The national education project equipping ‘left-behind’ Thai children with skills to survive

The national education project equipping ‘left-behind’ Thai children with skills to survive

Wichaya Dataroon left his hometown at age 15 to hunt for a job so he could earn money to pay off his long-overdue tuition fees. Paying up was necessary; only then would he get the certificate proving that he had completed Mathayom 3 level in school.

However his young age meant he was unable to land a job. Just as he was sinking into despair, he got a call from Chanon Preechachan, a member of Friends of Youth of Surat Thani.

Funded by the Equitable Education Fund (EEF), Chanon had started an occupation development project to provide support and help for underprivileged children like Wichaya.

“My life has changed since I joined the project,” Wichaya recounts.

Lighting the path for youth

Wichaya grew up poor and with an intimate knowledge of local gambling dens, thanks to his father’s bad habits. He never had plans for the future, as his mind was always busy with the day-to-day struggle to survive. He liked performing the traditional Manora dance but never gave it much it thought – until he received that life-changing call.

“The project gave me hopes and dreams,” Wichaya said.

He describes Chanon as a mentor, who guided him back to his hometown in Surat Thani and gave him a direction on how to build his life. Via the EEF initiative, Wichaya honed his dancing skills and began performing for cash, realizing his potential and self-esteem along the way.

“Now I’m a mentor to others and guide young delinquents for free,” Wichaya grins. “I want them to improve themselves just like I did.”

Today, Wichaya is no longer adrift without a dream. Now in his last year of secondary school, he plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree and possibly a master’s. He does not have to worry about money now, because he has a proper job. His Manora performances, plus the expert make-up services he provides, earn him up to 20,000 baht a month.

“I would not have survived if the project had not given me these skills,” Wichaya said. “But now I have proper skills and I am sure I will survive.”

Reaching out to the underprivileged

Chanon launched the project with financial support from EEF, which aims to help children and youth in need and close the education equality gap through partnership with different groups.

Over the past three years, EEF has offered financial support to groups and networks running projects that equip people with skills to support themselves. Target groups are the underprivileged, especially young dropouts. The ultimate goal is to ensure project participants discover their potential and become self-reliant.

“Our approach is different. We don’t tell children what to do, we just offer guidance by encouraging them to think and explore,” Chanon said. “We focus on youngsters who are vulnerable and empower them.”

Led by Chanon, the Ban Pak Lad Southern Manora Conservation Centre in Surat Thani’s Wiang Sa district provides a safe space for participants – both physically and mentally. Youngsters who come here are trained to identify their needs and desires and develop a sense of ownership for themselves.

“Here we hold ice-breaking activities for participants. Together they can develop a positive mindset and learn to network,” Chanon said. “Children tell me what they want to do and I give them support.”

Instead of looking for top talent, the conservation center reaches out to vulnerable youngsters, including road-racing teens and the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community. Youngsters attending the center have learned to work well together. The child performers give poorer children more roles to help them out financially.

“In our first year, the center had 51 children. Of them, 10 per cent have gone back to school,” Chanon says proudly. “We are now expanding our reach even further.”

There are 1.9 million students in Thailand who have less than 3,000 baht to survive each month, EEF assistant manager Patanapong Sukmadan said. He added that this group is most at risk of dropping out of school. Of these students, only 5 per cent go on to pursue higher education.

“When it comes to higher education, there is a big gap between the top 10 per cent and the bottom 10 per cent in terms of household income,” Patanapong said. “We are trying to bridge this gap.”

Lifelong learning

Dr Somkid Kaewthip, who manages EEF’s initiative to promote learning activities and skills for youth and unregistered laborers, said networks and groups are expected to offer skill-development activities suitable to their communities.

“Their activities can be rooted in community capital or what the local youth are interested in,” he said. “Our long-term aim is to promote lifelong learning.”

Chanon named his center after the Manora dance, but his facility teaches local youth much more, including skills in construction work, making desserts, raising livestock and making handicrafts with beads.

In Nakhon Si Thammarat, another project is reaching out to people with disabilities and equipping them with skills to earn a living.

Patanapong said EEF has deployed an area-based model to reduce educational inequality, with the belief that locals should play a key role in educational reform.

“Look at the bee-farming project in Surat Thani. That’s how a locally driven project can lure the young back into the world of learning. With more knowledge, they can also acquire a means of livelihood,” he said. “We provide alternative means of learning and teaching, paving the way for the decentralization of the education sector in the end.”

Patanapong said EEF also hopes this initiative will set an example for others to follow, so such constructive projects or partnerships with locals can expand to benefit wider target groups.

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