Graduating from the slums

brimming with enthusiasm: Children write on a whiteboard during an English-language lesson. Kru Puu says their favourite class is, surprisingly, science. (Photos by Thiti Wannamontha)

'They love to draw and have amazing imaginations, but their favourite class, surprisingly, is science," said Dheraratana Chuamnaj, teacher to around 100 children. The children live in the slum areas of Bangkok and some come from families with drug problems.

For these children, going to a summer camp or a famous cram school is almost an impossible feat. However, Dheraratana, a sprightly octogenarian known by the children as "Kru Puu" (Grandpa Teacher), has been giving them an opportunity to do both.

Sorso Volunteer, an unaffiliated volunteer group, has become a learning and grooming haven for these underprivileged children. A host of people from different walks of life such as business owners, government officers and freelancers come to teach life skills and be a part of the change in the lives of children.

"These children are very enthusiastic about creative activities. Since they cannot afford to go to workshops and cram schools like children from more affluent families, we teach them basic knowledge like mathematics, English language and science as well as some other skills like drawing and music as a part of developing their personality and building confidence," said Dheraratana.

The group has been working on creating alternative tools of education and running volunteer programmes every weekends, where people have been teaching art, life skills and performing arts to children for over 20 years.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

One day back in 1994, Dheraratana was passing Sanam Luang on his way home when he noticed that there were many homeless children sleeping or using illicit substances around the park.

A recently retired teacher back then, he realised that these children had no future and needed to be educated by someone, so they could get off the streets for good.

passion for education: Known as 'Kru Puu', Dheraratana Chuamnaj teaches around 100 children from slum areas in Bangkok.

"The day after I saw them, I started buying snacks and candies for them in order to gain their trust because it was hard for them to trust a stranger as most of them had been abused by adults before they escaped their homes to live on the streets," he said.

Day by day Dheraratana got to know each child better. He found that most of them were illiterate and came from slum areas in Bangkok, so he decided to teach them how to read and write for free every Saturday and Sunday.

"I had been teaching at Sanam Luang for a couple years, but the number of homeless children there had not declined even though some had already left, so I realised that I was solving the downstream problem because the core of the problem was their living conditions in the slums. If I could fix the problem at that end, the children will not have to leave their homes," he said.

Since then, Dheraratana has changed his working direction upstream. He established Sorso Volunteer to provide underprivileged children from the slum areas in Bangkok with interactive study materials, counselling and extracurricular activities to keep them in school and make learning fun.

Starting with three volunteers in 1997, they had grown to 800 volunteers by last year.

Recent research by the Foundation for the Better Life for Children reported an estimated 20,000 children on the streets of Thailand's major urban centres.

IMPACT OF POVERTY

The dropout problem is pervasive among slum children. Many children are unable to complete secondary education and multiple factors are responsible for children dropping out of school.

Risk factors begin to add up even before students enroll in school, including poverty, low educational level of parents, weak family structure, pattern of schooling of siblings and lack of pre-school experiences.

developing young minds: Kru Puu and Sorso Volunteer teachers oversee a class. The unaffiliated volunteer group has become a learning and grooming haven for underprivileged children.

Family background and domestic problems create an environment which affects the value of education. Furthermore, students could drop out as a result of a multitude of school factors such as uncongenial atmosphere, poor comprehension, absenteeism, and the attitude and behaviour of the teachers.

When students experience school failure, they become frustrated with the lack of achievement and end up alienated and experience exclusion leading to eventual dropout, according to Kru Puu.

"Some parents are still reluctant to let their children study with us even though we provide our service for free. They prefer to see their kids selling garlands at intersections rather than joining our classes," he said.

A recent survey by the Education Ministry found that about 60,000 or 7% of students who graduated from junior high school chose not to continue their studies due to lack of motivation and economic problems. Most of them live in slum areas.

"From my experience, half the children in slum areas are likely to leave the education system after finishing junior high school. Some become teen mothers and drug users because they think their lives would never get better," he said.

EMPOWERING SLUM CHILDREN

Kru Puu said all slum children have the same potential to achieve academic success as children from higher-income families, but they just lack the opportunities and confidence to do so.

"I've been told by many parents that their kids are slow learners, but when they come to study with me they can learn quickly. What you need to do with these kids is to make learning fun for them," he said.

Kru Puu said his group use several techniques to gain attention from the kids such as teaching through games and giving them toys as a reward when they do well in class.

"Recently, four children learning with us have shown significant improvement and finally got scholarships from their schools," he said.

Sartra Kratinsmith, 10, a student at Lan Pho classroom, a teaching programme created by Sorso Volunteer group inside Huarodjak Tukdang community, one of the slum areas in Bang Sue, said he enjoyed learning with volunteer teachers on Saturday more than studying at school from Monday to Friday.

"Volunteer teachers here never get mad at me when I cannot follow other children. They always spend time explaining things to me. I love them," the boy said while observing a science experiment with colour-changing flowers.

Janyaporn Urnjit, 8, also a student at Lan Pho, said she came to learn how to play the ukulele because the instrument is ideal for her tiny hands.

"When I can play it good enough, Kru Note will teach me how to sing," she said with a smile when referring to her favourite volunteer teacher.

BRINGING HOPE

Thanatip Puapompong, or Kru Note, 36, a volunteer teacher of Sorso Volunteer group, said he's happy every time he sees the children having fun in his music class.

"When I first came here, children did not dare talk to me because I was a stranger, but after the third time I came they started to ask me questions about music instruments and since then I have become their favourite one," he said.

Thanatip works as a teacher at a private school and loves working with children. He joined Sorso Volunteer group five years ago because he wanted to provide an opportunity for underprivileged children to learn music.

"When you realise that even doing small things can have a big impact on someone's life, it gives you a great sense of satisfaction," he said.

Pairoj Panavej, or Kru Bright, 65, a retired government officer who became a volunteer teacher four months ago, said he volunteers to do this job because it's something he can give back go society.

"When I ask these poor children what would they want to be when they grow up, the answers are usually a blank face, or a goal to be a rich man. Although they know what they want in life (plenty of money), they do not know how they are going to achieve this goal," he said.

Kru Bright said it is only through education that they will become aware of such opportunities. "Volunteer teachers here do not only work with children, we must work with their parents as well. We have to talk to them, explaining that their kids could become doctors, engineers, scientists, even astronauts in the future, but they need to be given a direction, a purpose, a goal in life," he said.

LONG WAY TO GO

Sorso Volunteer group at present provides teaching services in four locations -- Huarodjak Tukdang community on Saturday morning, Lumphini Park on Saturday afternoon, Trok Sake on Sunday morning and Arun Amarin Bridge on Sunday afternoon.

However, in the view of its founder Kru Puu, the group still has a long way to go in order to make his dream come true. Kru Puu said his ultimate goal is to expand the group's service to all 2,000 slums nationwide, so all underprivileged children will have a chance to receive quality education. "It may seem like an impossible goal, but we have to dream big. We also plan to upgrade our group to a foundation," he said.

The veteran teacher said although the group has almost a thousand volunteers joining them a year, only 10-20 come to teach regularly, most of them just come one time and then disappear.

"We need more volunteers who can come regularly because volunteer teachers need to build a relationship with children to gain their trust," he said. Thai people have the volunteer spirit in their blood, he added, so he hopes that one day he will be able to see more young Thais follow in his footsteps and make his dream come true.

"I do not know whether I will be able to see that day, but the best I can do is to teach these children until I cannot do so any more," he said.


How you can get involved: apply for volunteer recruitment at www.sorsovolunteer.org or donate money and learning tools via account Chuanpit Chuamnaj, 401-1-05933-3, Bank of Ayudhya.

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