Romain: “Today I can say that what may seem like culture shock can be understood and bring another view of life if we take the time to open our minds to what we see.”
Before I left:
I had some apprehensions before I left because it was my first time volunteering. How should I behave? How do I communicate with the children for me who doesn’t speak Thai? What is the context of my departure? These are all questions that AIME was able to answer during the departure training day held on 5 February 2019. However, and despite all the information brought by AIME, I was unable to project myself and visualize what my missions in Baan Unrak would be.
My arrival at Baan Unrak:
It took me two days to get to Baan Unrak because the arrival time of my plane and the inter-city buses didn’t allow me to get to Kanchanaburi before the last bus to Baan Unrak. So I spent the night there and arrived the next morning. In Baan Unrak, Didi, the site manager, was waiting for my arrival. Indeed, Didi having heard about my experience in animation, I was expected to accompany a group of children to a summer camp in Klaeng (near Rayong, on the seaside) where many games are proposed by the volunteers. My experience in animation made me, in their eyes, an “expert” in games! Nevertheless, I will have missed something on my arrival: a welcome. The welcome I received was limited to showing me my room. At that time, I would have liked someone to explain to me a little about how the structure works (Where to eat and at what time?). Where does the meditation take place and at what time? Who are the other volunteers? What rules must the children living in Baan Unrak respect? Is it possible to visit the structure?…) and about what I could do, concretely for Baan Unrak. With all these outstanding questions and Didi who seemed to avoid any conversation that could answer my questions, I felt a bit lost the first few days.
One month in Baan Unrak:
The summer camp in Klaeng allowed me to get to know about 20 children. Life at the camp required more closeness with the children, unlike Baan Unrak where the children tend to stay in their rooms and are therefore harder to come across. Many games and tournaments punctuate our days. We take the time to make some visits, enjoy the beach and participate in Songkran (the water festival) which takes place all over the country. The children of Baan Unrak seem to be well received by the population who do not hesitate to offer them some fruits to nibble, free access to some visits or even a dinner!
On the food side, I had to get used to rice morning, noon and evening accompanied by various vegetables, soy proteins and spices. It’s very good to eat, but in the long run the monotony of the composition of the dishes weighs on the morale. Fortunately, most of the volunteers, including myself, eat from time to time at the Bakery: the vegetarian restaurant of Baan Unrak. This allows the menus to vary a little and add a sweet note. The other volunteers have organized themselves to make their own “European” breakfast in the houses provided for them. As for me, I preferred to make all the meals with the children, even the breakfast (with a few exceptions of course).
During my volunteering mission, I was asked, following the summer camp, to supervise a drawing competition organized on a national scale to promote access to education for women. The theme, “the empowerment”, was not easy to explain to the children, especially in English. This activity allowed me to meet the children who had not come to Klaeng. This activity also allowed me to use my drawing skills since in France, I give drawing lessons to children. I finally found my place in Baan Unrak, even if I don’t always know what to do to make myself useful. The aspect of this drawing competition that I found the least interesting was the fact that Didi (who received financial help from sponsors) asked the children who had already put their heart into drawing to do it again if the drawing didn’t correspond to her expectations. According to Didi, the name Baan Unrak is at stake and the drawings should reflect the image of the structure. In my opinion, this is where the drawing competition has lost its educational and playful aspect. However, I was surprised to see that many children accepted and even asked to start their drawing again.
On a daily basis, children are relatively autonomous. The two highlights of the day are the morning and evening meditation times. The rest of the time, during the holiday month, the children, having completed their morning chores, are free to do whatever they want. They are therefore resourceful and autonomous children who evolve in this structure. However, conflicts are not uncommon, and when they do occur, there is unfortunately no one to intervene. Conflicts do not prevent children from showing affection to each other as members of the same family.
I’ve seen a lot of food wastage by children. As soon as a fruit is not perfect, they throw it away. Also, there is often food left over that children throw in the garbage. I wonder if anyone has ever undertaken to raise awareness among these children about food waste?
To sum up, here are my main assignments at Baan Unrak:
- I supervised and animated a summer camp in Klaeng…
- Participation in writing an article on the summer camp for the Baan Unrak blog.
- Accompanying children in their household chores
- Setting up a drawing competition
- Writing an article about the drawing contest for the Baan Unrak blog
- Sale of bakery products at the local market in Songklaburi.
- Initiation of library storage
- Supervision of children during specific activities (trekking, swimming,…)
- Designing photo accessories (with the children) and taking pictures of the Bakery team for the website
My departure from Baan Unrak:
My last days in Baan Unrak, I really got to know the children who live there. That’s why, even though I was looking forward to traveling in the country, it was painful to leave all those people I had become attached to during that month. I was touched to see that some of the children cared about me and would miss me. They all asked me if I would come back. So without making a promise, I told them that it was more than possible that I would come back. If only to say hello!
The day before I left, I found myself in Didi’s office. I had hoped to do a little check-up with her but a long silence settled in instead. I wasn’t necessarily looking for any kind of recognition, just an assessment of my time at the structure and some ideas to improve the missions of the next AIME volunteers. My departure was just like my arrival, a little feverish “thank you”, and it’s over.
Why I recommend Baan Unrak to the other volunteers:
This experience will have allowed me to deepen my reflection on the education of children in France but also to take a step back from it. Today I can say that what may seem like a culture shock can be understood and bring another vision of life if we take the time to open our minds to what we see.
The children of Baan Unrak are endearing. Having a long experience in animation, I have often been confronted with “goodbyes” at the end of the stay and I thought I was used to it. But this time I was confronted with children for whom I was part of their lives. And then I felt at home in Baan Unrak. The best memory I have is that trip to the river. There was this gigantic tree that the children climbed to be able to jump from one of its branches. I would say the height was about 6-7 meters. Twice I jumped holding a child’s hand “to give them courage”. Twice, the gift of courage was reciprocal because 7 meters is still high! These two children, proud of what they had achieved, felt stronger, and so did I at the same time. It is a memory I will not forget anytime soon.
So if other volunteers want to try the Baan Unrak experience, be aware that despite the upheaval and feelings of loss that it can bring, it is an experience I highly recommend. Don’t wait for this experience to change your life. It certainly will, but not in the way you expect it to. So the best thing to do is just live it.
If you want to know more about Romain’s personal experience and his motivations for volunteering with AIME, we invite you to consult his two articles and his website: