I have been thinking for a while about where to write this story and how to tell it. Should I put it on our Jojo's Sanctuary website? Should I sent it in a newsletter? My personal one or Jojo's? Finally, I decided that since it's about my personal experience and perspective, perhaps writing it on my own blog would be the best way to go about it. Be prepared, I'm kinda gonna get on my soapbox here...
It should come as no surprise that since almost every member of my family works in education, that this is something close to my heart as well. It's one of the reasons that I listed it at the top of things I wanted to address when we first started planning for Jojo's Sanctuary, and why we offer scholarships for tuition and uniforms to students who are stateless. Education is also the number one reason kids get put into orphanages by their families: because they don't have the finances to pay for the school fees or uniforms and they want their children to get an education. In the past few months, there is a new area of education I have become more passionate about.
I recently went to visit the home village of our tribal college student I know and saw the children's home where she grew up. The story she told me about her quest for an education made me both sad and angry. There are so many children's homes throughout Northern Thailand who present as a real foundation, but in actuality are just run by one person taking the money from a well-meaning western donor and just giving the bare minimum to the children they are meant to care for. A real foundation has to have a board of directors and a budget and accountability, but plenty of people open up a place for kids, have only one person who communicates between the donor and the recipient and no recourse to report if things are not being done well.
In this village, there are about 25 children in the home, most of them distantly related to one another, and all cared for by just 3 guardians, who are also distantly related to most of them and really love the kids like their family. Well, because they are family, so that's no surprise. The kids are supposed to be doing online school now during COVID, but they have no computers. The guardians told the director of the organization, who lives in the city, that they needed computers, but he just gave them a used laptop donated by the US sponsor. Without a Thai keyboard or Thai language installed, this is basically useless to them, and it's difficult to help 25 kids do homework with one 5 year old laptop to begin with. This is just one example of how this particular director is not using the donor's funds to meet the actual needs of the kids. In the mountain villages, rice is plentiful but other things are not. This place provides three meals a day for 25 kids on a budget of $65 a month, not because that's what it costs to feed them, but because that is how much they receive from the director, so they make it work.
When the student I know was growing up there, the Thai director (who lived in the city, not in the village) assured all the families that their university would be paid for by the "foundation." The village only has school until 9th grade and after that the students have to take a bus into the nearest town, about an hour and a half each direction. But this girl was lucky, she had actually attended a school that had classes every day. Many schools up in the mountains have one teacher that visits more than 5 villages a week, each for just a day. Most of those schools only go up to the 6th grade. So, at this point, when your child has completed all the school available but parents want more for them, what are the options? Option one is to marry them off at age 12. Not legal, but cheaper than the other options. Option 2 is to take a bus to the nearest town that has the next level of education and continue paying for school, which gets more expensive with each level. Option 3 is to find a children's home or orphanage who will take the kids and provide them with education, housing and food. (No wonder more than 80% of kids in orphanages worldwide have living family when they have such limited options.)
Transitioning to a larger school is not easy, though, especially if you have been used to going to class just once a day. Most kids from the mountains who take the bus drop out or fail out the first year because it's such a different learning system from what they have known. Those who can stick it out and graduate may get to go on to university.
In this student's case, and those of some of her friends from the home, they thought they would have university paid for by the foundation. But when it came time to apply, the Thai director, who visited them once a year when the major donor came from the US, decided based on his own whims that they were "unruly" kids and told them they didn't get to decide what to study, he would only pay if they studied what he told them to.
Imagine their further surprise when they finished 2 years of university, brought him the invoice for year 3 and he told them "sorry, we don't have any more money for you. You will just have to go to seminary because it's free." (Not that seminary is a bad thing, but if you have spent 2 years trying to get a nursing degree and you suddenly have to start over at seminary, just because it's free tuition, that is definitely a blow.) However, other students were able to get the full four years paid for. (My response to this was "I'd like to see the house he lives in." Sure enough, this guy lives in a fancy 5 story house and his kids are studying overseas. Gee, I wonder where their tuition went?)
You might say, "So? Just get loans for the rest of school." A great idea, but in order to get loans you need 2 things: Thai citizenship and to apply while you are a senior in high school. They don't do loans halfway through your college career and they don't do loans to kids born in the mountains without a birth certificate. OK, so what about taking a leave of absence and working and then coming back to finish? Great idea. Only problem is, to take a leave of absence, you have to pay for that semester's tuition before you can do the leave of absence paperwork. So, if you are a kid in this situation, you have to either study something you didn't want to study initially or just drop out and try to find a job with just a high school diploma.
Now, we know our intern and her friends and because of our partnership with Faithful Heart Foundation, they are able to get scholarships to allow them to finish their education. Belatedly, but better late than never! Our intern wants to study law so she can be an advocate for other kids in her village who don't have options because of their citizenship status. Her friend wants to get a degree in accounting because she wants to open her own business. Our intern said "no one has ever tried to help us like this. When I was in high school, I didn't have anyone to give me advice about how to apply for school or how to get loans. I just had to listen to the director and do what he told me. I had no choices."
This brings me to our new idea. There are all these kids growing up in the mountains who are smart and capable and have a desire to learn and study, and there are foundations down in the city where the universities are who have scholarships to give these kids. What is missing is someone on the ground to connect the dots. A dream I have is to find a way to go from village to village, speaking with students who are about to start their last year of school about what options are available to them, what classes they need to take to get into their career choice, where to apply. For example, in order to study nursing in college, you have to have studied the science and math track in high school, but many students don't know that they would need to take an additional test at the high school entrance exam to get into the science classes.
Working through college is something we take for granted in the west, but I can tell you from experience with Sophie's school that this is rarely a viable option here. It's a communal culture, so younger students are expected to do activities put on by the university every weekend and every week. Older students are expected to mentor younger students and meet with them regularly and put on the activities. Younger students are also expected to do things for their older mentors. Sophie worked at a coffee shop, but her schedule was so erratic, she only ended up working about 4 hours a week and she made just enough money to pay for her gas to get to and from work, so there really wasn't any point in working at all.
Education here is so inexpensive compared to the west, for just $1300USD you could pay for an entire semester of housing, food, books and tuition. There is also a new law that says if you were born in Thailand and graduate university you can get Thai citizenship. This is another reason I really feel passionate about supporting access to higher education.
Another issue we find a lot is families sending their children to the city to live in children's homes at the age of 6 or 7 because so many homes won't take older children because they are difficult to control. So, as a result, children grow up separated from their families and without the relationships that are the bedrock of healthy mental development. This is also a bad cycle because when families start sending their children away, the government stops paying for schools in the mountains. They need an enrollment of 70 students to pay for a full time teacher. When enrollment drops, the school goes away and then any remaining kids are basically forced into children's homes to get educated.
One idea we have is to start a program going into villages and discuss with families what their needs are and why they feel they must sent children to the city. If we can get upstream and prevent kids from being sent out from their homes by providing a few dollars a month to pay for food, then kids won't end up in orphanages or worse, living alone in the city at the age of 15 or 16 because they want to go to school and have no options in the mountains.
If children's homes started doing these evaluations as well, and shifted their focus from taking children out of their homes to providing continued education for them once they completed their education in their family villages, the social fabric of the country would be more intact and more people would be able to successfully complete their education. Yes it takes time, and yes it takes work, and it's harder to get a photo op with cute little kids when they are living in a normal family than when they are all packed into an orphanage, but it's certainly better for the mental health and long term social contribution! And imagine how awesome it would be if every orphanage with a huge cement wall supported all those kids to live in their families and then turned their place into a community center where ALL the kids in the area could have access to computers, homework help, parenting classes, literacy classes, family workshops. What a difference that would make.
There's a lot to be done, but it's good to have dreams for the future. I'd love to see the day where the day to day stuff of the office is all delegated and I can go out a couple times a week to villages and do guidance counseling with students or meet with families with little kids. Of course all of this costs money, so we have to take it just a step at a time.