The Touch of A Young Heart

FEE Scholarship winner Joanna Tao has written the below article on an experience she had during the 9th University Scholars Leadership Symposium, in Bangkok, Thailand in 2018.

Empowerment of youth in humanitarian affairs issue at USLS Bangkok Thailand, 2018

In August 2018, I was fortunate enough to attend the 9th University Scholars Leadership Symposium (USLS) in Bangkok, Thailand. As a representative from the Young Reporters for the Environment (YRE) global and Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE), this week-long conference has moved my heart completely.

With 1057 youth delegates from 87 nations around the globe, we were all delegated to a special group of children on service day. Chosen to go to one of the biggest zoos in Bangkok, my group got assigned a group of children from one of the biggest slum communities. Children coming from a slum community background live between the poverty lines, with families that could not afford to live in proper housing. These children’s daily life in the slum can be relatively grim, with limited access to education, sanitation and healthcare.

Photo taken at Dusit Zoo, Bangkok Thailand

Her name is Gam, an ordinary 9 year old girl in the group. The moment I met her, I knew she was special. Children like her who grew up in the slum community have a childhood that is often opposite of the idea of an innocent and ideal childhood that you and I had. Her childhood wasn’t about toys, playgrounds and sandy beaches, her childhood involved walking on uneven and rough grounds, helping her mother, cleaning the house, and being responsible for her little brother. These responsibilities of her provides restrictions and affects her study time, as for a lot of times she will be doing domestic work to help her family instead of studying. The slum’s unhygienic living condition also restricted her growth, as she has limited access to water that is safe to drink and food with proper nutrients.

As I held her hand nervously while approaching the seal performance room, I noticed the excitement in her eyes, her feet picked up the pace rushing for the front seat closer to the stage. The performance wasn’t long, but her excitement continued to increase as she stared at the stage, it was the kind of excitement that I have never seen in my life. “Was this your first time at the zoo?” “Yes.” She nodded and replied with her limited English. Then it struck me, this is an opportunity for me to show her that the world was bigger than her tiny room at home; this stranger in front of her could make an impact on her life in just one day.

The language barrier didn’t stop us from communicating with each other, rather it made us closer. As the day progressed, Gam began to use words that I had taught her more frequently, and slowly opened up to me and became more interactive. From observing the movements of turtles and watching bears feeding, to learning how to play old school hand games, she was open minded and ready to learn. I could see from afar that each time she saw something new her eyes would brighten up, she remained upbeat and cheerful right from the beginning of the day until now, even in this humid and sticky weather. Gam never asked for ice cream, frozen drinks or snacks, even when some of the other children got to spend money on food and drinks. Instead, she just sat down beside me and took out the packed lunch in her bag and ate in silence.

This is where she touched my heart, and it shattered.

The touch of a young heart, a heart of gold so pure like hers, made me wonder and question how many times we have taken things for granted? How often do we show appreciation and say “Thank You” to those around us?

Photo taken of Gam, taken inside the Dusit Zoo near the snakes. Bangkok, Thailand 2018

How many times have we been just too ignorant to appreciate simple acts of kindness and those people who we have in our lives simply because they love us? Many of us complain about how we aren’t satisfied with our lives, the way we materialized this world and abandoned what we already have, something that these children dreamt of having one day. Clean water, basic shelter and enough food. I felt ashamed as I watched her just able to smile at most simple things in life, things that I have taken for granted throughout my childhood. Although she may not have a childhood like mine, and she may never get to experience what I had when I was her age,  she is content and happy with what she has. Being able to spend a day with her was my privilege, it made me realize that with nearly half of the world’s children like her growing up in slums – they deserve a better future.

So, what is a better future?

A better future involves helping children like Gam break through the cycle of poverty through self-discipline and determination, a way for these children living in the slums to pave their own way out. All we need is two hands that are willing to help, and a heart that is willing show kindness and love. If we care, we shouldn’t have to wait until we have a degree or a master in a profession to do something. It’s never too late to create change, and it’s never too late to create that movement. Young people are the change, we are the change makers this world needs today and right now, not tomorrow or in a few years. As it was said at the conference by Simerjeet Singh

Leadership is not about what you can get from the world, it’s about what you can do for the world”

Thank you Gam, you are more than just a child that I have helped along my journey, you have sparked that fire within me to create global movement, to love and be kind, and to create a future for children like you, a better tomorrow that is more than just a dream.