While many of us take reading for granted, an increasing number of children grow up without learning this basic skill. Alarming statistics from the the U.S. Department of Education indicate as many as 19% of high school students graduate without being able to read and write (http://www.statisticbrain.com/number-of-american-adults-who-cant-read/).
The problem is not limited to children. In the United States alone, 32 million adults do not know how to read, either. This crisis knows no borders. According to the same research, 775 million people around the world share that common struggle.
In some countries, such as Thailand, the responsibility of teaching children to read and write falls not only to the schools, but also charities and temples. In a country without a social welfare net to rescue poverty-stricken children, destitute young boys in remote areas still turn to their village temples to survive.
Dr. Amporn Watthanavongs was one of those young boys.
In the mid-1950s, orphaned, illiterate and destitute, he returned to his birthplace, scarred by his years as a boy soldier. The monks took him in as a novice. They provided him with a safe place to sleep and a daily meal. Freed from his constant struggle for survival, young Amporn was able to turn his energies to learning. He discovered the magic of reading. In his memoir, he recalls:
“You might say I was like a peacock with its tail tucked in. I did not wish to court disaster with the abbot, but I wanted to shed my plain saffron cloth and fan out my plumage for all to see. Since my return to my village three months earlier, I had been doing something magical – learning to decode the swirls and strokes that come together to form words. I could read! I devoured everything I saw on the page, even those words I did not yet understand. I no longer felt apart from the world. The more I learned, the more tail feathers I seemed to acquire.”
Amporn first learned to read and write Pali, the language of the Buddhist scriptures. However, his “Respected Teacher” encouraged him to also learn Thai. Propelled by his new sense of hope and the freedom that reading provided, Amporn developed a passion for literacy that determined the course of his life. Encouraged by his new skills, he realized that learning English would give him access to better work opportunities in Bangkok.
In his quest to learn English, he left the temple and the only life that had provided him stability. He volunteered at a Jesuit-run mission in the slums of Bangkok in exchange for lodging and access to their small library stuffed with books in English and French. Attending classes offered at a Baptist Center when time permitted, he learned to read and write in English.
Amporn was eventually sponsored by the Jesuits to attend Xavier University in the Philippines. At the age of 27, he experienced institutional learning for the first time. He earned a certificate in social work. It would take many more years before he earned an MBA and was awarded an honorary PhD in social work by a U.S. university.
What is remarkable about Dr. Amporn’s journey is that his pursuit of learning was launched not by a traditional school experience, but by a temple. The monks who taught him to read and write were not attempting to support his school education; they were providing him with the only access he had to literacy.
Today, through FORDEC, the charity he established, Dr. Amporn is paying it forward. He has provided thousands of destitute children with teachers, classrooms, books and uniforms. A majority of these children are only able to integrate into the public high school system as a result of their non-traditional learning under the care of FORDEC. It is incumbent upon all of us in this global village to find more avenues to teach our children to read and write.
You can read more about his inspiring story of overcoming unheard of disparities, learning and giving back to countless amounts of others below. Please note a link to the book as well.
The Boy With A Bamboo Heart: The story of the street orphan who built a charity
Written by Amporn Wathanvongs with Chantal Jauvin
Orphaned at 5 years of age in a remote village in rural Thailand, Lek was thrust into a life-long struggle to find his place in the world. Alone and impoverished, he survived by begging for food in the markets of Surin until he was
recruited to fight as a boy soldier in jungles of Cambodia.
Despair and poverty lead him to attempt suicide until a stranger intervened with an offer of help. Thus begins Lek’s journey to become Dr Amporn, a man best known as a foster father to the sick, poor and destitute children of Thailand. The Boy With A Bamboo Heart is no ordinary book, it is the inspiring story of one man’s journey to find his true calling in the face of unspeakable adversity.
Learm more about his life in this touching video.
And this one…..his life through photos….