Move forward a couple of years now. I'd made a handful of visits for lunchtime outings and shopping trips with the sponsored students and seen them all doing their best with their renewed chance at life. Some better than others, but if you're squatting on land in one of Pattaya's slum areas (there are, I believe, 13 of them) and living in a 15 square meter "building" that's been hobbled together from materials your parents found in the dump, without electricity and potable water in far too many cases, I daresay you'd find it challenging to keep up with school, too.

The first time I'd really seen Top smile. He'd just bought groceries for his sister and himself with his "shopping" funds, and was feeling good about providing something for his family.

Trust is something that must be earned, and it was gratifying to see Top and the others begin to recognize and accept me as someone who genuinely cared how they and their families were doing and weren't merely a flash in the pan. Although his English was still as weak as my Thai, Top began to smile when we were out doing things, and that felt good.

Top laughs after throwing a gutter ball on an outing with all "my" students - the first time any of them had ever been inside a bowling alley

In school Top was making an effort, but he was still struggling to keep up with academics in class. It wasn't any real surprise: without going into private family details he wasn't living in anything close to what you'd call a normal, healthy family environment, and it showed in his achievements at school. Also, it was easier for him to learn something more "real" and less academic. Everyone's different.

When an opportunity for learning a trade became available he was steered into learning to be an electrician; an honorable trade in any country. He worked hard, and did well, despite his home life, which had taken a turn for the better after his mother came back into the picture and helped turn them into more of a real family again.

Top stands behind classmates in an electronics class, late 2008

Each trip I'd make to Thailand I'd make a point of seeing each available student, and it was gratifying to watch them walk out of the school building and see their faces light up when they recognized me and knew their day had just taken a decided turn away from the ordinary.

The kids got to choose where they had lunch, and while Top originally chose Thai food (some of them are still stuck on KFC), once he'd gotten wind of "Sizzler" he seemed to have somehow found a second stomach each trip to accommodate the variety of things he wanted to try.

There was almost always a shopping trip involved if time allowed - if it didn't it was arranged after I'd left town - and Top, like the others, was always so proud to be able to contribute to his family's food store. Not being the cook at home very often he'd compare labels and select things he'd seen his sister buy. Rice is an obvious staple, and while he'd pick the brand they normally bought he could be caught sometimes looking wistfully at a higher grade (and naturally higher priced) type and would smile when told he ought to get that instead. 20 to 30Kg was a normal amount.

As often as possible the students were also encouraged to select some sort of treat for themselves, too, and one time Top picked a football that he carried out of the store like it was his first born.

Move forward another couple of years - to the middle of 2012, when - through a series of fortunate events - Top's family had been graced with some improvements.  They now lived in an actual structure, his mother had officially returned to the fold as a contributing member and things were better all around, although still on a month-to-month survival scale.

While loading the dozen-plus bags of groceries into their home that day Top's mother called to me after I'd said my "see you next year" farewell and was headed to the car to leave.  Shuffling through the front doorway she approached me and wrapped a long, heavy pink and white knit scarf around my neck. It was 100F but I smiled and thanked her, wondering where she'd gotten it. I was told she'd known I was coming in a month or so and had knitted it for me herself.

"His graduation is next year," she said with a proud smile, via our interpreter "Will you come for the ceremony?" Not wanting to take anything away from his efforts I didn't want to say I wasn't so sure about that, so I just said "If I'm in the country, I'll be there!"  That, I hoped, would save face all around, and we said our goodbyes - me sweating beneath the scarf wrapped around my neck.

A month ago that offer was called in, and that story will follow tomorrow.

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