The volunteering element of the trip was something I was really looking forward to, but had no idea what to expect. The group was divided in two, those of us who had opted for the childcare volunteering and had got our DBS checks prior to heading out, and those of us who wanted to do the more physical building work. I had opted for the childcare. For seven out of the 12 or so days we spent in Sangklaburi, we headed out on the Songthaew to a village pronounced Matchoo (not a clue how to spell it as I never saw any English translation). The adult villagers headed out everyday to a rubber plantation and the kids were left to their own devices. Their rudimentary classroom was on stilts, and barely big enough to hold all of them at once, but at least provided a bit of shade.
We were essentially glorified babysitters, but to me, the experience was no less meaningful. I’m not claiming to have made a long-term difference in their lives, (although learning a few English words and how to count and spell very basic things can’t be a disadvantage). I only know that I made a small specific difference in that these kids had someone to play with and look after them whilst they swam in the lake.
The kids had mainly gotten used to playing a version of bingo most mornings. They would cross out their hand-drawn squares with glee as one of us boomed out the next number. Some of the older ones had cottoned on that they could draw in the numbers as they went along, but hadn’t quite figured out how to do so subtly so as not to arouse any suspicion. What felt particularly uncomfortable for me was that the reward for winners was a bag of potato crisps – I wasn’t sure exactly how much the kids got to eat when they disappeared back into their houses for lunch. Shrewd attempts to call out the strategic numbers ensured they all pretty much ended up with a similar haul.
Song and dance was also a big part of their day. One of the sweetest songs they taught us was a chant of ‘CHANG CHANG CHANG CHAAAAANG’ whilst their arms swung infront of them; makeshift trunks.
The volunteering was a really amazing experience, clichéd as it sounds, and really put things into perspective for me. The kids were a real mix of ages, anything from about 6 months old to around 14 years – some of them did not know exactly how old they were, an alien concept to you and I. The way in which elder brothers and sisters took such care of their youngest siblings was so touching.
One of the eldest girls in a family of six or seven kids would hear her baby brother cry from across the field, drop the skipping rope with which she was playing and run straight to him. Actually being able to be a kid is something I certainly took for granted in past years. The poverty of the place was at times uncomfortable, and I found it difficult to feel like a nice person as I ate my nice lunch and took pictures on a camera that was worth more money than these children would probably ever see. I might have been sweaty but I at least headed back to a warm shower. All these kids could do was leap in the river and swap clothes between siblings to give the illusion they had new ones. That’s not to say they weren’t keen on a selfie however.
On the last day of volunteering, I left some balloons and stickers for the class learning box. I had also given away a few of my bracelets to a couple of the young girls I had spent a lot of time with, Nannung and Hwai. These swiftly replaced the string they wore as a substitute. As we prepared to leave, one of the younger boys was caught short whilst waiting to climb down the platform ladder. And so we left the village for the last time with damp eyes, humbled hearts and soggy flip-flops.