The S Words

Today’s guest post was written by Dan Hartley, a member of the ALLSAINTS team. ALLSAINTS is Not For Sale’s longest-running corporate sponsor. Dan recently travelled to Thailand to experience the impact of Not For Sale and ALLSAINTS’ partnership through Not For Sale Thailand’s annual #Free2Play activities. 

Cue The Sunset

I knew the story of Dave and Not For Sale. I’d read Dave’s book and had been in awe of Kru Nam and the team in Thailand from 5,500 miles away at AllSaints Studios in East London. But having been here for just over three days, experiencing it, meeting the people behind the names and pictures, I leave Chiang Rai with a new perspective entirely. As I write this, I’m sitting in the departures lounge of Chiang Rai International Airport.

I’d taken the opportunity to visit Japan a week ago, before catching a flight to Thailand to visit the children’s village and the NFS Thailand project. As I packed my suitcase this morning I thought of packing up to leave Tokyo. Tokyo was one of my favorite trips ever, I was on a high, overwhelmed by everyone’s kindness in Japan, the food, the shopping. But it didn’t stay my favorite trip for long.

When I arrived in our hotel in Thailand, on the banks of the Mekong River, the sun was just about to set. I’d never seen a sunset like it. I didn’t realize at the time that it would go on to represent the end of a particular view of the world, in preparation for a new one.

The “S Word”

I got to meet the legend that is Kru Nam. She was strong, kind, selfless, everything I thought she would be. She had some food with us at the hotel as we planned out the next days’ activity. We would start at the beginning, a trip to a drop in center around 45 minutes away. There we would meet Shaphiel (a former street kid, turned hero, now fighting for and caring for the next generation of kids in danger. You find this selflessness a lot here.) and Oot, a university graduate, who interned and decided this is what he wants to do full time (you see what I mean about selfless?).

The Not For Sale Thailand Team took us in to Myanmar (Burma). There I participated in what was, I’m sure, a much safer (but still intense) trip through some of the areas they work within each day. I met many inspiring people who were examples of the NFS x Krunam model working.

A Grandma – unable to cope following the drug-related death of her daughter and son-in-law (you hear this a lot too), had five grandchildren to take care of. NFS saw these kids as high risk, and took four of them into the village. The grandma hadn’t seen the kids in a year and a half, but you could tell she was happy they were doing well (there is that S word again – Selfless). It turns out one grandkid is in boarding school already, and looking to follow in the footsteps of three other NFS Thailand university graduates!

The day was an eye-opening look into what is happening on the ground every day at Not For Sale Thailand. It’s people like Shaphiel and Oot that have one of the toughest jobs, trying to educate the young kids they meet about the dangers of drugs and the right paths to follow, whilst staying aware and poised to be able to pull out any kids they see as high risk.

The “Other S Word”

Day two, still reeling from the sensory overload of Myanmar, Shaphiel and Oot, I looked forward to visiting the NFS village. I would finally meet the 50 or so kids that we had talked about on so often. As we took a sharp right off the main road down a dirt track, I felt a little nervous. I now realized I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

We approached the house, and little curious heads started popping up over walls and porches. When Dave wound down the window and yelled “sah wah dee khap”, they knew exactly who it was. “Phee Dave!” (“Uncle Dave!”) was yelled back, and more kids began popping up from everywhere. I don’t think I have ever seen so many smiles (a new S word for day two) in one place. Ranging in age from around 4 to 13 years old, the kids here have been rescued out of danger and brought to the village to be safe, educated, loved, and able to live a life free from exploitation.

Little cheeky guys began to point out my tattoos, and point to their muscles. Girls went shy, other kids simply beamed when you smiled at them. After lots, and I mean lots, of dancing and running around, the whole group performed a ceremony to show their appreciation to us and NFS. It was obvious they knew exactly who NFS was, and they all delicately poured perfumed water and petals onto our hands and giggled with excitement when you splashed them with it. Groups of girls then went around and delicately placed some of the remaining petals in their hair (cute, right?).

Tiger’s Eye

Day three couldn’t come quickly enough, these little superstars had put the biggest smile on my face. We arrived at the village just in time for dancing and more games. The hugs were more frequent now, as was the sound of “Phee Dan,” followed by outstretched arms into the air (this seems to be sign for, “hey, pick me up and shake me around until I giggle”). Of course I obliged every time.

In my entire visit, I didn’t see one tear, one tantrum, or one kid looking alone. Older and younger kids looked out for one another, helped with washing the dishes after eating, and brought us green tea and bottles of water when we looked extra hot from the dancing. You could also see that the games Kru Nam and the team introduced built confidence and inclusivity, whether it was a dance-off (with some pretty good moves from the oldest and the youngest amongst the kids), singing, or other group games. Later we had a tie-dye lesson, and the remainder of the day was filled with blue hands, green hands, and green soles of feet.

There was also a birthday cake for Dave to celebrate 10 years commitment from Not For Sale to the Thailand project.   Before we had to leave (a solid 12 hours after we got to the village in the morning), some of the kids gave us hand-drawn cards and pictures saying they loved us and would miss us.

A few of the kids were asked to volunteer and say a few words (there’s that confidence building again). The common theme was, “we love you,” “we miss you,” “thank you for making everyone smile,” “please don’t forget about us.” How can you not get tears in your eyes hearing that (answer: impossible!)?

Heartfelt thank you notes, more hugs now than I’ve ever had, and a tiger’s eye ring engraved with the word ‘NAM’ from Kru Nam, and it was time to go. It turns out my blue eyes were a talking point, and were being compared to a tiger.

Bright Colors

As I’ve said my goodbyes, it’s now possible to reflect on just what a huge impact this project is having. It’s not about short-term kudos, or a sound byte that you can get a headline with. It’s a slow burner, requiring years of patience, but the model is working. It is having a life-transforming impact on children right now, and I’ve met them – the past generations of people like Shaphiel and Gallow, the future generations of tiny little cheeky kids with beaming smiles and bright eyes, looking forward to the freedom to make their own futures.

I’ll conclude with an excerpt from an email I got from Dave a couple of hours after leaving Chiang Rai (the past 1,302 words could have been summed up in the next 25)

‘Nothing gives life such bright colors and deep meaning than a long-term dedication to a cause bigger than oneself’

Looks like I’ve found mine.

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