Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Voluntourism in Thailand

BANGKOK - As mentioned in earlier posts, I embarked on my current, 17-day visit to Asia buoyed with the hope of doing some voluntourism - giving something back to communities I am visiting. Several proposed projects fell through, but one that didn't has turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of the trip.

Through the good offices of the Shangri-la Hotel Bangkok, which maintains on-going contact with charities, I visited a school for blind children, some of them with additional disabilities. The school, called - deep breath - Home for the Blind With Multiple Disabilities, is bang-on in the urban sprawl of Bangkok. It is operated by the Christian Foundation for the Blind in Thailand. That's a non-profit organization founded in 1978 by a blind Thai man. It is now under the patronage of the country's revered king, which gives it considerable standing.

Visiting early on a Sunday morning with a clutch of Americans and Canadians, I did some humble but, I hope, helpful work: Namely, helping the staff serve breakfast to several dozen children, most of them boys, in the section of the brightly painted and neat school I saw. This is more involved than it sounds, as the children can't of course see the food or food packaging, and have to touch the items to have any sense what they are. We helped take off the packaging and do little things like puncture the packages of juice, insert the straw and put the packages in the childrens' hands. In addition to fruit juice, the children got crunchy, chip-like snacks and small muffins. Some had ravenous appetites. A boy in a wheelchair sipped through a straw but that was all he ate. "He doesn't chew, he only drinks,'' a member of the staff said. Staffers appeared to be fully engaged, anticipating the childrens' needs and joshing with them from time to time.

After we helped clear the remains of breakfast, some of the children headed over to a well-equipped playground and began exhibiting the nonstop energy associated with kids their age. One boy occupied a swing; another clambered up the frame of a tall male visitor; several nestled in the arms of visiting women.

Children are taught to read and handle as much for themselves as they can by the school; they can stay up till age 15. After that, they either return to their family home to live or they can go out on their own. The more able ones support themselves as young adults, I was told.

The school is supported by government funding and, especially, by private donors. From what I could glean from my short visit, it seems well-run and caring. I came away feeling a little sad, as I expected, but braced, too, by the knowledge that people care for these children even in a country with as much poverty and as many needs as Thailand. Put it down to the gentle side of Thai society, which is overwhelmingly Buddhist, to traditions of Christian charity promoted by the governing foundation, or just to the brighter side of human nature, but this looked to me like a loving and pragmatic environment.

It was good to get out of the tourism bubble, if only for a while, and help out, even in a modest way. For more information, go to the entry on the Christian Foundation for the Blind in Thailand on Wikipedia or to the Web site E-mail is

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