Project #12123

Rice for malnourished slum kindergartners

by Human Development Foundation

Sometimes the 'rules of the slum' require more than gentle persuasion to save an exploited and abused eight-year-old girl from the clutches of a violent drunk

Published in the Bangkok Post, Sunday, September 18, 2016

By Father Joe Maie

It's a love story, raw and rough. But first, the ending -- the little girl is safe. Well, that's not totally true, but she's got a promise and she believes the promise. That's important.

True, we needed a "conversation" to make sure everyone understood a few simple rules, with her real mum, and especially with the "slimy pair of trousers" involved with her foolish mum.

The conversation was one-way -- we talk, you listen. Not that we are goody two shoes, but we promised an eight-year-old child that she could go to school every day. Not just now and then, and not a different school every other month. Every day.

Of course there was no violence during the conversation, despite Slimy Trousers taking advantage of a little girl and her brow-beaten mum. We wouldn't think of it.

You see, they're vagabonds, mum and Mr Smelly. Migrant workers who can't settle down anywhere, and the girl changing schools every couple of months.

But let's rewind. The story began on a recent late night when a bruised and bloodstained mum came to us with her little girl, Miss Nat. "I can't take it any more and I'm not sure if I can protect my daughter," she told us.

Then, through a heavy sigh: "Can she stay with you for a while, just until I get straightened out?"

We asked Miss Nat what she wanted. She said, "I want to stay with you if I can go to school." We said, "Yes, yes, of course. We promise."


This was no smash and grab operation. We stressed that the law of the land dictates that eight-year-old children go to school. They don't get farmed out to work as hired hands, even if side-by-side with mum and dad in a field of sugar cane or rice.

Also, we stressed that in our slaughterhouse section of the slum, all our kids go to school. It's OK to be migrant workers and vagabonds. But it's not OK if the child cannot go to school, or is placed in a different school willy-nilly every other month.

That had been the cycle of life for eight-year-old Miss Nat.

So we asked for a bit of muscle from two friendly "roustabouts" who work in the slaughterhouse and at the port. Old-fashioned lads with calloused hands and strong backs, and also with families, values and kids in school. Lads you don't want as your enemy.

We asked them to politely invite Smelly Trousers into the holding pens where they butcher pigs. There, where they had his full attention, they told him of the promise we'd made to Miss Nat.

Bottom line, little girls don't work in pigpens helping slaughter animals or washing entrails. Nor do they work in fields. They go to school. It's simple -- and it's the law of the land and also the first rule of the slaughterhouse and the Klong Toey slums.

The lads told Slimy Trousers one more thing. "We hear you like to use your fists to bloody up Miss Nat's mum. Not cool. Not allowed." The one-way conversation ended with a non-negotiable deal: "You be nice to mum. You take care of the girl." End of conversation. Amen.


Everything was fine for three days. That's when Slimy Trousers got rambunctious. He and the foolish mum had been washing dishes for almost a month at an all-night upmarket noodle stand. He collected their month's wages, and then walked "home" to the rented shack where his dad and stepmother lived. He started boozing, grew ornery and in quick order beat up his stepmother and the foolish mum.

Miss Nat walked in from her third day at school. She saw the violence and did what eight-year-old girls do; she ran. He caught her. With a firm grip, Slimy Trousers told her that if she screamed he'd beat her bloody like her mum. Mum cowered in the corner like a badly beaten slum dog. Slimy Trousers then shoved Foolish Mum and Miss Nat into a waiting three-wheel taxi and sped off to the Northeastern Bus Terminal and a bus to Si Sa Ket.

A teacher, walking home from school, saw it all happen and phoned us.

We found them at the bus station with tickets for the overnight bus. Slimy Trousers was taking them all back to work in the fields. We arrived on motorcycles just as the bus was boarding. The ticket collector, a hefty no-nonsense lady, wasn't allowing them to board. Slimy Trousers was visibly drunk and Miss Nat was throwing a tantrum. Those are two no-nos for boarding an overnight bus for a 12-hour drive.

"You can't make me go," Miss Nat screamed at the slimy one. "I want to go to school."

Foolish Mum was crying and holding her daughter. The bus lady began blowing her police whistle as loud as she could. A crowd gathered. There was a bit of a scuffle. A couple of fellow travellers, one a retired schoolteacher, got off the bus. The retired teacher asked Miss Nat why she wasn't going to school.

Madame Nung Ning, our favourite Klong Toey street singer, was also at the bus station with her blind husband, singing country songs and collecting coins. Ms Ning recognised the mum and Miss Nat, so she started singing "A-B-C" school songs. She knew Miss Nat loved school.

Miss Nat ran over and hugged and hung onto Madame Nung Ning. "Don't let them take me," she said, clinging to her. Madame Ning responded with a whisper: "Sing with me, girl. Sing with me."

By now, Slimy Trousers had been locked down by a hoard of bus staff. The arriving police said, "Don't beat him up too much. The newspapers will see it."

Slimy Trousers kept shouting, "I have my rights!" The police agreed, but they had several questions.

Who are you? Did you beat up this woman? Why is this child crying? Is it true you won't let her go to school?

In the midst of this, Madame Nung Ning turned her music box into a loudspeaker. She told everyone she is like a second mum to Miss Nat. Foolish Mum, terrified and beaten black and blue, nodded her head in agreement.

Miss Nat stopped crying long enough to confirm it. "Yes, she's my second mum from Klong Toey and she loves me. She bought me a school uniform and is teaching me how to sing."

Then, with a finger pointed at Slimy Trousers, she tells the gathering crowd that "this bad man beats up my mum and me, and he says I can't go to school. If I'm not nice, he says he'll sell me."

In no time, the police take Slimy Trousers to the police station. Everyone else heads back to Klong Toey, including Madame Nung Ning and Miss Nat. Our favourite street singer says the girl can stay with her and her blind husband -- she can even sleep with the puppy dog, who loves little girls.


We overruled, however. Madame Nung Ning and her husband drink a bit too much.

Thanks but no thanks. Miss Nat will stay with us. On weekends, if she wants, she can go with you to learn how to sing on the streets. But home will be the Mercy Centre.

We also offered a room to Foolish Mum. She's only 33 years old and is trying to work up the courage to leave Slimy Trousers. She's afraid he'll come after her, but we told her that she's safe with us.

The next morning, Miss Nat went back to school. Madame Nung Ning met her at our front door with her blind husband. With a hand on her shoulder and carrying the loudspeaker, they walked her to class.

Miss Nat was assigned to informal kindergarten, where the other kids won't laugh at her for being a bit chubby and speaking Bangkok Thai with a northeastern accent. She is progressing quickly and in a month or so, she will join the regular Grade 3.

As for Slimy Trousers, he gets out of prison soon. But he has strict orders from our strong-backed lads, stay clear of Klong Toey.

Meanwhile, Foolish Mum has her job back washing dishes at the noodle stand. On weekends, when it isn't raining, she listens to Miss Nat singing on the streets with Madame Nung Ning.

Miss Nat is safe. She loves school, even though she has a lot of catching up to do. But she's getting there, she endures. Her mum rented a room nearby with money from her noodle shop job and today she's free of horrible Slimy Trousers. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Most importantly, we are keeping our promise. Go to school, go to school, go to school.

Why tell this story? Why take the effort to try and remember an 18-year-old street kid who drowned in the Chao Phraya River, half snockered on drugs? So, even though dying and drowning were the last things from his mind, drown he did, die he did. And it was kind of his own fault.

What's that got to do with you or me?

Asleep, groggy, lying beside the river, the wash from a passing tug boat knocked him into the water. No problem so far; because he was the best swimmer in the bunch, the first to climb to the top of the bridge and dive the 20 metres into the river. The problem was, he cracked his skull really hard on an abutment and didn't make it back to the surface.

If these street kids were for sale, they'd be cheaper than a soi dog with mange. That sounds unkind, but it's true. Mostly, they hang out under the old Bangkok Memorial Bridge on the Bangkok side of the river.

Lots of good folks would say his life was out of bounds. He lived on the riverbank under the bridge and what good did he do for anybody? Did he ever do anything? Even for street kids?

Depends on how you call it. Who makes a judgement call on this one? I guess the experts of the place are the pushcart ladies: betel nut chewing folks, some retirees, the men who spend their days there talking of the olden days. City bus drivers who park their buses there sometimes. They see these street kids every day. They would know who is special and who isn't. And of course, his peers. Judge him by street kid ethics and lingo.

By the way, his nickname was Jeep. As he fancied wearing army fatigues, the other street kids said that he looked like a guy who should drive a military Jeep.

In his 18 years on our planet, he hadn't quite finished what he had set out in life to do: get his older sister to take better care of her baby, and don't let anyone -- even in play -- slip a bit of drugs into the baby's mouth. And she could be a real mum. They could be a family -- like they never were. Maybe not really rent a place, that cost money, but at least stay together on the street. And he and his brother would protect their sister, so she didn't to talk to strangers and do embarrassing things.

His second project was his little brother. To keep him out of jail, because in jail, they destroy lippy kids. His brother who always acted like a "wise guy looking for a fight".

And thirdly, to help his dad whenever he could. True, dad had abandoned the three of them, and their mum, but maybe deep down, dad was still a good guy.

And to become a monk -- even for a short while. In that, he almost succeeded. Again, it depends on how you call it. He didn't actually become a monk. He died before he could, but his 10 street boy mates became monks for him on his cremation day. "Before the body," as they say, to make merit for the dead. So, even though he didn't become a monk himself, when he drowned, his mates became monks for him, and prayed that his soul not hang around, but go to heaven. The kids said Jeep was always good at directions, so he would find his way to heaven.

Actually, they felt guilty. It went down like this: Yes, he was washed in by a big wave and hit his head and didn't come up. But before that, he played a joke on them.

He said, "Let's go swimming," and for some reason, his mates said, "Nah, later." So he jumped in. Then as a joke he hollered out, "Help me, I'm drowning." They panicked, jumped in and pulled him out. "Ho! Ho! Ho!" And his best friend had some drugs in his pocket, and they got all wet and ruined, and that miffed him big time.

Then about half an hour later, Jeep crawled out and went to sleep next to the water, where he usually took a nap. And the wash from a tugboat passing by cut a big wave and knocked him into the water. No big deal. It had happened lots of times before.

But this time, he banged his head. He cried once for help, but his mates said, "Ho, ho, ho" to you. You don't fool us twice.

And five minutes later, he didn't come up. Yes, they saw him go down, didn't see the heavy bruise on the side of his head where he had hit the abutment.

When he didn't come up, they called our teacher and the Chinese benevolent society (located nearby) who rushed over with their divers. The current is not dangerous in that particular spot, and they had the body out in less than 30 minutes, but of course, too little and late.

Somebody phoned his dad, and he was there to see them pull his son's body out of the river.

Was Jeep drug drunk when he died? The street boys, who know of such things, say no. The police came -- the coroner verified he died of a head wound and drowning, no autopsy necessary. They took the body to a nearby temple. The boys decided they wanted to become monks.

The abbot is a kind man. He allowed the 10 of them to become monks: "Na sop -- before the body." Shave their heads and no drugs and keep the rules of the temple. They were ordained 24 hours after he died and stayed all that day and night: slept in the temple and kept the fast and the next day, in the late afternoon was the cremation.

After sunset, they took off their robes (properly) and returned to their normal street clothes and ate a huge meal, because they were not used to fasting. In the morning, there was another ceremony by the "Under the Bridge Community" -- everyone put in a bit of money and the monks came and blessed the area -- to chase away any lurking bad spirits. Also they asked our teacher for religious medals of the blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus -- to be doubly safe.

What of Master Jeep?

School really wasn't his thing, but he did finish four years. Didn't graduate, but living under the Bangkok Bridge as a street boy graduation wasn't really important. The reading and writing was what counted, and he could do that. Good enough to get along -- read comics, count, play computer games.

He was just ordinary. Guess his only talent was trying to help out, whenever he could. Everybody liked him and he got along with everyone in his world of street kids. Not a big world, maybe 25, mostly boys, total, living under the Bangkok Bridge.

It's just so sad that he died at 18. But as the other street boys said of him, he wasn't a sad guy. Usually happy, and reasonably cool about drugs.

One more thing.


The afternoon before he died, our teacher was there, under the bridge, in the normal meeting place. Jeep came, sat down and talked a long time about his whole history. Like he maybe knew about tomorrow. Talked about his mum and dad, and brother and sister. Like he wanted someone to know. Wanted his family story to live on.

Also, he was not his normal ebullient bubbly self. Sober, not sad, but sombre … so says the teacher. He told her over and over how he loved her and she was his real mum. Always there for him, something he had never done.

What is happy about this story. Maybe he knew. We all came. We prayed, made merit. Everyone loved him.

His life was a street kid success.

The next afternoon, the word went out that there was a free train ride to Hua Hin, some three hours away. So they jumped on the train and spent some hours playing in the sea. Celebrated Master Jeep's life. That night, they all slept on the beach. Next day it was back to Bangkok.

Thank you so much for supporting our rice program.

We prepare over 2,500 servings of rice, along with vitamin-enriched dishes, at lunchtime every school day for the children enrolled in our slum kindergartens. For most of these children, lunch is their only nutritious meal of the day. Your gift changes the world for these children. It gives them the strength and sustenance to develop, concentrate, grow, and learn.

It’s hard to measure the exact value your support brings, day by day, but over time, the results are truly wonderful.

Last week, for example, over a three-day period, we held our annual ceremonies for the children graduating from our twenty-three kindergartens. It was our liveliest, happiest, and certainly most colorful celebration of the year. Our entire Mercy Centre was festooned with balloons, flowers, toys and stuffed animals. It was riotously crazy fun!  Amid glorious pomp and circumstance, over 650 poor children donned caps and gowns and received their diplomas.

Father Joe Maier, our foundation’s founder, led the ceremony, exhorting all the children to stay in school. If there are seemingly impossible problems at home, Fr. Joe told them...if they go to sleep hungry…if the roofs over their shacks leak and flood their homes, if their moms play cards and their dads drink and neglect them…if there’s no money for lunch or transportation or school fees…no matter what, Fr Joe insisted, they must go to school! “Come to our Mercy Centre and let us help, but regardless, whatever the circumstances, keep advancing, keep learning, keep going to school!”

Our graduation ceremony is the culmination of our three-year kindergarten program. We follow the Thai national curriculum and make sure that our school children gain their first lessons with a sense of triumph and joy. They can say with pride, "We learn to count, to dance, to sing, to tell stories, to play new games, to brush our teeth, to fight germs, to say nice words, to make friends." The children are well prepared for entry into formal government primary school.

Without sustenance, none of this could happen. One out of five children comes to our schools malnourished and hungry. Your support for our lunch program is integral to the children’s academic success.

In addition, your support reaches those in our surrounding slum community who are most in need, including:

  • Destitute families who cannot afford food.
  • Families who have lost everything due to fires, floods, or evictions.
  • Our own children - we have 150 boys and girls between the ages of 3 and 20 – who live in our homes and shelters in Mercy Centre.
  • Ethnic Mokan children (the “sea gypsies” of the Andaman) who we care for and educate in Ranong Province, south of Bangkok.
  • The most destitute patients we visit in our HIV/AIDS Homecare Community Outreach Program.
  • Anyone hungry and in need who comes to our door.

Thank you again. Please visit our Mercy Centre whenever you may be in Bangkok. You are always welcome and will always be a part of our Mercy family


Almost 20% of the school children who enroll in our schools come to us malnourished.
Your donations of rice also help feed the 180 children who live with us as family in our Mercy Centre homes and shelters, the 200 street children we support and protect daily, hundreds of the poorest of the poor living with AIDS, and entire communities after fires or mass evictions.

Thank you so much for your past support.

Two weeks ago over 650 poor children graduated from our 23 slum kindergartens in Bangkok. It was a fabulous day, truly glorious, and for the graduates of our three-year kindergartens, perhaps the most important and most triumphant day in their young lives.

Fr. Joe led the ceremony, exhorting all the children to stay in school. If there are seemingly impossible problems at home, Fr. Joe told them...if the roof over their shacks leaks and floods their home, if their moms play cards and their dads drink and neglect them…if there’s no money for lunch or transportation or school fees…no matter what, Fr Joe insisted, they must go to school!

If they go to sleep hungry…“Come to Mercy and let us help, but regardless, whatever the circumstances, keep advancing, keep learning, keep going to school!”

We prepare almost one million meals every year and require 2.5 metric tonnes of rice every month.
A $5 donation feeds dozens of children. A gift of $30 (equivalent to a 50-kilogram sack of rice) reaches hundreds upon hundreds of poor children and families.

Please visit our Mercy Centre in Bangkok. You are always most welcome and will always be a part of our family.

A poor grandmother, Mrs. Lek - with four grandchildren under her care and no means of support - walks two miles to visit our Mercy Centre every day. We prepare a lunch and dinner for her family, placed in re-usable tins that she exchanges on every visit.

Grandmother Lek’s plight is not unusual in our neighbourhood, the “70 Rai” community in the heart of Bangkok’s largest slum. And Grandmother Lek is hardly alone in seeking our support. Every mom dad, grandparent, aunt, uncle and child in the community knows they can visit our Mercy Centre in times of need. They know that we will keep keep destitute families and individuals on their feet, feed them, and support the education of their children. In return, our brothers and sisters in the slums love and educate their children, and take pride in their community.

Your donations support these families and thousands more like them through our Child Protection, Education, and HIV/AIDS programs. By far the largest group we reach are kindergarten children. We operate 23 kindergartens throughout the poorest communities in Bangkok with a total enrolment exceeding 2,500 3- to 6-year-old children. We also operate a kindergarten for a destitute community of ethnic Mokan (informally known as sea gypsies) in Ranong Province and feed and educate all the children in their village (60 children).  Plus five schools in Bangkok in construction worker camps for the children whose parents (mostly Cambodian) build the skyscrapers around the city (200 children). Plus a school for street children, the Janusz Korczak School of SE Asia, in our Mercy Centre (40 children). 

Almost 20% of the school children who enrol in our schools come to us malnourished. 

We weigh the children and measure their height regularly, keep records of their development; and provide additional snacks and meals to to the children who are most in need of extra nourishment.

Your donations of rice also help feed the 180 children who live with us as family in our Mercy Centre homes and shelters, the 200 street children we support and protect daily, hundreds of the poorest of the poor living with AIDS, and entire communities after fires or mass evictions.

We prepare almost one million meals every year and require 2.5 metric tonnes of rice every month. 

A $5 donation feeds dozens of children. A gift of $30 (equivalent to a 50-kilogram sack of rice) reaches hundreds upon hundreds of poor children and families.

Thank you so much for your past support. Please visit our Mercy Centre in Bangkok. You are always most welcome and will always be a part of our family.

a construction camp school
a construction camp school
Lunch at our largest kindergarten
Lunch at our largest kindergarten



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Organization Information

Human Development Foundation

Location: Bangkok, Thailand - Thailand
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Kristine Stenbeck
Overseas Project Leader
Bangkok, Bangkok Thailand
$14,873 raised of $20,000 goal
463 donations
$5,127 to go
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