We met Pawinoot Wisalootwasapoo in an open schoolroom filled with bustling children; the perfect balance to Wat Don Jan’s silent and serene courtyard. When asked why she came to the orphanage at Wat Don Jan, ten-year old Pawinoot, simply replied; “I wanted to be able to learn”. Pawinoot comes from a very poor family, with her older sister playing the role of both mom and dad. Her family had a hard time, not only with paying for school, but with buying necessities such as clothes and food. Pawinoot came to the orphanage when she was nine years old. Her older sister guided her there, explaining that it was a special opportunity to obtain a valuable education. For the past year, Pawinoot received schooling and housing at Wat Don Jan, and from this experience so far, came new ideas for her future, supported by palpable hope and exciting possibilities.
The Abbot at Wat Don Jan understands and relates to his students’ difficult childhoods. After growing up in a poor family, and struggling for his own education, he vowed at a young age to help others through this situation. Running the orphanage, he believes, is his contribution to the country and to the King. After twenty-three years, the Abbot and his orphanage have far exceeded their contribution, helping hundreds of kids realise their educational dreams.
Though the orphanage has flourished since its birth, starting with five students and now housing and educating 560, maintaining it is a constant struggle. As the Abbot explains, “Wat Don Jan does not receive any money or support from the government and that is perhaps our biggest challenge”. The students at Wat Don Jan are aged from five to 20 years old and study subjects from science to vocational arts, creating a vast need for a variety of teachers and resources. The staff is comprised entirely of volunteers and is funded through donations. One staff member expressed his amazement at what has been achieved through the goodwill and the devotion of volunteers, while outlining the great necessity that this support continues: “We need teachers, foreign or local, who are willing to volunteer as well as financial support from the community”. Without government assistance, he tells us, they must rely entirely on people who hear about them and want to help. Thankfully, the community response thus far has been wonderfully caring but as the orphanage grows, so does their need.
At present, most students leave Wat Don Jan between the ages of 17 and 20. Some take jobs, some return to help their families and some enter higher education. For those who go on to earn a degree, many receive financial assistance, even full scholarships, from Wat Don Jan or volunteer sponsors. For the Abbot, this is one of the orphanage’s most important services; to encourage and assist students through higher education. A degree opens endless doors to career and life opportunities for these students. At Wat Don Jan, education is a top priority, with future plans focused on expanding these facilities. The Abbot would like to see more of his students striving for higher education and he wants the orphanage, itself, to provide degrees. For this envision to become a reality, the orphanage will expand to new buildings but above all, they will need help, both financial and especially in volunteer form, from Chiang Mai and beyond.
Just like the orphanage, Pawinoot too has big dreams. A rarity for young children, girls especially, Pawinoot resolutely states that, “Math is my favourite subject”. Her career plans mirror her excitement for education, “I want to be a math teacher,” she tells us with a shy but determined demeanour, “I want to go to a university”. Wat Don Jan gives her the chance to pursue this dream, for Pawinoot and her fellow students, it is more than a school; it is a home, a place of peace and a new future.
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