Introducing Dr Amporn: The Boy With A Bamboo Heart
This is a feature length article published in August 2005 by UCA News on Dr Amporn Wathanavongs, whose autobiography will be published by Maverick House in October. The book is written by Chantal Jauvin, whose writing has captured the essence of the man.
Bright eyes shining and pigtails flying, Feaw arrives at her daycare center in school clothes and shoes, carrying a bag and schoolbooks. She is from a nearby garbage dump, the victim of both poverty and a family gone awry. Her father ran away and her mother reportedly is a prostitute in the tourist resort of Pattaya. Feaw was introduced to the center by a relative who cares for the 6-year-old girl in the absence of her parents.
“My mother promised to buy a nice hair clip for me,” Feaw says as other kids mill around the Wat Mahawong daycare center in a rundown area of Samut Prakarn on Bangkok´s southern outskirts. “I wait every day for my mother to come home, but she hardly ever comes.”
Few people understand Feaw´s disappointment as does Doctor Amporn Wathanavongs, who came to check on the center run by his NGO, Foundation for Rehabilitation and Development of Children and Family (FORDEC).
Amporn sits Feaw on his knee and chats with her. He then asks a helper at the center to make sure the little girl is given a plastic bag full of rice and vegetables to take with her. Food is scarce at the shack she calls home.
Amporn, described by a French magazine as the “foster dad of 50,000 kids,” is an expert on child welfare who gives talks at international seminars. The “doctor” in his title is an honorary degree that an American university gave him for his social work. He has been on television, dined with Thai royalty, bankers and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, and even met the late Pope John Paul II. As a devout Catholic, he is proud of the 18 pilgrimages he has made to the Marian shrine at Lourdes in France.
Sporting clean clothes and shiny black shoes, Amporn does not seem to be a man with a past, but he understands the bitterness of living at rock bottom.
“I was a beggar and a thief,” he told UCA News. His parents died when he was Feaw´s age and he spent the next 12 years on the streets of Surin, a town in Thailand´s northeast. He was totally illiterate and had to live by his wits.
His experience was so bad he tied a rope around his neck one day and tried to hang himself. When that did not work, he drank insecticide that put him into a coma for five days. “I failed to kill myself both times,” he recalled. “It was too hard to live, and too hard to die!”
Amporn knows Feaw needs more than food and education. The change in his own life came with the kindness of the late Father Alfred Bonningue, a French Catholic priest who offered him work at St. Francis Xavier Church in Bangkok when Amporn was 27. More than that, the priest showed real care for him.
At that time, he said, “I was a Buddhist monk trying to learn how to read and write.” Catholic nuns taught him English and the Jesuit priest taught him about Jesus and Mother Mary. “I had no mother since I was five,” he said. “When I got to know Mother Mary who loves and shows mercy and is gentle to everyone, I loved Mother Mary very much.” Amporn became a Catholic.
Amporn´s personal life as a street kid and his newfound Catholic faith led him to a life of service. After Father Bonningue put him on track, he eventually became Thailand representative for Christian Children´s Fund, an American NGO, a role he performed with distinction for nearly 25 years. But instead of putting his feet up and retiring when that job ended in 1997, he used his personal retirement funds to launch FORDEC on Valentine´s Day in 1998. St. Valentine is the patron of love.
Amporn tries to pass on the love he received from Father Bonningue, who died in France in 2001, to thousands of kids such as Feaw. For Feaw´s schoolmates, most of whom live in the garbage dump, the center offers not just kindergarten classes but also a chance to bathe, eat lunch and even take food home.
The daycare center is just one of about 80 child development centers that FORDEC runs. It now supports about 15,000 poor children in Thailand.
Besides daycare services for children such as Feaw, the NGO also runs programs for other youngsters as well as for the poor, handicapped, homeless, drug addicts, and people with HIV/AIDS. It has reached tens of thousands of children and their families through educational programs, scholarships, loan schemes and donations of bicycles and shoes to schoolchildren. In 2004, it spent 26.6 million baht (US$665,000) on such aid programs.
The children at Feaw´s daycare center have just sung a noisy selection of songs. Vimolmanee Plailamtaun, one of the teachers, explains some problems Feaw and the other kids face. “Children from poor families have to work for lower than standard wages,” she told UCA News. Poor children in the community are ashamed because other children call them “smelly.”
Amporn´s assistant Sumalee Jarasvichakorn points out that “people in this community get income from selling recyclable materials from the garbage dump.” According to Sumalee, some children in the Wat Mahawong community effectively become orphans when their parents disappear. Then many youngsters take to the streets to beg for food.
Amporn´s visit to the center allows him to check on Feaw´s conditions at home. He and Sumalee accompany the little girl to her place. She walks along a muddy trail through the wasteland as black storm clouds threaten rain.
At the tin-roofed hut that is Feaw´s home, Amporn chats with the garbage collectors. While Feaw changes out of her school uniform into grubby clothes, Amporn asks other kids how they are. The light banter does not hide his deep concern for those younsters who, unlike Feaw, do not go to school.
One pretty 13-year-old girl lives with her family next to Feaw in a metal-roofed hut that FORDEC built. Prasopporn Kamchai tells Amporn she is ashamed because “I cannot read and write.” She helps her parents collect iron scraps and garbage to sell. However, even this precarious existence is in danger. “The landowner has told my parents to leave,” Prasopporn explained.
He worries that young girls in the garbage slum risk being swallowed up by the sex trade. But unlike Feaw´s mother, the move would unlikely be voluntary. Amporn says the worst for Prasopporn would be for her parents to sell her, so it actually is better that she works in the garbage slum with her mother.
Amporn sounds quietly exasperated. Gazing at Prasopporn´s father sitting dejected in his hut, he says, “Sometimes you do your best to help the parents get a better life, but they do not want to grasp the opportunity.”
“We built this housing for this family,” Amporn continues. “We are trying to help, but they do not want to help themselves. Six kids in the family. The father cannot support them. He doesn´t care.”
Feaw grins as Amporn bids her goodbye. His heart tells him he must help save this fragile life in the slums. “If I can do something, I will,” he said.