The Words of the Gehring Family
What makes an RYS project special? If you were asked that question when you arrived at the RYS project in Chacheongsao, Thailand on May 6, you would surely know the answer before you left on May 16. Young adults from 10 nations representing five religions came to the rural area of Thailand where the local school had only four classrooms for six grades. When they left the village, they had dramatically elevated the four classrooms nearly four meters, in order to create space below for four new rooms-more than enough space to allow the children to study together with their peers. The physical transformation was very visible and the excitement among the community and the participants was palpable, but the greatest change was of a subtler nature. Attitudes of suspicion and distrust between people from different cultures and religions had evaporated, enabling a collegiality to prevail.
The sharing of work, food, thoughts and dreams under the same hot, hot sun had served to create a unity of heart and spirit among the once disparate group. A spiritual intent from each participant to leave something good behind seemed to forge a trust and friendship between the most unlikely of individuals.
The RYS began its 17th Thailand project with an orientation in Bangkok during a time of great tension. Protestors known as Red Shirts had taken over part of the downtown business district and were committing acts of violence on a daily basis. The RYS opening meetings were held at the UPF Peace Embassy located eight kilometers from the unrest. Yet, for many participants, the warm embracing environment of RYS brought them into a different world.
Following a morning and afternoon of programs and guest speakers, the RYS participants boarded a train to make their move to Chacheongsao Province, a 100-kilometer train trip. They were surprised and delighted to be so warmly greeted by the Deputy Governor and local officials as well as by a colorfully dressed children's dance group. The international participants received a pleasant taste of Thai hospitality with this festive welcome.
The theme of this RYS project was "Enhancing Education through Inter-Religious Cooperation," inasmuch as the project directly benefited the school children of Mai Kaew Prachanukhro School of Plaengyao district. However, the programs' benefit was not limited to the contribution made to the local school, because the project's education component and cooperative work experience benefitted each of the participants, stimulating them to change their attitudes positively toward intercultural and inter-religious harmony and thereby to embrace a wider concept of world peace. Mr. Ahama Waeh from Southern Thailand shared the following about the growing awareness he discovered during the project.
"The things I learned from this RYS project are very valuable to me. It is amazing how people coming from different religions, cultures, and nationalities can work together and stay together as brothers and sisters. I realized that religion is not really an obstacle as long as we are sincere to one another.
The RYS orientation continued at the school we were to work on in a rural farming area. During our first days, participants had opportunities to visit a Buddhist temple, a local Christian church and a mosque. At each of these sites the religious spokesperson came and shared about his religion and its efforts to serve the community. Thailand is a predominately Buddhist nation but Chacheongsao Province has a large Muslim population that lives harmoniously with the Buddhist majority. This harmony was expressed in the warmness of the hospitality that was extended to all our participants, who represented five different religions.
Our daily work routine had many of the participants laboring intensively to dig new foundations for the school, then laying concrete and eventually lifting the school up to a height that would permit four additional classrooms to be created below on the foundation. In addition, there were numerous jobs carried out to improve the school grounds and prepare storage areas for the upcoming school year. After work, the participants were active in playing sports and games led by Suresh Jacob, a teacher and coach from Sri Lanka. These games were creative and competitive, and they provided a chance for participants to practice teamwork while having fun.
One important part of an RYS project is its reflection period, since this quiet time provides the opportunity for participants to review the RYS experience and give consideration to the future. Evaluations, preparations and determinations are made during this period and, for this reason, a beautiful secluded island in the middle of a river was selected for the stay. Our time together began with a swim but soon moved into a period for personal reflection and small group discussions. The reflection period closed with participants giving testimonies that often highlighted how the "RYS experience" allowed them to grow. Mrs. Shanta Venugopal, a staff member, shared the following testimony.
"I have raised my children but I feel I became a better mother through this project. I really love RYS, as it provides an opportunity where I can embrace all the participants as my own children, one extended family. This school building that we worked on is really our great achievement. We worked harmoniously; no one complained even though it was so very hot. This effort teaches us the power of unity and it opens us up to new possibilities."
Following the reflection period, we returned to our school in time to join in with the village in celebrating the International Day of the Family. This was a day when community members together with RYS staff and participants joined in local games, seminars, tree planting and home cooking. For nearly 20 school children who were awarded academic scholarships by the Women's Federation for World Peace (WFWP), this day was one they would always remember.
On the closing evening, we joined together with the local community in song, dance, laughter and appreciation. It was a celebration of the International Day of the Family, and our coming together marked a modeling of the potential for the human family to cooperate and share.