The following is an excerpt from the new book The Boy with a Bamboo Heart: The Story of a Street Orphan Who Built a Children's Charity by Chantal Jauvin.
Chapter One: Ban Sawai Jeek, 1941:
My Mother slipped away in the middle of the night without saying good-bye. Life trickled out of her over a period of three days and then she was gone. It was an illness that even the herb man could not cure. I loved my mother. She had nicknamed me “Lek”, the little one. She was the only one I had left. My father had died the previous year. I had no brothers or sisters. Like a tsunami, her death turned everything in my life upside down. I was hurled out into the world, all alone, and I was only 5 years old.
Q: Your new book The Boy with a Bamboo Heart: The Story of a Street Orphan Who Built a Children’s Charity is the harrowing and inspiring story of Lek or “Little One” (now called Dr. Amporn Wathanavongs) who went from an orphan on the streets of Thailand to the founder of a nonprofit that now helps impoverished children in Thailand learn to read and write. The book, told from the point of view of Lek, reads like a heart-wrenching poem. How did you get inside the mind of little Lek and manage to tell his sometimes tragic, sometimes heartening story so poetically?
CJ: I discovered early on while interviewing Dr. Amporn, who was in his early 70’s at the time, that he possesses a photographic memory. His memory remains vibrant to this day. He credits his mental sharpness to the fact that he was illiterate until the age of 17 which forced him to rely strongly on his memory to survive. My second discovery was Dr. Amporn’s tremendous courage. His willingness to share his life story and describe often painful memories to the point of tears in the hope of helping others.
I had the opportunity to visit many of the villages and places where Dr. Amporn’s life took place. I was impressed with his power of recollection. Places were as he described them. The trip and our interviews provided me with the imagery I needed to create the backdrop to the story. I listened to our interviews countless times, slowly visualizing his account.
I learned to listen in layers and ask more personal questions as our relationship developed until what emerged was his story. Dr. Amporn graciously reviewed every draft and provided guidance where I had overlooked or misunderstood events. In hindsight, I realize that the many drafts were meant to prepare us both for the final version. We both needed this process to find the voice in which his story needed to be told.
Q: What did you personally take from, or learn from, writing this book?
CJ: The world faces many crises today. All too often we feel powerless to act or overwhelmed by our personal situations and too exhausted to look beyond the borders of our own lives. The courage and determination demonstrated by Dr. Amporn throughout his life was a powerful reminder that all of us possess within our reach the possibility to make a difference.
Q: What message do you think Dr. Amporn is trying to convey to readers everywhere, through this book?
CJ: During one of our interviews, Dr. Amporn said, “I started with nothing. So, I’ve always thought that whatever life brings, you must help others. When you die, you cannot bring anything with you. So knowing that you have helped others because you have received help from others, well, that’s enough.”
Q: Why the title: The Boy with a Bamboo Heart?
CJ: The title emerged after the writing of the book. As a rainstorm swept through Hua Hin, where I live part of the year with my husband, I was captivated by the bamboo swaying in the midst of the storm. Once the downpour passed, the bamboo stood upright again to provide shade for the locals.
What better way to describe Dr. Amporn than by reference to bamboo?
The bamboo is known for its resilience, versatility and strength. Those are some of Dr. Amporn’s greatest personal qualities. He survived years as a street orphan and as a boy soldier. He adapted to life as a monk and then reinvented himself as a husband and a father. His will to find his way and help others has been a strong determinant throughout his journey.
But there are subtler similarities between his character and the bamboo tree. The trunk of the bamboo is composed of hollow parts and rings. This internal structure is what makes the bamboo strong. Each part of Dr. Amporn’s life is like one of these compartments. Together they form his life and make him strong.
The foundation he has created, FORDEC, is a testament to his benevolent heart. Like the bamboo, he nourishes people and produces oxygen in the form of hope and dignity. When I think of Dr. Amporn, I think of a bamboo heart.
Q: In the book, we learn that when Lek becomes a teenager he is forced to become a boy soldier in the Cambodian jungle during the Indochina War. His life is turned around when an intervening stranger suggest he learn to read and write from the monks in his village. A driving theme in your book is the power of education and literacy. What are your thoughts on literacy as key to empowerment, abroad and here at home in Philadelphia?
CJ: Literacy not only empowers but it engenders dignity and self-esteem. The ability to read and write allows people to be part of their community. Illiteracy causes shame, isolation and limits opportunities. Literacy facilitates the learning process which in turn develops critical thinking. A person who can read and write will make better choices for themselves because they are better informed and less vulnerable to negative influences.
In this age of technology, a greater volume of information is shared in written form through the internet and social media, whether in Thailand, Canada or here in Philadelphia. Literacy has become imperative. The former mentoring, storytelling and other forms of verbal learnings have vastly decreased. The power of literacy lies not only in the ability to read and write but in using these skills to understand the increasingly complex world in which we live.
Without literacy, children and adults alike struggle to take part in their communities. The ability to read and write constitutes the fundamental building block for us as a nation to address health care, environmental and equality issues.
Q: What do you think that schools in Philadelphia can learn from Dr. Amporn’s nonprofit The Foundation for Rehabilitation and Development of Children and Family (FORDEC), which currently provides education, hot meals, playtime, and laughter to impoverished children of Thailand, about education and literacy?
CJ: FORDEC shares many of the same challenges as the schools in Philadelphia: lack of funding, need for well trained staff and support for students outside of the classrooms. Thailand struggles across the board to offer quality education to its children. It often ranks very close to the bottom with respect to school performance as compared to other Asian countries. Many destitute children in Thailand would receive no basic reading, learning and adding skills without charities such as FORDEC.
FORDEC has learned that in order for their educational programs to work, they must offer the children at least one meal a day and teach them basic life skills such as personal hygiene and cleanliness. Given the economic, health and other challenges the children face at home, FORDEC also places emphasis on improving concentration, focus and self-control. The children learn that there is a time to laugh and play with abandon and a time to study and work hard. They aim not only to provide education but also to instill a sense of self-esteem and personal responsibility.
FORDEC staff, much like many of the dedicated teachers in Philadelphia, endeavor to find creative solutions to their school’s needs. FORDEC offers foreign teachers and local senior students the opportunity to teach as volunteers and gain experience. It invites seniors from high school to fulfill their community requirements by teaching computer science as FORDEC is unable to afford specialized teachers. FORDEC relies on volunteer organizations such as women’s expat groups to create opportunities for the children. For example, one such group facilitates providing the children access to a local high school pool every 2 weeks for recreation and physical exercise.
Mostly, FORDEC may serve as inspiration to educators in Philadelphia that their fight for literacy must prevail. A country’s future is dependent on the education it provides for its children.
Q: Can you describe this book in three words?
CJ: Moving, inspirational and triumphant.
Q: You initiated a writing group called The North Street Writing Group, which was active during your time writing your book. Can you tell us about your calling to create a writing group and the importance of community in a writer’s journey?
CJ: Imagine spending countless hours carefully writing and editing a 200-page work without anyone else ever writing a word you wrote. I recall a writers’ workshop in which a writer had labored for three years, after meticulous research, to create a family drama across numerous borders and cultures. When he presented his completed work to the seminar, he was “astounded” that we did not understand some of the complexities of his characters or follow his intricate plot.
There is a point in every writing project when an author must seek feedback. Writing groups provide a forum for authors to obtain critique and gain perspective on their narrative.
The North Street Writers Group met bi-weekly in the Art Museum area for 3 years. The Nissy Wigs, as the group eventually nicknamed itself, played a critical nurturing role with respect to “The Boy with a Bamboo Heart.” They helped identify where I needed to further explain Thai culture or provide deeper background to understand Dr. Amporn’s journey from street orphan to respected philanthropist.
Learn more about Chantal Jauvin and The Boy with a Bamboo Heart: The Story of a Street Orphan who Built a Children’s Charity at http://chantaljauvin.com.