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School for Life
Orphans and poor children learn practical skills

By Viengsavanh Phengphachan

Vientiane Times, Laos

Doi Sakhet – Fifteen-year-old Vilayouth Samoutvary remembers well the reason he left his parents to live with orphans: the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami swept away his house and everything in it.

His parents found it hard to feed him, so they sent him to the School for Life for underprivileged children in the north of Thailand. Vilayouth says he’s learned many things, including how to do the laundry by himself.

He misses his parents, but has found a new home. “I love this school because I have a lot of friends here,” he said.

The School for Life opened in 2003 in the mountains of Doi Sakhet, about 45 minutes north of Chiang Mai city. It gives free education to those who have lost their parents or come from poor or troubled homes.

The school was founded by Thaneen “Joy” Worrawittayakun and Professor Juergen Zimmer of the Free University of Berlin. It is under the Thai government and its textbooks are approved by the Ministry of Education.

But many of its subjects are quite different from a normal school. Classrooms are rarely used. Instead, children learn practical things – like hairdressing or cooking – that will help them earn a living once they leave school.

“We want students here to have good skills to be able to stand on their own legs,” said Yothin Sommanonont, director of the schools’ education department.

About 140 students are enrolled from kindergarten through grade nine. They are ethnic Thai, Akha, Lisu, Lahu and Karen – many from the border area near Myanmar.

Initially the school’s target was children who had lost their parents to AIDS. But it soon took in tsunami survivors, children whose parents had died during the government’s “war on drugs” in 2003, children with no parents or whose parents were in prison, and children forced to perform child labor.

Every year, students take the same tests that they would have to take in normal schools. There is a standard curriculum.

But among the many practical subjects they study is organic agriculture. They learn how to ensure enough water is supplied during droughts, how to attract the right insects and get rid of harmful ones, and how to achieve successful harvests using natural fertilizers.

In cooking, students use ingredients from the school’s vegetable patch and prepare meals of several courses and levels of spiciness. They cook meals for their friends, and can cook cakes and cookies to sell.

“We believe that when you learn in the classroom you rely only on the textbooks,” Yothin said. “But when you are learning from real practice, students can get more skills.”

In a small classroom with about 10 children, a five-year-old-girl is happily playing with a jigsaw puzzle at the end of the wall while other classmates play with toy trains and dolls.

The new kindergarten teacher, Mananxay Savangsouk, keeps a close eye on her students. “Nong Nat,” she says, from her chair, “can you tell me the word ‘elephant’ in English?”

The teacher said that although these students come from difficult circumstances, their abilities are just like those who study in normal schools.

“Look! These children learn English quickly,” she said. “The reason is that they play and practice directly with foreign volunteers.”

The school’s goals are to ensure the well-being of the children, to give them a new home and to offer them plenty of perspectives for their lives.
In the near future, the school also hopes to obtain Thai citizenship for all students, get special training for faculty in trauma therapy, and start commercial units in the field of “sensitive tourism.”

Students are divided into eight “families,” each with assigned teachers and helpers caring for them like real parents. The teachers closely stay with these children 24 hours a day.

This strategy has helped children like 11-year-old “Cob,” brought to the school by an NGO from Phayao province, where his parents died of AIDS when Cob was a baby.

Cob’s 80-year-old grandmother put him in a TV box, according to the school. In this box he was living like a captured monkey, kept from outsiders.

The neighbors asked police to take him away from his grandmother, and a local aid organization fed him before sending him to the School for Life.

When he first arrived, Cob found it hard to make friends. He romped around and hid behind trees and bushes. “He liked to stay alone and hide from people,” said Tawuch Chanilgul, a teacher. “Every night we had to stay with him, hug him and try to talk to him.”

These days, Cob is getting better. He lets teachers carry him. He rides a bicycle every day and plays with friends.

“He lives with us like normal students,” Tawuch said. “I believe that he will be a good person in the future.”

Copyright 2009 IMMF.