What makes a person strive, push and reach higher, has always been a mystery to me. The moment in which a person touches their limit and they know all of a sudden than they can go just a little further. That is sheer human beauty. My throat tightens and my inner voice shouts “YES!” My reaction is so visceral that it still surprises me.
Two years ago, I met a young Thai man who triggered that response within me. Just about to turn 18, tall and shy in private, he exuded confidence as he addressed a crowd of senior municipal officials, corporate donors and individual sponsors. The occasion marked the 15th annual celebration of FORDEC’s work feeding, educating and helping thousands of destitute children and their families in Thailand.
Top – his English nickname for Sukrit Ratanadachasakool – looked intently at the parents as he spoke. He knows them, he is one of their children, he is a FORDEC alumni. His early story unfolded, too predictably, like that of millions other poor children around the world. Fatherless since the age of five, his mother ill, they struggled to eat, find shelter and survive in a country without a social net. His Mom’s autoimmune deficiency disease attacked what little “healthy” part of her life remained. She needed expensive medications. FORDEC hired her, trained her as a teacher and supported Top’s education for over fourteen years.
The conditions in which they subsisted have become clichés in our media-hungry society saturated with newsbytes of terrorism, school massacres and natural disasters. We all have our own tragedies and dramas to live and heal. Ask any child, spouse or parent of an alcoholic, someone diagnosed with cancer or the perpetually unemployed. Lack of education and lost dreams have become commonplace casualties which know no borders.
So what makes Top different?
In Thailand, where only a few, even among the emerging middle class, make it through high school; he studies international business at Suansunandha Rajabhat University (Bangkok). He collects achievement certificates the way most people crave to earn online game badges.
Like his peers, he loves to listen to music – Britt Nicole is among his favorites at the moment. He enjoys playing football with his classmates and romancing his first serious relationship. He works part-time as an emcee at weddings and department stores to help cover the cost of his education.
But in the quiet of a conversation with me, he divulges that he dreams of a future career with the United Nations to fight against child poverty and develop Thailand’s economic power. Idealistic, you might respond? Maybe not.
A few months ago, as I surfed my Facebook news feed, I felt that “YES!” choke me up. There was Top in a suit at Bangkok airport waving the Thai flag. It took me a moment to realize that he was about to get on a plane to Singapore and Malaysia. He was selected as the country’s one and only representative to attend a youth conference to promote race relations in the region (www.onepeople.sg). He looked so excited! His first trip abroad fully sponsored by the government.
He delivered a speech setting out his university activities to raise awareness of and combat corruption in his country. On his return, he was interviewed by Lightning Talk, Bangkok’s Channel 3 TV talk show. He handled himself with grace and humility in the face of such an achievement.
On February 14, 2015, I saw Top again at FORDEC’s 17th anniversary celebration. He patiently translated as Moo and Sayam, two 7 year-old girls my husband and I sponsor, peppered him with questions for us: “You like spicy food?” “How long you stay in my school?” “How cold is your country?” His voice was gentle and his attention entirely focused on them, in the manner of a protective older brother.
As I observed the exchange between them, I could not help but wonder: To what extent does education contribute to a person’s determination to reach for the stars?