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…

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