Asia | South East Asia | Thailand | Bangkok – Volunteering at Phayathai
I keep a smile on my face, walk in, and make my first mistake. I pick up one of the children and now the entire room seems to be full of children crying. Ive singled one child out for affection it seems, so I sit down and begin greeting all of the children in Thai. One climbs me, and seems content to just hang on. A couple of others crawl over, just wanting to be near me, sit on my lap or lean against my leg. Another, who also suffers from a mental disability, sprawls on the floor somewhat helplessly, reaching out with a smile on her face. Others lie in their cribs while two staff members and an English volunteer named Hazel, prepare for feeding time.
Would you like to help feed one of the little ones? Hazel asks me.
Uh sure, I guess I havent done that for a while, but its not rocket science, is it?
Hazel laughs, and says, This is Bhuluphon. Hes a good eater. You shouldnt have too much trouble with him.
I spoon the food into him, saying mmmm Aloi (delicious) Kin Khao (eat rice) mmmmm
Bhuluphon is a pretty good eater, but seems to be a bit distracted by who else is eating, and who else is feeding, and whoever is doing something else. About ten minutes later, hes finished the cereal like mixture that seems to be made of rice, water, and vegetables. I take the cup of water to give him a drink, and have some difficulty getting his head up so I can pour the water into his mouth. Eventually, I get it right. Then its just a matter of wiping his chin off, getting the dirty dishes and bib put away before they become someones play toy. The babies will go to sleep now, so Khun Aphichet, resident child psychologist, takes me to visit the older children upstairs.
Twenty-nine children are in a small room with a staff person, who is trying to teach them something. Im told they are not allowed by the authorities to go to school, because parents of the other children are afraid. They’re afraid because these children and the almost twenty infants I’ve just spent some time with, are living with HIV. (Please note that the children shown in these photographs may or may not have HIV – some children mysteriously rid themselves of the virus.) The staff nanny/teacher-for-the-day tries to teach them about numbers. She has only one book. Aphichet says thats all there is. Seeing me, about six of the children run toward the door, open it and throw themselves at me, grabbing me, saying hello. After some introductions, its clear that I am a distraction to the lesson, so I ask to leave and come back later.
We meet the director of Phayathai Babies Home, and she thanks me for coming to volunteer. She tells me that just one of the challenges of the day is that the laundry wouldnt dry because it is rainy season. They had some disposable diapers to tide them over in that situation before, but they ran out.
Phayathai Babies Home is home to 425 orphans, including at least 48 who currently test positive for HIV. Daniel Fraser, a native of Calgary who runs a Thailand cycling tour company (www.smilingalbino.com) has put me in contact with Khun Aphichet, the resident child psychologist, and responsible individual for meeting foreigners interested in volunteering at the orphanage for a couple of days, weeks, or months. Phayathai run several programs for interested volunteers, including one called Bridge the Gap, started by an American actor to help Thai orphans waiting for foreign adoptions get more familiar with foreigners.
Previously, I have filled out a questionnaire and expressed my desire to come and play with the HIV positive children, feed them to temporarily help alleviate the burden on PBH staff, and see what else I can do. Khun Aphichet tells me that most people (but not all) who volunteer at the orphanage are afraid to be with the HIV positive children.
I’m not afraid. I’ve lived with HIV for the last six years.
After meeting the director, Aphichet shows me a couple of bar charts on the wall. One chart shows how the children arrive at the home, and another shows how they leave. Many arrivals are abandoned at the hospital, and looking around the orphanage there are a few children who obviously have some foreigner heritage. Its not hard to put two and two together. Others are simply there because their parent(s) do not have the economic means to look after them. Leaving the orphanage is another story: 8% are adopted by a Thai family; 37% are adopted by foreigners; another 22% are reunited with their original family(including aunts or grandparents); 23% go on to other homes or orphanages, and sadly, almost one in ten leaves the home with their life expired.
On Saturday, I come back at 9 a.m. and play with the children inside their cramped playroom/lunchroom. I lift them up and spin them around over the heads of their ward-mates, each one wanting another turn. After about twelve kids, Im sweating in the heat. A staff member asks me if I will take a few children out to the playground, so sandals on and out we go.
The playground is a collection of some new toys, but mostly its a potpourri of rusty old swings and contraptions that would never pass inspection in a northern/western country.
We play for an hour or so until almost eleven oclock.
Nok Nok (one childs nickname meaning bird)! Kin Khao (take rice) I say, and we head back to the ward to meet with the rest for lunch. Thats the end of my day at the orphanage and I go shopping.
Ive never bought diapers before. The Thai mothers that I ask for advice in the giant Costco-like store seem to have conflicting opinions on which ones are the best and/or the best value. In the end, I buy what most of the Thai people buy. The guy at the VCD store recommends some good Thai language cartoon movies and Finding Nemo in Thai. Then its off to pick up some Thai school books, some fun coloring books, crayons, pencils, paper for drawing, plus a few wall charts – the Thai alphabet, animals, Thailand fish, and a map of the world. In the end, its a couple hundred bucks, or probably two days on a cheap budget in London or New York.
On Tuesday, I go back to the orphanage and meet with Khun Aphichet and the child development worker in charge of the HIV ward. Ive made some good choices, but they need another nineteen of the alphabet books. No problem. They will be here tomorrow.
They tell me the children will love the movies and one will probably be played and played until it cant be played anymore. They will put the charts up that afternoon where there is room. Im given a receipt for my donation of diapers.
The next couple of afternoons, I go for two hours each day, playing outside with the older children one day, then the next day, meeting with the child development officer again, playing with the babies, and watching one of the new VCDs with the older children.
Friday, I am at the orphans home at 7:30 a.m. The children are already ready. After about fifteen or twenty minutes, we get in the bus for a field trip. It is a typical childrens group departure excited, noisy, standing on seats, a little bickering, but generally good natured. The Bangkok Police have donated two buses for the day and in just under an hour, we are entering “Dreamworld”.
Ive got two little guys about four years old in my care one who wants to run away and not hold my hand, and the other who has a lot of pain in his legs especially going up and down stairs. Several hours with them gives me the feeling of being an elastic band. We go on some antique cars and flying jets, a monorail ride, then helicopters, a kids rollercoaster, some more cars, and then were in Snow World. Yes we actually went tobogganing while Christmas carols played.
After lunch, we take the scenic train, and have enough coupons to do one more ride and the haunted house. My guys are too scared to do the haunted house, although one makes a second attempt with me before backing out again. After returning to the orphanage, we get them ready for dinner. Im done, unsure when I will be able to return, and sitting here writing this now, I wish I was less selfish and would devote more time to teach them, work or play with them. I have a lot of respect for the staff at Phayathai. They do the best they can and seem to do it with a great sense of care, love, and good humour.
If you want to spend a couple of hours, a day, a week, or more volunteering at Phayathai Babies Home, please understand that it takes the time of staff members to orientate you to the home, check and process you through the screening process for the protection of the children, and you will have some impact on them. Its okay (and certainly better than not going at all) to go for a few hours, but it would be better if you could at least go for a few hours for two or three days. You will need to provide a photocopy of your passport, two passport size photos, a medical certificate of health or immunization record if you have one, fill out a form that gives some information, outlines your interests and some background of your skills, and have an interview with Khun Aphichet.
You can contact the orphanage directly in advance or on arrival in Bangkok (or through Daniel Fraser at www.smilingalbino.com
Phayathai Babies Home is located at:
264/1 Rama VI Road, Rajathavee
They will be moving in December 2004 or early 2005 to Phakret, which is north of Central Bangkok. It will be accessible via the new Subway and bus, and there will be some accommodation nearby. It will be better for the children to be outside of the central city and its pollution.