Painting Smiling Faces

Catching up on the events of the past month or two, in late October I attended an annual Halloween party at the Mercy Center in the Bangkok neighborhood Khlong Toei. Mercy Center, founded by a Catholic priest who has been a longtime fixture in the surrounding slums, provides extracurricular activities and ongoing education for local children. The Halloween party is pulled together by several business owners associated with the American Chamber of Commerce.

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This was the second time I volunteered and this year I scored the assignment of working the face-painting table. While we had lots of face paint, our tools were limited and the children had high expectations: Zombie! Dracula! Ghost!

As you can imagine, over time the ghosts started to look more like vampires and the zombies started to look more like children with green faces. I was thrown for a loop when one girl asked to be a butterfly. It wasn’t until I looked at one of the face painting kits that I realized that there was a picture of a girl with a very elaborate butterfly on her.

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Regretfully, I hadn’t the tools to make her as beautiful a butterfly as on the package, but she seemed pleased with the results. I tried my best and next year will be sure to bring some proper makeup sponges (instead of just using the random foam sponges we had access to) and brushes.

Still, it was a fun time and the 300 or so children seemed to really enjoy themselves. It is neat that there are so many people who come together to create these sort of opportunities for children.


Building a Monitor Stand

While in Kansas City, the IT department decided the best solution to my laptop’s performance issues was to replace it with a new model. When I returned home, I discovered that the laptop’s size would require me to make my first visit to an obscure woodworking district that lies along the railroad tracks near the entrance to the Chalerm Mahanakorn Toll Road.


The new laptop in its place in my office armoire. The laptop is about three-quarters of an inch wider than the previous one, although thankfully they are both made by Dell and use the same docking station. (A docking station, if you aren’t familiar with it, is a device that allows your laptop to function as a desktop computer. You can turn it on while it is closed, attaching it to an external monitor, laptop, and mouse. Very helpful for those of us who really aren’t traveling anywhere with our laptops and would like a large monitor.) Since this laptop was wider than the previous one, the wooden shelf I had used as a monitor stand would no longer fit.


Alongside a dusty road near the entrances to the Khlong Toei Port and the toll road, is a row of woodworking shops. This ragged bunch of shops looks more like a shanty town than a business district, but these businesses can fashion most anything from wood. The shops closest to the port focus on making shipping pallets. Further down are shops with photo albums showing the wares from bookcases to bedposts that they have made.


Not sure which shop would be the best one, we walked for a bit until finding someone who looked welcoming rather than wary. We showed him the sketch I had drawn, explained what we were looking for, and he went off to find some sample pieces of wood to see if the quality would be sufficient. After settling on the wood, he started cutting and rough sanding. I noticed a lack of safety equipment being used by any of the workers. I also noticed that our fellow was missing part of one finger.


Looking down the inside area of the shops, it is unclear where one ends and the next begins. Perhaps it is all really just one big shop with different fronts? The railroad tracks running down the middle of the shops were no longer shiny silver on top, so I concluded that the tracks are not frequently used. That said, some repairmen with a rail repair cart appeared to be fixing the rails, so maybe they are still in service.


After about ten minutes and a couple of careful measurements (he ascribed to the “measure twice, cut once” philosophy – a good sign), the woodworker glued and nailed the legs onto the monitor stand and checked that it was level. We turned down an offer to stain it – I can do that in the future, if I so desire – and headed home. The price for materials and labor? 400 baht – about $13.50.


The finished product, the monitor on the (admittedly not the most handsome) monitor stand with the laptop underneath, and a remote keyboard. Not only is the end product completely satisfactory, but I enjoyed finally having a chance to see what was going on at the woodworking community next to the tollway entrance.

2010 Scream for Charity

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.

Hundreds of children wait for the final event of the day – trick or treating.

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.

The Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus on a shelf that usually holds a Buddha statue.

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.

Everyone, even if they weren’t showing it, was eager to get their face painted.

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.

Khlong Toei is in the port area and containers are stacked high behind many buildings.

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.

Scream 1

Scream 2

Scream 3

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.