On November 19th, My Community Health teacher planned a visit for us to a place called the Children’s Foundation that was a 15-minute drive from campus. Dr. Chulathida never gave us a debrief of the place, so I had no idea what to expect other than cute little Thai kids running around! We arrive to the Children’s Foundation and it was a small remote place. We are introduced to a woman (whose name I regretfully cannot remember) who took the time to explain to us the foundation’s purpose. She tells us that The Children’s Foundation is an orphanage and every child that we see here have either been left at their doorstep, taken away from unstable homes, or have been abandoned by parents who promised to visit every week but eventually stopped appearing. Almost every child they’ve received have been no older than 1 year old (youngest will have been 3 months old). She explains that the orphanage is divided into several sections to accommodate the different age groups and finishes off the debriefing by asking us which sections we wished to visit. I asked to go to the 0-2 year old room with 5 other classmates. The first thing I noticed was how nicely put everything was in the room. It was not crowded with children and the staff-child ratio was approximately 1:2, which I thought was super impressive. It could have easily been called a top-notch day-care. We got the chance to play with eight little kids, take them outside and help them practice walking and encourage their interactive skills. Two hours pass and we are relocated into a small meeting room upstairs. The woman opens up a Powerpoint and this is where she begins to talk about the Children’s Foundation in greater detail. I learned that this place operates differently from that of the US. Orphanages back in the US generally focus on preparing their children for adoption and learning what to do once they’ve been adopted. At this orphanage, the main focus is to provide all the necessary tools for their kids to prosper once they’ve reached adulthood. This way, they will be prepared in contributing to their community, essentially being ready for the “real world”. She explains their effort in establishing a home-like atmosphere with mother-child relationships with the children to help them feel at home. There is only one man who works with all the women staff at the foundation, but he is crucial to the kids’ learning and development. He helps the kids with their cognitive skills and motor skills. For example, he executes a daily routine that involves having the kids pick up a pyramid of blocks, run down a path, drop it in a bucket, and recite their numbers as they jump on a trampoline. He is looked at as the male figure, or dad, for all of the kids. Then comes the hardest part of the meeting: she begins to reveal some of the kids’ stories and the places they called home before arriving here at the orphanage. You could imagine the discomfort all of us felt while listening to her describe the abuse, neglect, and terror these kids experienced. After the meeting, I reflect and I ask myself…why did she tell us their stories? Why not stress the importance of volunteering and focus solely on the accomplishments of the organization? Then I thought, maybe the key part of the presentation aside from their accomplishments was the brutal, heart-wrenching truths to some of the people in Thailand as it pushed us to look at the situation under a new light. It pushed us, in a way, to look at this in a brighter outlook than negative. I realized that it was good we felt uncomfortable because then what would that mean if we weren’t cringing to the stories or looking away from the graphic videos? I left the place wanting to give each child the world. Again, I think, traveling, exploring landscapes, meeting new people, and understanding new cultures is all an incredible abroad experience, but finding time to truly understand their struggle, their stories, and their truth is just as rewarding. It teaches you humility, empathy, and a new kind of perspective.
In Thailand, foreign volunteer work is not accepted, which limits my options in reaching out to nonprofit organizations who would accept my help. On my excursion to Siam Reap, Cambodia, however, I was excited to find out that I would be able to volunteer at a small local school in Cambodia! My friends and I dedicated an evening to teaching a group of Cambodian kids English and there, we were greeted with so much joy and excitement it made me tear a little. One girl had grabbed my hand and wanted to walk with me wherever I went. It was the most precious thing ever and her friend followed her lead by holding my other hand. The kids taught us some new songs and we played at least fifty rounds of Hangman. It’s tough to see such warmness in these kids’ eyes and then have to leave with the thought that the most you could have done at the moment was spare all the time you had to make them laugh, but I would do it again and again and again. Memories like these are what I take home with me and are what drive my passion and love for volunteer work in my community. It reminds me why I love and value the time I spend with the family and friends I have at home.