Groaning and straining around hairpin turns with 18+% road grades in high altitude, our caravan struggles to reach our destination on time.
Our destination? KaeNoi’s Priest Camp and Orphanage, located high in the north-central Thai mountains and home to almost 30 Hill Tribe and Lahu orphans.
Our Mission? To bring happiness and cheer to a group of young children being cared for by an 86 year-old venerable Buddhist monk in ill-health but with a passion for the care and education of these children. In addition, we are to repair and clean a much neglected toilet and bath-house. Doors lack latches or door-knobs, light bulbs are missing or burned out, light switches and wiring are faulty and dangerous, and the facilities are filthy.
Our caravan consists of two overloaded pickup trucks and three staff-packed tour vans. Each vehicle is loaded with food supplies and cooking equipment, sports equipment, special gifts, personal items, and building supplies.
Our Team? More than 20 NOVICA Thailand staff, and three American volunteers.
On our three-hour journey, the last 50 kilometers are the most arduous and eventful. Due to the extreme road and traveling conditions, two vans lag behind, miss a critical turn and end up at the Thai-Burmese border. Thankfully, Thai border soldiers and helpful local residents get them back on track and headed in the right direction.
KaeNoi is a mix of Thai, Hill Tribe, Burmese, and Chinese residents, mostly farmers growing a variety of vegetables to be sold in distant city markets. Narrow, single-lane roads lead us past local homes, small schools, and single-room businesses that front the road. Our destination lies up a short hill and is separated from the main village by a narrow dirt road. Entering the compound we are curiously and anxiously greeted by a group of children, sweeping up large leaves in the grassless compound with home-made bamboo brooms. Smoke from the burning piles of collected leaves hang everywhere creating a mystic mountain-top scene. Within minutes of our arrival, apprehension, trepidation, and native shyness fall away as our team actively engages the children in conversation and greeting. Communicating is a challenge as these children do not speak Thai very well or at all, but smiles and a friendly spirit are an international language.
Today’s schedule of events begins in the small temple with a short ceremony of blessing by the elderly monk upon the days’ activities, gifts and the donations we have brought.
Following the monks’ blessing, the NOVICA team is separated into 4 groups; Activity Team – overseeing 3 games for the children, Culinary Team – preparing a large meal for the entire group, Restoration Team – repairing the toilet facilities, and the Cheering Team – in charge of communication and building team spirit and excitement.
Soon the entire complex is filled with the noise of activities and excitement. News of our arrival has spread throughout the village and soon the number of children has doubled. No one is turned away! There is fun and activities for all. The sounds of laughing and of happy children resound throughout the complex and filters down into the village. Each game is played with energy and competitiveness, but the rewards of winning are happily shared by all children.
Donated sports equipment brought big smiles to the children. New soccer balls, nets, badminton rackets, birdies and tug-of-war ropes will ensure sporting activities for a long time.
While the children are caught up in the games, another group of NOVICA staff members prepares a delicious dinner feast. The smell of stir-fried pork with basil soon wafts through the trees along with boiled noodles and rice. Special dessert treats are prepared for all and numerous returns for seconds, thirds, and even fourths are common. The members of our culinary team are rock-stars!
Meanwhile, the Restoration Team, consisting of myself (Walter,) Fred Raza, Blanche Raza, and 3 NOVICA staff members are busy installing door knobs, patching holes, repairing broken switches and wiring, installing new light bulbs, scrubbing, sanitizing, and cleaning the toilet and bathing facilities. Soon we discover the complex does not have consistent electric service and when there is electricity, it is barely enough to light a few bulbs and run the well and water pump.
This realization indicates the depth of need within this community for the care of their orphan citizens. Many of these children have parents in prison because of drug traffic, being drug mules, or having been killed by factions within the drug world. Orphans are not looked well upon in many areas of Thailand and their care is often limited to foreign organizations, foundations, and NGOs. Their plight is often overlooked by local governments limited in funds and there are scant structures for their care. Our mission today cannot solve this ongoing problem, but our hope is to bring a little sunshine and happiness into one day of their lives.
NOVICA Thailands’ advance team, responsible for scoping out the needs of this project, were able to list the names of each child within the care of this small orphanage. Each child was presented with a care package consisting of personal care items, a sweater for cold weather, a small toy or stuffed animal, and some snacks.
Following the meal and clean up, we began our three-hour journey back to Chiangmai, including stopping at a temple along the way so some team members could give thanks and express gratitude for having taken part in bringing a little happiness into the lives of some of our world’s neglected citizens.
NOVICA’s Happiness Project is a huge success! Mission accomplished!