Thursday, 5 July 2012


Things Learnt in a Slum About Transformation, Hope- and Football!

"UNLESS someone like YOU cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."  Doctor Seuss, from "The Lorax"

Change. Sometimes it creeps in through the secret little crevices of our lives and sets about rearranging the furniture. It shades the internal landscape so subtly, there is barely a hint anything is happening. Looking up one day, suddenly it seems, nothing remains of the life you thought you had.

Change takes many forms- tragedy and love; death and birth; betrayal and truth. Occasionally change is the big scary elephant in the room. When finally faced, you notice it standing on your foot and crapping all over the front room. It hurts and it stinks but it has to be dealt with.

People respond to change in many unconscious, often primal, ways. Some run for cover, ducking and diving behind the security of routine, habit and structured lives. Others embrace it as their escape route from responsibility or expectation. But, whether we know it or not, one thing is certain- like physical death it is the ‘other’ sure thing in our lives. It is constant and guaranteed…

Transformation is a little different. It is what occurs if you have enough faith to jump on the back of Change and ride it like a bucking bronco; if you believe in yourself- or God- or the Universe enough to drop the reins of the domesticated pony, change can be a force of something mighty good in the world.

It was an unlikely epiphany…
April was reaching out its sticky wet fingers, and no amount of complaining would stop its unwelcome advances. Shards of light from the setting sun were grasping impotently at the dusty sky, the day’s final shadows dissolved quickly as darkness pulled them down into the sewer-lined allies.

Over glasses of wine and the odd spot of shopping, talented mosaic artist (and fabulous friend) Cheryl Stansfield has been telling me tales about the incredible Barkers and the slum children of the Klong Toey. Tales that have made me laugh, made me cry, and tapped out a soulful little beat on my heart. Cheryl has been spending most of her spare time at a wee school in the heart of the slums, beautifying the walls with her art, teaching the kids English, and sorting out hundreds of blackened teeth. (Her husband’s company, CR Asia, annually donate ‘The Dental Fund.’) Fortunately- a snippet of her spare time has also been spent with me.

Who are these ‘incredible Barkers?’ I wanted to know...
Everyone uses that same word, “incredible.”  They are Australians. They have voluntarily made their home in the most unlikely place- a slum. They are helping the people raise their lot in life… by all accounts helping them a lot. Touched, moved and curious… I followed Cheryl one steamy afternoon.

Anji Barker is as true-blue Ozzie as a heartfelt chorus of ‘Waltzing Matilda.’ Her pretty mouth flows with ideas, jokes, plans for projects and quick-flips between pitch-perfect Thai (on the phone) and heartwarming Aussie vernacular (with me). “The chicks I used to visit in jail called me the swearing nun,” she laughs.  Her husband, Ash Barker (International director of UNOH, author, PHD, contemporary missionary, all-round very good guy) is on the asphalt playing soccer with the children. Boys of all ages are running as boys of all ages do, especially when they have a ball. Happy, excited, carefree. The coaches’ cry out, the boys line up, kick- and if I knew anything about football I would wax lyrical… but to me- they just looked cute! Serious and proud in their little uniforms… and proud they should be- wupping the butt of the entire league! But I am getting ahead of myself…

Anji tells me together, they founded UNOH, (Urban Neighbours of Hope) to live amongst and help poor communities on (or under) the poverty line. “We have been grossed out at times and we don’t use the ‘M’ (missionary) word because that can mean, ‘Come! We’ll force you to convert- and then we’ll help you… Are we Christians? Yes. But converting people is not our primary aim. That’s between an individual and God. We help anyone in our path- it is not for me to force anyone to do anything- just be the best I can! We took a vow of poverty so that we could truly understand the pressures these people are surviving with. Also- if we have to raise only limited funds for ourselves- it frees up more money for all our other projects.”

And projects, I discover, there are many. Anji explains, “For us it is not just about programs, and structures, but relationships with the people themselves. All of the projects, started out as raw need. At the moment, the most urgent need is the soccer program. If we don’t get funding it will be shut down…”

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language that they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.” Nelson Mandela

Ash Barker has pulled up just in time to fill me in, grinning and a little sweaty. “When we first arrived 10 years ago the kids were just kicking the ball around on the concrete. I noticed right away that some of them had real skill but they had nothing to look forward to- no uniforms and no challenge. So we organized tournaments around the local council areas. But with 100,000 people all crammed into the slum- there are few open spaces.
Friends at International schools, Harrow and NIST initially invited the kids to compete. Then Darren Jackson from Can U Kick (http://www.canukickit.net) invited our nine teams into the Bangkok Youth League. It was the real transition point. He also coached the coaches, giving them teaching-skills and confidence. Our boys more than held their own- in fact they won!”

“The children now train every night from 4.30pm, for two hours. It has been incredibly rewarding. Of course, because the kids love it… happiness is wonderful in its own right. But also because they are learning how to connect with each other, how to resolve issues, and exercise self discipline. Physically, it keeps them out of trouble- they aren’t on the streets. Let’s face it there is not a lot to do here. If the kids aren’t here we really worry about them. Some of them disappear for a few months- lured into sniffing glue. They get arrested and when they get out they come back… it is very much better for them than the alternatives! Children growing up in poverty are easily led into crime and drugs. Youth sports programmes provide a healthy, positive outlet for energy- and traumatic stress. A big highlight last year was when the Socceroos (Australian National Football team) held a special clinic for our kids when they came to play Thailand.”

“Our greatest hope for these kids is for life outside the Slum. They might choose to always live here- but that they can experience life- have a job outside. Obviously, as Christians, we hope people will be truly transformed… that they can find meaning and self-esteem and security beyond this crazy world… and that the knock-on effect will transform more lives.”

Training every night with competitions at the weekends involves 120 people. There are 12 coaches (motorbike drivers by day, coaches by night) that need transporting and feeding… how do they do it? Ash tells me “Families from Patana and NIST donate the boots… but the truth is we are desperately underfunded.” 

If you can help with the sports program- or want to know more about the many breathtakingly brilliant projects ‘the incredible Barkers’ have devised to help people in the slums help themselves, please follow this link:
“It may seem small and insignificant, but it’s not about what it is; it’s about what it becomes.” (Dr Seuss, Lorax!)

The social issues of poverty are the same everywhere, whether in an impoverished community in Australia- or a slum in South East Asia. The main disparity is that the consequences of poverty in slums like Klong Toey, are massive. There is no safety net. At home- there is always somewhere to go for free food. Here, if you don’t have money, there is no food for your kids.
Poverty is not just a lack of money. It can be loneliness, mental health issues, low self-esteem.
You could throw a million dollars at the people in our slum and they would be poor tomorrow, because you are not solving the lack of education, nutrition, skills, good-decision making, and ability to hold healthy relationships. Money alone will not fix this. It takes PEOPLE, to create change- to befriend and journey with them and create possibility from within…

Friday, 6 April 2012




“God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know it’s me.”

The 5.30am alarm is ringing a Big-Ben-bell on my iphone. Sleepy but excited I throw on a tee-shirt and Fitflops and run out the door. Today I am to meet my first hero: Sister Joan Evans. I have heard that baby-by-baby, child-by-child she is making a huge difference to many anonymous lives of Bangkok’s urban poor, and I want to find out more...
Zooming through traffic with ANZWG president Vesna Burgess and her trusty team, first light of morning reluctantly squeezes in amongst the soaring luxury condos; shining stupas; and rising smog off Sukhumvit Road. We are driving to an existence so separate from our own- it could be science fiction, may as well be an alternate reality, existing- not on another plane, but sadly less than 2kms away…
Nearing Klong Toey, Bangkok’s city streets- not exactly paved with Thai gold, become increasingly dusty, potholed, and rubbish strewn. Open sewers join the klong- generously sharing their stench, and random fanged wildlife. 21 years ago Sister Joan swapped the affluent pristine coastlines of Western Australia for a wee house in the middle of these sweltering, sprawling slums. What motivates a woman from a country with so much to choose poverty; choose selflessness… to make this choice?


“In the early days my Thai was even worse than it is now,” Sister smiles, “So I helped in the kindergartens, where I could. One day, as I was walking back through the sois, I met a young lady with a baby girl. She had no milk- and no money to buy it. Mums who are carriers of Hepatitus A,B, C- or HIV, are obviously advised not to breastfeed. Sister explains that often too, to this day, their milk doesn’t come in because they have hidden type malnourishment. They are full with rice, so not hungry- but lacking in protein, essential vitamins and minerals necessary for development and growth. Vegetables and meat are expensive… Even when the husband is still around, the wages are miniscule and they can barely afford to feed themselves. So, I began carrying a few packets of milk with me wherever I was going- that eventually became, ‘The Milk Run.’ It was a huge need- and it still is a huge need. If you are underfed and undernourished your brain cannot function. My driving force is that I believe that every person within a country has a right to a fair go- a fair deal.” 
“I originally came to Klong Toey for a meeting of religious women (Sister is a Presentation Nun) to see what help was needed. She tells me, “I was completely sold on the women and children. I was approaching retirement from my job as a high school teacher, so I just tucked away the idea of coming back. When a house in the Slum became available- we renovated and lined it completely- the walls ceiling and floor. Patching up the cracks and hopefully preventing insects, cockroaches snakes coming in.”

 “As things happen, you deal with them- I have never been really scared. You have to look after yourself!” Sister Joan points to the canal that runs through the whole of Bangkok. “They caught a two meter snake there the other night.” And what about the element of human danger? “No.” She tells me emphatically, “We are a community. Sister explains, “This is the Rong Mu community- historically there were a number of abattoirs here, which, for religious reasons, was run by Christians- so the parish was the original connection. Altogether there are about 43 communities in the Slums. The boundaries are not defined- and like the rest of us, sometimes they get on, and sometimes not,” she laughs.

It is hard to believe that malnutrition is still a constant threat in Bangkok. But the truth is, without people like Sister Joan- and her supporters (regular folk- you and me) this is the reality for underprivileged children of all ages. (Ref Government study http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12693602)  

Pulling out a large pile of immaculately kept books, she flicks through the pages telling me, “Every small amount is recorded- 20 baht, 80 baht 50 baht. The children are given money for breakfast and lunch- also bus fare to and from school. I continue this right up to secondary school, and after they commence vocational training and university. It’s a large number “Last year I think it was 79 families and 132 children, working out to be about 41,000 baht per week.

Where Does the Money Come From?
“Most of my funds come from Australia. Mainly the families at the school I used to work for. There are farmers who have suffered six-eight years of drought- and are still putting something in! It makes me want to cry. Generally it is not rich people, but people that work very hard, as hard as the people in the slums have to. People who are trying to bring up and educate families- just like here. It is valiant- and therefore to me, it is very, very important that the money I receive, goes where it is needed.”
Change Is Possible
If there was just thing that could change- what would it be? “That every Thai should be treated equally to every other Thai. I maintain that these people are not made poor, but are kept poor… they also keep themselves poor- but malnutrition affects all aspects of life. In time there is hope for equality.”
How Can You Help?
“If people want to donate they go to my website.
Donations can be made by Paypal on the site. The money is held in an Australian account. The treasurer of the congregation sends what I need- provided it’s there. The last two years the amount has dropped. Recently when I called she said she didn’t she could send the regular amount unless something happened… then, luckily, by the time I needed it, it had built up. Lots of small amounts- little old ladies give me five, ten, twenty dollars here and there when I am home. That can add up to two or three thousand dollars. Everything helps!” Sister also welcomes volunteer help, and there is also information on the site about how to donate locally
For more information please email: milkrun44@gmail.com

And so it was, with feet a little grubby, but heart so much more clean, I left Sister Joan and the Klong Toey team. “Take care of yourself Dear! She called out with a cheery wave…
There is something about someone so full of love that is contagious- I am vowing to do what I can- starting right now.


Thailand has a population of 60 million people, 10 percent live in Bangkok. 20 percent of those live in slums. Klong Toey Slum is Bangkok's largest.

·         Many of the approx. 100, 000 slum-dwellers are descendants of poor migrants from the countryside who came to build the nearby ports in the 1950’s. They then stayed to work as manual labourers, illegally occupying land owned by the Port Authority. It was however, a win/win situation. Employers had a large pool of cheap labour, and workers had accommodation near their jobs.
·      Until recently, Bangkok slums developed without planning, adequate drainage, rubbish collection or clean running water. A maze of pathways linked houses with no play areas for the children, and no schools. Many non-profit, and Christian organisations are working with the communities to improve nutrition, education and quality of life from within.

Prof Pasuk Phongpaichit (courtesy Bangkok Post) in a keynote speech on "Towards a Fair Society" conference (2009) pointed out that
20% of Thais own 69% of the country's assets. The bottom 20% owns 1%.
42% of bank savings comes from 70,000 bank accounts. Less than 1% of the people own nearly half of the country's savings.
The average income of the bottom 20% is the same as the poverty line (1443 baht p/month in 2009).
The gap between rich and poor families in Thailand is 13 times, higher than neighbouring countries.