The Big Birthday Bash
I want to start this blog with the lessons that I have learned this past month. I learned that it is easy to do a great deal with very little sometimes, and that love makes a big difference.
On October 31st, Room to Grow organized a birthday party for 53 children at Agape boarding house. The house shelters orphans and abandoned children, as well as children from single parent families who can’t economically support them and children from extremely dangerous conditions who are vulnerable to trafficking and other dangers that haunt the border. Although R2G began organizing the party, our contribution ended up being perhaps the smallest of all the amazing flood of people who helped, donated, contributed, and participated. To all those people, whether you were present or not, I say a huge Thank You, because the party could not have been the amazing success it was without so much incredible support.
On the morning of the party, a group of about six humanitarian workers from different organizations got up early to decorate the 65 cakes that had been delivered the night before by the ZOA Refugee Care Vocational Training Bakery project in Mae La Refugee Camp. There were 55 small individual cakes for the students, and ten larger cakes for the guests. We had huge bowls of ridiculously bright icing crowding the table and before too long, we all had blobs of blue and crimson and orange all over our hands, our chairs, our faces and our mouths.
Help Without Frontiers was kind enough to provide a truck and driver to take the boxes and boxes of cakes down the highway and out to the school, which is located within view of the Moei River and the border between Thailand and Burma.
We arrived with the cakes just as Wide Horizons was setting up.
Wide Horizons is a school for young adults and adults from grassroots community organizations. In the 11 month course, the students learn intensive English as well as teaching skills and project management. The course is designed to help encourage and equip the leaders of tomorrow and I saw first hand how great the current group of students are doing in progressing towards that goal.
The Wide Horizons students did a fantastic job that day. They sung songs and told stories and played games. They helped in the kitchen and with getting the children bathed and clothed in the evening. They decorated a plain patch of ground until it looked like a place to party. I think the most important thing they did that day, however, was show the children the value of education, and what kind of future they can aspire to. Many of the Wide Horizons students were separated from their families at an early age and many lost parents and grew up in boarding houses or with extended family. Like the Agape children,
they started out with little and fought hard to gain much. I saw them
act as strong, enthusiastic and glorious role models for young children who often have
to make difficult choices between a desire for education and safety and a need to make money and support siblings.
All afternoon the Wide Horizons students sung songs and played games. There was a big bag of candy provided by Penny, a VSO volunteer, which lasted all afternoon and which brought so much excitement to the proceedings. The candy prizes lent a particular fervour to some of the races and games and a certain sugar buzz that grew as the day went on.
The Wide Horizons students were on the look out for older children taking care of younger children and had a team of students ready to take over that care so that the older students could have some time off to relax and play, too. They took over kitchen duties from some of the older girls so that they could join the three-legged races. They told stories under the shade of the trees when the day got too hot for races.
When the games and the stories were over, they helped the children bathe and get dressed in their best clothes. I think one of the girls must have brought a make up kit because the girls came out of the boarding house glittering and proud of their eye shadow, blush and lipstick.
As the sun set, the children played under balloons that had been sent to them from Canada and watched eagerly as we set out cakes on the long white tables under the streamers. Guests arrived, some of them on bicycles they had to peddle a long way out the highway and up a hill to the school.
Headmaster David led the students in singing their favourite songs, including a very loud rendition of “We Are the World.” Then we went out to sit by the tables.
The children’s face when we opened the boxes and started taking out the cakes was priceless. The cakes were quite small, but each child had one with a tiny flag sticking out with his or her name on it and that cake was for that child and that child alone.
The excitement grew.
It took quite some time to get all the children in place sitting in front of the cake with the right name. Then we had to get Wide Horizons students and the adult guests standing behind each child with a gift. There were speeches and more songs and a final singing of happy birthday when we lit the candles and the children blew them out.
There is a very sweet Burmese tradition of feeding cake to the birthday person, so the adults reached around and fed the cake to the children. Despite having such a small cake, most children then turned around and insisted on feeding a piece of cake back.
While the cakes were being eaten, adults distributed presents. R2G had put a call out to everyone in the Mae Sot community asking people to scour their houses for things which they didn’t use which might be suitable as gifts. The response was quite wonderful. It took me two completely laden motorcycle
trips to get it all out to the school. In addition to all the people from Mae Sot who came up with wonderful toys and presents, people from America and Canada also sent packages. Packages full of crayons, hotwheels, tiaras and birthday cards. Randerson Ridge Elementary school in Canada had their students each make a birthday card for a student at Agape.
Some children clutched their beautifully wrapped presents fiercely and wouldn’t open them. Others tore them open. There was no present, no matter how strange, that didn’t elicit joy and smiles. One girl pulled a pair of green plastic heart-shaped glasses out of her birthday box with a grin that would have lit up her classroom for a month it was so bright. The gifts had been separated into boys and girls gifts but it was so confusing and wild that one boy got a girl’s box by mistake. I saw him gleefully examining a pink jewelery box with just as much happiness as the boy playing with the plastic truck.
Dinner was served but it took me a long time to notice, there was so much going on. The night was full of laughter and excited talking, and singing and kids running around, showing off their toys. Some women in Australia had sent us knitted hats, enough for every child and despite the heat, kids had their hats on.
There were big pots of Burmese noodle stew, full of mushrooms and vegetables, and bowls of fresh oranges, and crispy fish crackers and all kinds of delicious food. It was a testament to how excited the children were that they weren’t simply stuffing their faces. The food was hot and delicious and we ate under the streamers and balloons, watching the children play and the sun go down.
David brought in about twenty other children who attend school during the day at Agape and who sleep at night in the factory where their parents work. We brought over the extra small cakes and the large cakes for them and there was plenty of food to go around. They joined the general madness happily.
Sitting back and watching the guests play with the children and talk to each other I didn’t see a single person who didn’t have a huge smile plastered across their face. As the day got dark, the school had the feeling of a backyard barbecue birthday, one that you might come across in any corner of the world.
I have never been a big believer in parties. I think it’s more important to raise money for a regular supply of food than a silly celebration but this party made me question that stance. It’s important for young children to know that they are special and loved as well. A birthday is a day when family and friends celebrate that you came into the world and are in their lives. These children get too many messages telling them that they shouldn’t be here and they aren’t wanted, it’s important to tell them as often and as loudly as possible that there is hope for their future and love in their loves. Thanks to the Wide Horizons students, the Mae Sot community, and friends of Agape in Canada and America and most of all thanks to Headmaster David, his wife and the school’s volunteer teachers, I think we succeeded in sending the children of Agape that message on October 31st, their birthday.