Thailand: Just When I Needed It Most
Thai Church Scholarships Help Needy Students Realize Their Dreams
Mai can smile now, though most of her life has been no smiling matter. Twenty year-old Sirirat Rueangsri, known affectionately as Mai by her relatives and friends, lives in a small, congested two-room wooden house with her mother in Lad Prao, one of the areas in Bangkok epitomizing the city’s economic divide. Her mother is the sole bread winner in the family. With the meager wage earned as a domestic worker in other people’s homes, she could barely pay Mai’s tuition fees.
“(Life) was indeed terrible and every moment of it is still etched in my memory which can never be erased,” says Mai. After school she would help her mother with laundry work to supplement their family income. The death of Mai’s ailing grandmother left a huge debt which made life even more difficult for the two women.
As a single parent facing an increasingly difficult time making a living, Mai’s mother had to take some drastic steps. Unfortunately, it was Mai who had to face the brunt of her decisions—she could no longer afford to meet the costs for her daughter’s education.
“My life came to a standstill when I was told that I [would] not be able to continue studies further,” she recalls. She says she felt despondent that she would be compelled to sacrifice her passion for education. “Pursuing studies in the field of communication arts is my passion.”
Besides studying, Mai found that just going to school exposed her to an open, accommodating milieu where she could also make friends, which was quite different from the situation at home. At school she was able to live her dream. But that dream seemed about to suddenly vanish into thin air—a not unusual scenario for people living in the lowest strata of society the world over.
Mai knew the importance of education and desperately wanted to study so that she could have a career and break away from the fetters of poverty. “I did not know what to do, where to go and whom to ask (for help),” she told this writer.
It was at this juncture that the Lutheran Diakonia Department (LDD) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Thailand (ELCT) offered her support through its Family Development Ministry program that helps households improve their living standards. The LDD staff had known the family through its ministry among elders, which assisted Mai’s grandmother when she was ill. Mai, a Buddhist, was enlisted in their scholarship program. “Our goal is to share God’s love with people in need,” says deaconess Leena Helle, LDD director. The department helps people who are in dire need, irrespective of religious belief, social status or gender.
The LDD was established in 1987 as an ELCT department responsible for the church’s diaconal work. The diaconal ministries include work among children, youth, unmarried pregnant women, elderly people, families and people living with HIV.
Mai has been a beneficiary of the scholarship program since she was in school grade 9 (around 14 years old). She is now a third-year bachelor’s degree student in communication arts at the Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University in Bangkok. When asked to describe her current situation, she exclaims with a smile, “My life has taken a total transformation.” The scholarship came to her as a boon “just when I needed it most.” However, she still needs to depend on her mother’s support because the college fees exceed the scholarship amount she receives.
Through the LDD diaconal work, Mai learned about the Lad Prao Lutheran congregation, an encounter that has completely transformed her life. She is now a baptized Christian. The conversion process took almost three years. She is an active member of the congregation and is a member of the ELCT youth committee. Her mother was also recently baptized.
Optimistic about the Future
Mai is optimistic about her future. “After my studies I will surely get a respectable job and I need not worry about my daily bread.” Her aim is to become an editor in a leading newspaper and, more importantly, she wants her mother to quit her job and stay home. “She has toiled her entire life for my sake and it is my duty to take care of her when I earn. I am fortunate that I am able to continue my studies,” adds the communication arts’ student.
Still, according to Helle, the ELCT is aware that there are many other young people in that same area of Thailand who are deprived of an education. She affirms the LDD’s commitment to continue seeking support for them, drawing inspiration from Jesus’ words, “as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
Timothy Melvyn, communication officer for the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in India