Thailand: Dada's Grand Plans for Helping Kids
Fifteen years ago a highly paid engineer in the Philippines gave up his job to live in a bamboo hut in western Thailand. He is now known as “Dada” to the 40 orphans he takes care of at Baan Dada in Huay Ma Lai, near Myanmar.
Baan means “house” in Thai and Dada is Sanskrit for “brother.” For the past three years I’ve led a small volunteer group to his home deep in the woods. It’s part of the Neo-Humanist Foundation and is referred to officially as Ananda Vidyadharma
I first learned of Baan Dada when a friend led a trip to a larger and better funded orphanage in the nearby town. She went as part of a group called Go-MAD. It means Go Make A Difference.
Where is it?
The nearest landmark on a map is the Three Pagoda Pass, which is now a shrine commemorating an attempt by the Japanese tried to build a railway from Singapore to India.
The nearest well known city between Baan Dada and Bangkok is Kanchanaburi (kahn chan a buu D). Even if you’ve never heard of the city itself, I’m sure you’ve heard of one of its landmarks, the bridge over the River Kwai.
Accommodation & Food
When I first led a group, I really had minimal information about the place. There were lots of photos of bamboo huts and I was curious about where my group would be staying.
Luckily we had a nice brick duplex with cold showers and indoor toilets. Dada is planning to build a technical school in the area and this will be the teacher’s house when the school is finished. There are now bunk beds downstairs and a western style toilet on one side.
I think the food is one of my favorite things about the place. Volunteers and kids are served three heaping vegetarian meals a day with rice and water.
Now the orphanage itself is in an unfinished building. The first floor is completed, but there are still two more to go. Several people have made financial and labor donations for building the house and Dada is hoping for a bit more to give the kids more space.
They are fortunate enough to be able to make their own concrete and mud bricks. The concrete bricks were used for the house and the teacher’s house.
The mud bricks are used for things like the community center, weaving center, and future kindergarten building. The mud bricks are cheap to make and dry hard as long as they are protected from the weather during the rainy season.
One thing I didn’t expect was how happy the kids were. They were always laughing and playing with us.
When I first visited there were 18 boys. It was actually known as Dada’s Boys Home. Now Baan Dada has 40 kids including 7 girls. There are two “Dadas” that run the home as well as a few mothers who do laundry and cook the meals in exchange for living there. When we visit, the kids call us “bruda” (brother) or “sista” (sister).
Dada strives to teach the kids practical life skills. The local schools provide the usual lessons, but Dada wants these kids to have some tangible skills for use in the future. Every morning the kids have a “morals” talk, then learn yoga and some learn Thai massage.
What about the villagers?
Dada makes a big effort to help the community as well as his kids. Every year when we visit we have a Christmas celebration for the villagers.
About 50 local families show up and the volunteers entertain the kids with games and then a big lunch.
Dada is not all fun and games though. He also organizes a weaving center and the goat lending project. This project involves purchasing and lending goats to families in nearby villages. There was an initial purchase of six nanny goats and one male goat. Of these, the male goat and many of the females were lent out to willing families in a nearby village. There, the females are impregnated.
After the offspring are able to take care of themselves, the goats are returned to Ananda Vidyadharma so that they can be lent out to another village. This process is repeated continuously, resulting in an ever increasing number of goats for the local residents.
I’m proud to say my first volunteer group in 2004 helped write a proposal to the American Women of Bangkok (two articles about Dada) for a grant to start the goat lending project. This project was accepted and is underway.
Part of the reason Dada is so involved with the community is because the locals can’t leave. Many of the locals are not Thai, they might be Karen, Mon, or Burmese (they don’t say Myanmarian because they don’t acknowledge the new government).
These immigrants are allowed to live in the area, but can’t leave and go to Bangkok without special permission.
Actually the weaving center is near the home in an autonomous state for Karen people. I and one other volunteer had to get special permission to enter the area just to see the weaving process.
What do they need?
They really need people to help around the home. Many donors send gifts such as toys and learning materials, which Baan Dada happily accepts, but they need volunteers to play with the kids and use the learning resources and even teach English.
During this time the volunteers take part in the many community projects as well as teach English to the kindergarten kids at the home (or any other language you know). Some of the kids aren’t even Thai and can’t get into the local school until they speak Thai and have their papers in order.
The other thing they need is money. Material gifts are great, but wear out after a while, although they do have a wish list on the site. Sometimes several people send the same thing and they have extra notebooks, but not enough blankets.
Some volunteers offer to sell the weaving and wicker products without ever visiting Thailand. Other people might have local fundraisers that raise a few hundred dollars. A few hundred dollars to the local villagers is a year’s salary.
But can we actually visit?
If you find yourself in Bangkok then visiting is easy, and Dada welcomes people for any length of time. However, keep in mind that it takes about one day to get there and one to get back so anything less than 5-7 days might not be enough time to really enjoy your time there.
I’m working on step by step directions, with photos, for getting to the nearest Sangkhlaburi; they should be on BaanDada.org soon. There is a direct VIP A/C bus that goes from Bangkok to Sangkhlaburi (san klah buu D) and it only costs about $8 for the seven-hour trip. It’s the orange and blue #99 bus from Bangkok’s bus terminal.
One thing to be aware of is that in Thailand they drive fast and pass on hills and turns, even the buses. You might want to double up on motion sickness pills.
Visiting Baan Dada has been such a rewarding experience for me. This year each volunteer was assigned 5-7 kids and we brought personalized Christmas presents for each child.
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