A Cry For Help In The Wilderness
This is my second submission to Stickman and a lot has changed since I wrote my first submission about Thailand being more than just naughty tourism. I still feel that way. Thailand is like everywhere else and at the same time it is different. It is one of the most fascinating microcosms of life in all its diversity that I have ever experienced in the more than 40 countries I have had the privilege of visiting over these many years.. But things sometimes happen unexpectedly, sometimes turning out for the good, sometimes for the bad. We have learned to roll with the punches. Unfortunately we have encountered some difficulties as of late. I have been a teacher for nearly 38 years, most of which has been overseas – Europe in the 70’s, the US for a time, the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Oman) in the early to middle eighties and again after three years in the states minus a summer stint in Mexico in 1988 before returning to the Middle East for nine more years before venturing out to Thailand permanently in January 1998.
I am not a backpacker or adventure seeker, in fact I have no idea where Khao Sarn Road is or where any of the other hangouts frequented by many of the tourists who come here are. I have heard from many people over my stay that it is a good place to find bargains, cheap accommodation and nightlife, but I am not actively seeking for what it has to offer. Whatever floats your boat.
I was invited to Thailand in January 1989 to visit a friend who had served in Saudi Arabia with me in 1981-2 at the US Military Training Mission in Riyadh and who was starting up an orphanage with two of his friends u in Udon Thani. Two of them were married to Thai’s -one for more than 25 years, and the third one to an American and they all seemed happy about their project. I stayed with them for two weeks and trained one of the older kids there on site to become a teacher. That’s what I know best. I also fell in love with Thailand – for it’s beauty – the scenery, the lifestyle in the rural areas (I am a West Texan but not hung up on it– and I especially like the people. The children were lovely and curious beyond. I had traveled to many countries over the years from wherever I was teaching as I am and always have been a perennial and willing volunteer by nature. I do like to mix travel with doing something positive for the places I visit and the people I meet.
In April 1989 I met my wife (now we have been married nearly 17 years and we have three children, two of our own and one hers from a previous marriage who I adopted when he was two and a half and who is now also married to a lovely girl. Like most mixed marriages there are differences to overcome and it can be a challenge but if you are both committed to making it work, it will work, even against the odds. But heck, being married to someone from your own country and background can be just as difficult. Like so many others I had tried that route unsuccessfully. Life is what you make of it.
Anyway, in late 1997 I decided that it was the appropriate time to relocate my family to Thailand in order to set up an orphanage for the children of the Buriram province. I had had my fill of thirteen years living in the Middle East and had seen first hand what religious intolerance and racial and ethnic prejudice can do to people. For those who have experience life in the Middle East there is a saying, for each of those who come they bring with them two buckets. One is for money and wealth, the other for dung and other such refuse. Which ever one fills up first will determine when the sojourner will leave. Unfortunately, I had three kids to get through school and university so naturally my dung bucket filled up long before my other bucket got even half-full. But deep down inside I knew it was time to go.
On the first of January 1998 we arrived in Thailand and headed up country to begin the process of building a suitable facility to open a home for the poor, abandoned and orphaned kids of this area. Five months after arriving I was fortunate to find a teaching job at the local university, a place where I could hang my hat for a while, and guarantee myself an annual visa and a consistent salary which unfortunately never rose. I gave the job my all because as a teacher this is what I like to do best. I wrote books, I had done so before and now had the opportunity to write more. In the past eight years I had written 8 more books, some songs, poetry etc and split my time between caring for the kids at our center and teaching and tutoring university students in English for tourism and hotels as well as teaching drama courses and listening and speaking courses to some 350 students per term at the university. I travelled with the student groups as a chaperone to many locations throughout Thailand and this was more than satisfying. I regarded these kids as my own, in fact many students felt they were mine as well and belovedly nicknamed me Ajarn Daddy.
I told them that it was okay for me as long as they didn’t ask to borrow my car. Many of these students were girls – some extremely beautiful, all of my students were delightful and refreshing to be around, laughing, joking and even crying on occasion.
I remember passing a classroom one day where I saw one girl about to burst into tears. When I asked her what was wrong, she replied “nothing,” but I could see the tears beginning to well up in her eyes. When I asked again she began to cry about having a broken heart. I told her not to fret, that the guy had to have been an idiot for dumping someone as sweet as her and that men were like trains, one would be along soon enough. I later went on my way, still thinking about this poor girl’s plight, and then decided on the spur of the moment to go buy an inexpensive teddy bear at a nearby store. I returned to the classroom and when I gave it to her she cried again. But this time she said they was tears of joy because someone had cared enough to be concerned for her. She recovered soon enough. The class was by then full of students who shouted out “Ajarn, please, I want a teddy bear, too.” Over the past eight years I was there I gave away countless teddies. I still do. She knew how much I loved my students and that many were strikingly beautiful and vulnerable, but my wife has always said she didn’t care where you got my appetite as long as I remembered to eat only at home. I have kept my vows to her willingly over these many years and stayed the course. It is true as the Thai’s say, old buffaloes like young grass, but I am content to remain at the trough where I have eaten all these years. The grass is tender enough. After eight wonderful years of teaching, albeit at a low salary and after having written many of the textbooks in the department, advising the Thai staff and getting them through their master’s and doctorates, revising their books for promotions and by assisting them in putting together their theses and dissertations, conducting numerous English camps in the communities nearby and by putting in an exceptional amount of extra unpaid hours, and teaching more than 5,000 students the ball finally dropped.
In late February of this year I received a termination notice prepared by the department chairman, indicating my services were no longer needed. In most cases where this happens people with limited obligations and responsibilities just pick up and move somewhere else. But what about us?
I wrote to Ajarn.com and received loads of offers for interviews but all of the places were hundred of kilometers from the city where I reside and where the orphanage is. To take up a position at any of them would mean relocating myself, without my family and maintaining two residences and having two sets of expenses to cope with from the same salary as I had previously received.. I can’t just go and leave this place and work somewhere else and get home once or twice a month. Our vision to help kids in distress has grown over the years to the point where we now have more than 30 kids to look after and constant visitors arriving monthly from abroad (Australians, English, Scottish, Canadians, and Americans mostly, with a smattering of Dutch, Germans, French, Italians, even one South African, Irish (both Northern and Southern) who come bye to help out at the orphanage for some weeks or even a few months at a time. They pay their own way and fortunately many of them have left an additional donation to help out after departing. That’s how we have been keeping this place going for so long. We have been quite lucky so far with more than 120 volunteers who have graced our residence over the past eight years.
Now not trying to put anyone off but let me say that we are non-drinkers, non-smokers and we are believers in God but we are not fanatics about it. We are not trying to force anyone to believe what we believe, we are simply living what we believe. For us it is live and let live. In an effort to offset our losses and to keep our finances afloat I began to write to people from the various churches I came across while surfing the web and began writing letters to their leaders and administrators asking for help in taking care of these kids. I was stunned and continue to be stunned by the replies I received. Many never reply. Some who have answered write things like this: “We can’t help you because you are of a different denomination than we are,” or “your not a catholic”, or “you are not Baptist – we only help Baptists,” or “you believe differently from us”, or “we are already committed to helping too many people.”
I stated earlier that we are Christians but we have never limited ourselves to helping people of one religion or another. Over the many years I have volunteered in Central America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, I have helped thousands of children in distress: Muslims, Hindus, Animists, Christians of many denominations, be they Catholics, Baptists or whatever, non-believers in any religion, as well as many Buddhists. To us it has never mattered and it never will – Kids are kids, regardless of their religious upbringing or lack thereof.
We get volunteers from many backgrounds as well. They do have one thing in common – they love kids and enjoy helping make someone else’s life better. They enjoy Thailand. The only thing they can’t do while at the center is drink or smoke on the premises. If they want to share a room with their sweethearts we suggest they stay at a nearby hotel (we have plenty of affordable ones in the area, but they are certainly welcome to come out to help the kids while they are here.
This past month I have begun the arduous task of opening my own tutorial school and added students but this may take us a bit of time before we can turn the corner to make it profitable enough to sustain the center and all the kids we help. We plan in spite of our current circumstances to take in even more kids. The Australian Embassy Discretionary Fund is considering awarding us a grant to help build another building to take in another 12 kids but the application is still several months away from decision making. If they approve it we will build and if we build it they – the children will come. We appeal to your readers to help out if they are interested or at least let their friends know of our needs. Perhaps somehow, from among your wide readership we will be able to continue this center and continue to help the needy children of Buriram province. Or stop by for a visit. In the meantime I wish all your readers a happy visit to Amazing Thailand. It offers so much for so many. Our center web site is here if you want to know more. Cheers one and all!