In any language

by Maria on April 9, 2014


A year has now passed since we touched down in Bangkok and one of the highlights remains volunteering at a nursery school and spending time with underprivileged children.

With so much time planned in Bangkok, a priority for me was to volunteer. James introduced me to Dwight, with In Search of Sanuk, who works with underprivileged families, including urban refugees. Where I was largely ignorant of what an urban refugees was, the opportunity to work with children captured me. I jumped at an opportunity to volunteer at a nursery school and James and I soon took to volunteering with children at their home.

The nursery school was a forty minute van ride away and I can remember the nervousness and excitement to go each week (once I got past my grogginess at the early hour). I would arrive to school 30 minutes before class began and children would be lined up in the hallway, paging through books or playing with toys.

Slowly more would arrive, dressed in clothes that showed a lot of wear and didn’t always fit as they should. We would begin to hand out the name badges, a job I was a bit challenged at, so the children would step in and grab their badge from me. Luckily I was not frequently given this job. Instead I focused on tidying the room, for it frequently looked like a tornado had gone through after the weekend.

Depending on if Thai school was in session, classes could range from 20 to 40 children. This could make for a very noisy, messy class, especially when we had the great idea for activities where they cut out paper images and then glued them! Even as we broke them into small groups, to keep them focused and learning, they made big messes and loved it.

I probably never saw them quite so blissful as the day they discovered the stickers though. You would have thought that they’d discovered gold for they could not get their hands on enough of them and soon stickers adorned their faces, clothes, finger nails…and in a quick amount of time, the classroom. It spread like wildfire, one minute they are milling about the classroom, the next it was decorated in stickers.

Nursery school and universal love of legos.

Nursery school and the universal love of legos.

The children loved class. They delighted in playing with the toys, interacting with the other children, and EATING. Coming to class meant a snack and lunch. At lunch time, there was a battle at the door to line up and be the first in line. Many of the refugee families struggle to have enough money to balance their rent and groceries, so for some, that was their first meal of the day. While chaotic for us, it was very nice knowing that they were going to be fed a good lunch of rice, meat, and a vegetable.

My first day to class, I fell in love with this adorable toddler and sat with him at lunch. I took to feeding him as he was challenged with the spoon and distracted with a toy. It cracked me up how he would guide the portions on his spoon: too many vegetables, not enough rice. He’d shake his head and give me non-verbal cues as to what he wanted.

And this is how most classes went. The children knew some English but seemed shy to speak it. Me and most of my fellow volunteers could not speak in their native tongue, so we took to pantomime and pictures to explain concepts.

We also sang many songs which helped them to imitate words, even if their pronunciations were a bit off or the meaning lost. Or perhaps the children did understand and wondered why so many monkeys were jumping on a bed and how the mother afforded each phone call to the doctor. If nothing else, they enjoyed the corresponding pantomime of shaking their finger as they belted out the words.

Over the weeks volunteering, the children would interact differently with me, feeling more comfortable. My highlight was after a break, a little girl ran up and hugged me. Prior to that, the little ones would just wave. I would have other little girls take my hand when we lined up in a circle or hide behind me when we were in the playroom downstairs. I enjoyed seeing this dynamic changed.

I looked forward to the weekly chaos of the nursery school, trying to keep all their varied attentions focused and learning new things. It was great fun and my fellow volunteers were incredible. They had an amazing ability to engage the children, donating this time to make a difference with these children.

Fun times with the kiddos.

Fun times with the kiddos.

Besides the nursery school, James and I started seeing a different group of refugee children at their home. I did crafts with them or read to them. This set of children handed out hugs more freely and had a higher comfort level with volunteers. We had a lot of fun with them and even got to take them to the park.

There they delighted in simple pleasures like feeding the fish (you’ve never seen a bag of fish food vanish so quickly!) and running in the grass. Even when our ride back vanished, the kid were fine to hang out, making a game of collecting flowers and rolling down the hill (with James). By the end they were all exhausted, falling asleep on us, as we rode back in a taxi. The toddler falling asleep in my lap. (Awwww.)

The children always seemed to be in such good spirits and were always well-behaved but you could see their past affected them in different ways. Perhaps some were just quiet children but there was a consistency with most of the older children being more reserved. The young children however sought you out, took your hand, and guided you to desired activities. James, in particular, learned this as he became a personal photographer for one little girl. She guided him around the park taking photos in front of different scenery. It was hysterical.

Getting to know the children and the opportunity to spend time with them certainly endeared us to them. They were so much fun to read or play with, soaking up the attention. In Search of Sanuk does amazing work and I felt so privileged to get to spend so much time with the children and at the nursery school. I loved seeing how language is not a barrier so long as you have a working smile and an open heart.

I would definitely recommend this opportunity, come on over to Bangkok, the water is fine (well, not literally, buy bottled water but the people are great)! Similar opportunities may also be available in your own neighborhood or check out all that In Search of Sanuk is doing! Their current project, Courageous Kitchen, with BKKFatty teaches the kids how to cook, which they are excelling at! Follow that project for new recipes and pictures of the kids with their creations.

Dwight and children supported by In Search of Sanuk.

Dwight and children supported by In Search of Sanuk.

In Search of Sanuk also provides assistance to families for housing, groceries, and works with organizations giving new opportunities to young women who have been abandoned. Volunteering your time or money always has a bit impact with In Search of Sanuk!

Benefits of volunteering with refugee children –

  • No training (or even a common language) necessary, you just need a positive attitude!
  • Children are wonderful – they are smart, funny, generous and caring.
  • You can make an immediate impact on a life – a tiny bit of encouragement can go a long way, in ANY language.
  • It is fun -AND- rewarding!

Who you’ll be working with –

  • Children! At any age they are awesome!
  • Other wonderful volunteers!

Level of commitment necessary – 

  • Depends on the organization. Many times you can set your schedule by suggesting activities.
  • OR you can find an opportunity that requests a more consistent commitment. Find one that works for you!

Would you be interested in trying out your pantomime skills?


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