Chiang Rai is not a large city. And as SOLD’s Resource Center is a small ways outside of town, my first impression upon arrival was how blessedly quiet and peaceful and safe the Center was. After the hustle and bustle and shove and squeeze of Chiang Mai, SOLD is a haven of calm. And as it turns out, it is such, in more ways than one.
Let me give you a little background. The SOLD Project arose out of the vision of a group of young artists and filmmakers who set out to Thailand with the idea to do a documentary about child sex-trafficking. What they didn’t anticipate was falling in love with those same children and wanting to do more to help. Getting an education, and thus finding a ticket out of street life, in Thailand can be difficult and expensive for children coming from poor families, especially if they are from rural ethnic minority groups or refugees from Burma. So the founders of SOLD started scholarship funds to help ensure these kids could stay in school. But when they looked closer at some of the rural schools, at the sleeping or vacant teachers, the lack of classroom discipline or management…they began to see that sending the kids to school alone would not be enough.
Instead of fighting the system (a losing battle), they sought to supplement it with a Resource Center: a safe place where kids could come and get help with their studies, learn and practice English, and have access to guidance and mentorship. With the help of you lovely readers and family and friends(!), SOLD was able to build and supply the Resource Center last year.
When I hopped on the bus to come out to the Resource Center, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived. I had seen pictures of the Resource Center as it was being built and heard some of the success stories as well as some of the challenges, but none of it was anything like actually being there.
The most powerful aspect, the Resource Center’s greatest strength, I believe, is that the community believes in the project. Grandmothers and parents bring their children here on the weekend. Or the children walk or bike together to the Center. Attendance is not mandatory, it is voluntary, and still they show up. After school, the kids, of their own volition, come to play games with each other and maybe get some help on their homework. The staff at first considered holding extra lessons after school, but the kids didn’t seem so interested in that. And that is when SOLD realized what they actually offer is a place where kids can be immersed in English and hear the language – which is great – but perhaps more importantly, the kids have a safe place they can be after school. A place that is not the street. The kids are choosing to come here, which means they are not choosing a life on the street. They are choosing the intangible benefits SOLD provides over the money they might make elsewhere.
And here you see kids excited to learn. Those smiles, that pure glee, only make you want to work harder to ensure it stays that way.
In political science, we use technical terms like “community buy-in” and “incentives” and “reinforcing mechanisms.” But words don’t do justice to what you see when you are actually here.
Of course there are challenges. Of course. Challenges coming from school teachers telling the children, “Don’t bother to go to high school.” Challenges when a 14-year-old girl is caught with her boyfriend and is cast out to find work on her own. Challenges when a girl’s mother, a former sex worker herself, dies of alcoholism and leaves her daughter an orphan at the tender age of 12. These stories, they will break your heart. But these children give you strength. Their indomitable spirits, their depth, their hopes make you want to do anything to ensure they walk a better path.
And even if they falter, we tell them: At any moment, you can recreate your life. You can see where this road will take you. You know where it goes. You can choose something different. And maybe find a friend along the way.
My role with SOLD involves helping some of the older children with various professional skills. I’ll hold rotating workshops on things like: how to apply for college, how to write a resume, how to use the internet safely and effectively, basic personal accounting, etc. We’re hoping to get computers and internet out to the Resource Center. When that happens, I hope to create an email pen pal system between the kids at the Center and American high school students – a sort of international exchange, where hopefully they can learn from each other.
I can’t wait to begin!
‘Tis a funny thing, this thing called hope.