Baan Dada Children’s Home, in Western Thailand about 20 km from the Burmese border, is home to around 60 children, many of whom are refugees from across the border. The home is run by two “Dada’s,” or “brothers,” affectionately named Dada One and Dada Two, who oversee all the daily logistics from picking up the children from school to pushing the citizenship paperwork so the children can go to school. Although often referred to as an orphanage, only about 9 of the children are actually orphans. The rest of them have family, but most have left their families in the Thai mountains or Burma to come to the home. While many of the children have enough sad stories to fill several lifetimes, I would have had no idea when I saw their happy and forever smiling faces (except, of course, for when they’re being the little terrors that children can so often be).
Four of us from Hokkaido (Alistair Shelley-Kutchan, Callie Sorensen-Sapporo, Giselle Gonzalez-Nayoro, and Justin Genziano-Tanno) left our frozen wasteland for the warmer climate promised in Thailand. But rather than immediately hitting the famed beaches and islands, we made a week-long trip out west to Sangkhlaburi—not-so-much the tourist destination, but surprisingly one of the most beautiful and unspoiled areas of Thailand. We went with the JET volunteer organization GoMad, which consisted of four other ALTs from down south (a larger group of about 20 JETs went to another, more established home, Baan Unrak). As we arrived at Baan Dada, we were greeted by a cavalcade of children and two golden retrievers, a bit of an unexpected surprise when you’re in the middle of the Thai jungle. We were tackled by their affection and soon each of us had two or three additional appendages bearing a strong resemblance to children.
While there, we were left to help in any way we deemed fit. The boys took to the hard manual labor and helped to dig gravel for a cement mix. We extended a cement courtyard by about 40 square meters. (By the by, that’s a lot of digging and hauling and hoeing…in about 31 degree weather. We’re quite the studs, and have the traps and delts to prove it.) The ladies had equally exhausting work directly with the children. They worked on making Christmas decorations, organized miniature English lessons, helped write pen pal letters, and took turns churning ice cream (whew!). Our big cornerstone was organizing the events of Christmas day. We arranged half a day of games and activities for the younger children, including a very rousing game of pin the nose on Rudolph. We all pitched in to make dinner that night, which was to be spaghetti, pizza, apple cake, and mango ice cream. I’m proud to say that I made the (amazingly delicious) sauce for the spaghetti…from scratch…for 80 people…without any onions or garlic. Oh, and did I mention that we were in the middle of the Thai jungle?
In addition to the help we were able to offer by our presence, we were able to conjure up a significant amount of money to donate to the home. Along with Project Outreach’s donation of 50,000 yen (a big thanks to you all who donated), between nine of us, we were able to fundraise over $5,000 (US) for the home. With that money, the home was able to pay off longstanding debts with the hardware stores and clothing suppliers (for school uniforms) it regularly uses in town, and help fund their vaccination program. We even went with them to make the payments. Won’t lie as it felt pretty good to see exactly where the money goes.
Being there for scantly a week is hardly enough time to get to know each of the kids and make a significant impact on their lives. After all, they’ve got people walking in and out of their lives every couple of days. The biggest impact is left with those that have volunteered, and that impact is best shared. As we boarded our minivan, we stopped for photo-ops with the cute kids and exchanged big toothy grins for good-byes. I know that they probably won’t remember me and will cling on to the next volunteer much like they do with every volunteer. And likewise for me as I won’t remember which one was Mala-oo versus Mala-ee. But again, it’s the impact on me that counts. So here I am, telling you, that it was a remarkable experience.