Since 2003, a Bangkok-based company and member of the American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) called English Solutions has sponsored an annual Halloween party for underprivileged children at the Mercy Center in Khlong Toei. This was the first year I heard about it and my friend Ken and I went to volunteer.
Held the day before Halloween, the “Scream for Charity” gives hundreds of underprivileged children an opportunity to experience a fun day and a chance to get a taste of this very American of holidays. Halloween isn’t celebrated in Thailand although in the past few years it has taken on a little life of its own, especially at nightclubs. Thais love ghosts and all things spooky so Halloween is finding fertile soil in which to spread its roots.
The Khlong Toei area of Bangkok is the city’s largest slum. While I had previously been in some of the edges of the area, I had never before been into the heart of it and I was shocked. While the neighborhood is full of life, it is also teeming with poverty. One of the largest organizations helping the community is Mercy Center, a shelter for street kids, four orphanages, a hospice, a home for mothers and children with HIV/AIDS, a 400-pupil kindergarten, a community meeting place, and a serene haven in the slums with small gardens and playgrounds.
Father Joe Maier, a Catholic priest who has served in Thailand since 1967, founded Mercy Center along with Sister Mary Chantavaradom. Father Joe has become something of an institution in Bangkok, speaking truth to power and shining the spotlight on the plight of the city’s poor even when the elite class would rather they be out of sight and out of mind. His columns regularly appear in the Bangkok Post, an English language daily, telling the stories of the young people who have come through Mercy Center. Sometimes their stories end in triumph. All too often, though, they end in sorrow.
The Scream for Charity was a lot of fun. We had more than 100 volunteers, both expats and Thais, and probably 400 children. Ken and I were assigned to the trick or treat bag decorating station. Working with eight or so children at a time, we helped them decorate their bags with pictures of jack-o-lanterns, bats, and ghosts.
I didn’t have a chance to get a lot of pictures, both because we were busy working and also because the organizers asked that we hold off from taking pictures because it could become a bit of a circus. Interacting with the children was fun. Some were painfully shy, others were fairly outgoing. Some still had that childhood innocence, others had been affected by their circumstances and were already jaded. But for a few hours at least, they had fun, played games, visited the haunted house, ate food, and went home with bags of rice, candy, school supplies, and other things that are much in need.
Afterwards, Ken and I walked the couple of miles out of Khlong Toei and back up to the convention center area to catch the subway. Along the way, we remarked that it has been almost two years since our volunteer English teaching in Samut Songkhram province came to an end. It seems that it has been too long since there has been any regular volunteering in my life. Living in Thailand gives me a great appreciation for how blessed I am and how much I have that so many others don’t. I try to always be appreciative of those blessings and not take them for granted.
I’ll leave you with this trio of pictures from 2009’s Scream for Charity, courtesy of Fredrik Divall. These capture the sense of the event very nicely.