Volunteers get on the right track

Kids pose for a photo wearing hats knitted by volunteers, to be donated to children in the highlands of the North. (Photos by Wasant Techawongtham)

Who would have thought that an underground train station could be a hub for volunteers?

Once a month on a Sunday, commuters on the Metropolitan Rapid Transit (MRT) train at Chatuchak station are likely see a hive of activities on the mezzanine floor. Volunteers can be seen sitting on the hard floor while knitting with rolls of wool. Those of more advanced age often choose to sit on chairs around a couple of foldable tables.

Most are there to knit caps or scarves. But some are there to learn how to knit so that they, too, can eventually contribute.

According to Jiraphong Rodphasa, the finished products are destined for children in the highlands of the North.

Making the equipment demands intense concentration.

Mr Jiraphong leads a group of volunteers who call themselves "Rong Bom Arom Suk", which roughly translates as "a house that fosters happiness", the organisers of the event. He said the group has held the activity continuously for more than two years now and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Early in February the group launched a new activity. This time, the target beneficiaries are people with visual disabilities. A call went out for volunteers to help create a tool for the blind to distinguish bank notes of different values.

The inspiration behind the project is the fact that it is often a frustrating experience for visually disabled people trying to pick bank notes of differing value. The fact may have eluded most sighted people who can tell right away the amount of money in their hands from the different colours or numerals on the notes. But for the blind, that simple task is often a mountain to climb.

Mr Jiraphong said the Bank of Thailand, the agency responsible for managing money circulation and printing of the Thai currency, was approached. It revealed that bank notes of different values can be distinguished by their length, each is different by 6mm from one of the next value.

That knowledge is practically useless to the blind who, without seeing the colour, cannot tell one note from the next by length alone. This inability means the blind often have to depend on sighted people to tell them how much they have. This creates an opportunity for ill-intentioned people to take advantage of them.

So to help the blind equip themselves with a survival tool to handle their cash, Mr Jiraphong's group aims to produce equipment to gauge the length of various bank notes.

This is a simple device made out of a slide binder bar, which is made of hard plastic and used to hold paper documents. The objective is to cut it to the length of a 500-baht note, then make L-shaped cuts in steps of 6mm apart for notes of lesser values -- 100, 50 and 20.

A note longer than the length of the device is by default a 1,000-baht bill.

By measuring a bank note with the device, a visually disabled person can tell right away what value it carries.

Volunteers proudly show the fruits of their labour.

Responses from volunteers were overwhelming. A long line of people queued up at the registration table when it was opened. Altogether, about 70 volunteers participated. Most were young people of school or college age. But some were working people and a few were of more advanced age.

Each volunteer brought with them a number of slide binder bars to contribute. A group of young college people came with two large boxes of plastic bars as a contribution. The day set out to be a good one.

Phattranit Phanomwongkasem, a group volunteer, began by explaining and demonstrating the steps needed to make the simple device.

Because a knife was needed to cut through the hard plastic, she warned the volunteers to be careful while working so as to avoid accidents. Ms Phattranit emphasised that because of the small difference in the length of each bill, volunteers should pay meticulous attention to crafting the device and not worry about quantity.

"If a blind person becomes confused using the device because it wasn't made to standard, he or she would lose confidence and refuse to accept it and all our work would go to naught," she said.

With that in mind, the volunteers formed small groups and set out to work.

Everyone became completely immersed in the task at hand because of the intense concentration required. Working on the hard floor was not exactly comfortable; indeed, it was back-ache inducing.

Ms Phattranit describes the steps to make the banknotes-identifying device.

However, that didn't deter the volunteers from putting their faces close to the floor to make necessary measurements before cutting the hard plastic bars to specifications.

It turned out to be long, hard work. Each device required close to half an hour to make.

But the volunteers were thankful that the railway facility provided good lighting and cool air. While they were working, commuters passing by watched with curiosity, some stopped to inquire about the activity and some took photos.

Ms Phattranit reported that some 220 devices were handed in that day. About 70% of them passed quality control which was done by volunteer organisers after the activity ended.

An earlier trial with groups of blind people, she said, found that adults are more likely than young children to appreciate the device's usefulness.

The "Rong Bom Arom Suk" group has been holding their activities at the Chatuchak MRT station for close to four years now. Mr Jiraphong said that in the beginning he needed to obtain permission from the Bangkok Metro Company Limited (BMCL), the train operator, to use the facility each time an activity was to take place.

Mr Jiraphong, centre, gives an overview of the project at the start of the activity.

After each event, he submitted a brief report informing BMCL of what had taken place. This went on for three years.

But as the fourth year approached, Mr Jiraphong received a surprise phone call from the train operator.

"The BMCL had someone call me to inquire whether we would be holding any activities there this year because they need to incorporate it into their planning," Mr Jiraphong said, still amazed by the company's initiative.

It was not easy to get to the point where the train operator opened their arms to the group.

"Trust must be built and time is needed to prove yourself," he said.

Volunteers knit at a table in front of a cloth banner that reads Pan Gan Nueng Wan (a day of sharing).

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