The Words of the Wagenhoff Family

Helping People to Help Themselves

Amala Wagenhoff
May 1982

The following account of a community development type of home church work in Bangkok, Thailand, is compiled from letters and reports written by Amala Wagenhoff during 1981. Formerly an Ananda Marga nun, Amala joined our church in Sri Lanka and moved to Thailand in 1977. Under Jack Hart's direction, she has become the principal organizer of these activities.

Their situation is a bit unusual, perhaps because their community development activities were aided through IRFF funds and personnel. Since our members themselves did not have so much experience this type of work, they first brought in professionals to do social service work one afternoon a week. Our members absorbed their experiences and abilities, and applied it to home church work. One can also note, in this account, that our members first focused on a small area, learned to know the people and their needs, brought in professionals, connected with other groups that could meet specific needs, developed programs for unmet needs -- and then began to carry out the work themselves and expand it to neighboring areas.

We had originally planned to begin home church work with upper middle class families in Bangkok, but we quickly came to understand that this would be very difficult. Well-to-do Thais are so used to being served all day long that they would accept our service as that of another servant or maid, and it made no emotional impact on them.

After a desperate search for a more appropriate area, during which we set prayer conditions and received dreams from Heavenly Father, we chose our present location in Makkasan. Part of the area is residences of railroad employees and the other part is a slum.

Thai people are rather shy and defensive, especially towards Christianity. Judgmental Christians had come to this area before, and people were proud that the Christians left after a while, without a trace of success. Mr. Hart thought it would be best to begin by going to Makkasan every day and teach people, without any mention of religion, until they overcome their fear that we have come just to convert them. So we made it our first goal to win the trust of the people and through some external actions show that we have come to help them.

For more than six months, we helped the children with their homework, without making much contact with their parents. We organized a couple of parties for children and one for adults.

We made our first public health survey of Makkasan in December 1980, with 12 of our members, usually in pairs, going from house to house, asking the seven questions on the survey form. Since we had been coming faithfully for about a year to the area to serve, people didn't mind inviting us into their house for a half hour or so to talk about a variety of things -- beginning with the weather and ending with how they felt when their first child was born (one member loved to ask that particular question, and people didn't mind talking about the subject at all).

At the end of the day, we returned home, filled up with soft drinks which each home served and thoughts of all the strange and different people we had met. Father is really right: we meet all kinds of people through home church. Thai people seem externally nice and kind, willing to make friends with you, but it will take a long time to raise their internal standards. We want to start working from the outside in, from social work to spiritual work.

With the help of four professionals from a Thai relief foundation, whom we had helped in one of their projects, we began in January 1981 a six-month program called the "Mobile Medical Welfare Service Team." The first day, to everyone's surprise, 83 people came for help or advice, and about 30-50 people began coming regularly. The project staff included Saowannee, the project chief; Orawan, a nurse; Darinee, a social worker; and Rossana, an educational counselor. They worked one afternoon a week at our service center, which was provided free of charge by someone in the community. Our first member in Thailand, Dr. Lek Thaveetermsakul, helped provide medical treatments. IRFF funds helped pay their salaries and provide basic medicines, school supplies, hygiene products and milk powder. Following up this project gave us a perfect reason to visit people's homes at any time.

After these first six months, we continued on our own, with a three-year plan called the "Volunteer Project for Community Development."

Children's Programs

Rossana and Saowannee conducted a survey to find children who might qualify for scholarships provided by an American foundation. Forty children applied and all were approved. Later another 30 were accepted in the program. Eight U.S. dollars per month is allocated per child, to cover the expenses of school uniforms, supplies and lunch, for as long as the child stays in school. Saowannee took responsibility to see that the money is spent for the child's education, rather than alcohol or other more immediate needs.

In February we distributed used clothing and toys donated to IRFF by friends and Japanese residents in Bangkok. When summer vacation began in March, the children hanging around the service center began exercising their creativity with the toys and playing material. Spontaneously, the children formed groups around the toys and showed an amazing sense of cooperation and discipline, as well as an outstanding capability to grasp possible ways of using the toys, most of which were completely new to them. Thus, almost no supervision or instructions were required.

Darinee started a health education program in March for the children, using the home of one of the railroad employees. With a hand- made picture book, she explained what kinds of food are good to eat and what are not. The children listened very attentively and were able to answer all the questions at the end of the story. We found it very interesting, because the things she mentioned as unhealthy and a waste of money are the things the children eat all day long. She gave the children a chance to taste green beans, as an example of a nutritious food that is cheap, easy to cook and also delicious. Although their parents are often poor, Thai children traditionally have money available to buy sweets and small snacks all day long.

Later she taught the children about dental care (most children have very bad teeth), using a poster to explain what kinds of food are good for your teeth and what are not. Then she explained how to brush teeth and let the five lucky winners of a toothbrush and tube of toothpaste show whether they understood the proper way to use them.

Those who had expressed musical interest during the survey were invited to a musical party, and 50 people of all ages and educational backgrounds came -- many of whom had never seen or spoken to each other. This was remarkable, considering the frequent conflicts among different families in Makkasan and the rarity of socializing, even among children. As our relationship with people deepens, it seems that they are more and more able to overcome their differences.

Another unifying program was summer camp, sponsored by the city for slum children. The 20 places which the social workers requested were quickly filled. The children wanted us to accompany them, but since we had no time, we promised to come to visit them at camp. One girl, thinking that the camp would be no fun without our members, withdrew her application. After a week, the children returned filled with excitement, bearing swimming certificates and tales of how they all cried the night before they had to return home. This one-week experience helped break down long-standing barriers among local families.

The children take special interest in swimming, so arrangements were made for the children to take free trial lessons at a local pool. The excitement of the 15 children who participated spread through the entire area and became the number one topic of conversation for parents and children alike. We encouraged the children to help each other in the rather complicated process of becoming a member of the youth center.

Darinee and Rossana taught the children who hang around the service center how to make pretty dolls from left-over pieces of cloth. This program attracted more and more children, and the increased need for more cloth was met through the many surrounding dressmaking shops. This program fascinated the children for many weeks.

We also held a drawing contest with the theme, "My village," giving the children pencils, crayons and paper and advising them on how to improve their drawing techniques. Almost 50 children participated, encouraged to express their ideas and their perception of their environment. At the end Jack Hart presented prizes to the winners and a small gift to each participant.

Later we cleared an area across the street from the service center and set up tables in the shade of some big trees. As many as 50 children would come the days our service center was open, and we offered them drawing material and friendly conversation. The variety of games and puzzles (mostly hand-made) interested many children. Our volunteers got many new ideas on what to teach the children and how to promote their personality development through some magazines.

When we started the children's activities, some of the newcomers took to stealing materials. This quickly stowed when in a rather embarrassing situation, a little girl was asked to return what she had stolen. A grandmother living in the area had observed her and given us the tip.

Our members Paiboon and Tawee began giving free haircuts to boys every Saturday. The news spread quickly, but service was suspended for a time when Paiboon left for a seminar and Tawee had to prepare for an examination.

Through varied activities, we try to help the children and young people learn to join in groups and work together. Thus, games, sports and other activities are real ways in which we can foster greater unity among people.

Adult Programs

Beginning in March, every Wednesday afternoon featured special demonstrations for adults, including techniques for making soybean milk and soybean sweets (soybeans being a good, nutritious substitute for more expensive meat) and preparing sweet potatoes. Those who attended were given flyers which included the recipes. Later demonstrations included how to make chocolate-covered nuts and sweet, dried tomatoes, which can be preserved and sold for good prices. These demonstrations attracted quite a few adults interested in finding ways to earn more money for their families.

First aid demonstrations, Thai style, include explanations of what to do in day-to-day situations: how to give a baby a bath, what to do if a snake or rabid dog bites, what to do if something gets stuck in the throat, how to handle someone who returns home completely drunk. Many of the early practical demonstrations were aimed at housewives or children, but the explanation of how to grow mango trees more quickly and easily through modern grafting techniques drew many fathers as well.

After the social workers left, we organized other adult programs as well. Two volunteers from a vocational training center came to demonstrate how to make Chinese dumplings, for those who might be interested in opening a restaurant. One member, Pornthep, gave an introduction to the work of an electrician and demonstrated the basic concept of a rower supply. Such vocational training is followed up by individual counseling when our members visit people's homes.

In mid-August, we began a literacy program for children and adults. There are many people who would like to be able to read and write Thai but are too embarrassed to go to adult school. We offered private classes in people's homes, one group in the home of a railway worker and another in one of the slum houses. However, we found that most of the students either lacked the sincerity and commitment to come to classes regularly or were hindered by family needs, rains, or other unforeseen circumstances. Furthermore, it was hard to incorporate people of all social classes; the owner of one of the railways houses would be reluctant, for instance, to welcome one of the local prostitutes into his home for literacy classes, and the railway workers refused to enter the slums. So we set up classes in a nearby school, a neutral place and open to all.

We explained to parents the importance of obtaining a birth certificate for their children, without which they cannot attend school. We also give advice on obtaining ID cards, schooling and medical treatment, as well as how to help alcoholics quit drinking.

We continue to develop close relationships with families whose children attend our classes or who help us in projects or as volunteers. We often have dinner and game events, to which entire families come.

Formal Classes

We asked the local school to let us use six classrooms four times a week during the summer vacation, because private homes could not accommodate all the students who wanted to attend classes. We offered English and mathematics for children, English and Japanese for adults. Since each class, especially the children's, require, two teachers to control the children and teach them effectively, we asked for volunteers from the Makkasan area to come and work with our members. Those who responded included a professional teacher from a government school, who gave our staff an introductory lecture on the psychology of teaching children and helped us understand the specific problems of the residents of the Makkasan area. Six young people from the Makkasan area also helped us teach.

People's initial enthusiasm to learn something often dies down when they discover it will require effort on their part. However, the students' determination to continue studying lies mainly in the closeness of the relationship between the teachers and the students. Whenever our members walk through the streets, they are welcomed by loud cries of "teacher, teacher," from every corner, and children come running up to them and throw their arms around them.

Through these activities, we want to encourage children to take more interest in their studies and use their leisure time more effectively. They also help us learn to know the children's families and understand their problems.

When the summer course ended, we got permission to continue giving some weekend classes at the school. When we expanded our work to a broader area, as many as 50 children were attending one class. Thus, we needed more teachers and more volunteers, and many people of all walks of life responded to the posters we placed in the universities, schools and public areas. We ask prospective volunteers to listen to Principle lectures first. Some people have given sporadic help, and a couple of nurses have come regularly.

While the teachers were trying to cope with the large influx of more children in the classes, the previous students developed a strong sense of jealousy and lack of love, since they now had to share the teachers' attention with the newcomers. They tried anything, good or bad, to constantly draw the teachers' attention. One little boy expressed his internal conflict in a heartrending letter to his teacher, and it became very obvious how much the love of the teachers, who come to the area every day and visit their children's homes, meant to these children, who often don't receive enough love and care in their own families. Through the teachers' care and understanding, the children went through a process of learning how to deal with such feelings in a healthy way. In a further attempt to unite the new students with the former ones, we invited them in two age groups to our center for games and dinner.

Medical Service

Staff members from our Japanese family's Rescue Committee for Indochinese Refugees began working with our Makkasan project one afternoon a week, after the four social workers left. They provide a physician and dentist, on alternating weeks, as well as a nurse and occasionally a pharmacist or other assistant.

Two family members receive the patients and issue outpatient cards, so service can be orderly. A male nurse living in Makkasan has been helping out the dentist when the rush is greatest. When time permits, medical personnel make home visits, to see patients with special problems, such as old people who cannot walk, retarded children, malnutrition cases, or hygiene cases in which it is necessary to give advice to the parents.

The dental services have been especially popular, and people respond well to the dentist, although under the circumstances, he cannot do much more than extractions. A Makkasan barber donated a barber chair to the dentist. Each child who comes for dental treatment receives a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste, donated by the Thai Red Cross Society, as an incentive for the children to cooperate with the dentist and allow him to work on their teeth.

A report on the first six months of service listed a total of 1,034 patients who came for medical consultation. The most common treatments were for colds, vitamin needs, headaches and skin diseases. We continue to maintain friendly relations with the social workers who helped us the first six months, and medical, educational and social programs continue on a regular basis.

Deep Relationships Established

In the two months of preparation and the first three months of the project, our members established an amazingly deep relationship with every family in the area. There is literally no house in which our members aren't welcome to come to chat at any hour of the day; we are offered more food and drink than we can consume. Through this, we could understand the main problems in the area. Deeper than the obvious money and hygiene problems are the underlying family and social problems. In almost every house, either the father or mother ran off -- sometimes both. Children live with relatives or step -- parents. Drinking alcohol is almost as widespread as drinking water, and children learn at a very young age to imitate adult activities, such as gambling. Makkasan is located in Bangkok's most notorious prostitution district, and the girls give their customers leads on locating drugs. Periodic police searches don't solve the problems. The area is located on the intersection of two major highways, and little children sent out by their parents to sell newspapers at all hours of the night are sometimes run over and killed by buses racing through the dark.

We concentrate on winning the trust of the people so in the future they might feel free to talk about these deeper problems and seek help in solving them. We also try to give the children and young people new kinds of experiences so they don't have to follow the pattern set by their parents or neighbors.

Some volunteers working with us have studied some of the Principle, but they don't necessarily understand it immediately. Actually, most of our guests and assistants have been girls, so this kind of work seems to be the best way to contact girls in our country. 

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