THROUGHOUT MY JOURNEY during RCIA, I had shared with my spiritual director, Father PaulStaes, CICM, that I wanted to take some time off from work and do something meaningful. I felt prompted after I listened to one of his homilies on the call of Samuel. Every time I met Father Paul in church, he would always say to me, "Faith, you're still in Singapore?"
It was only a year after I got baptised in 2003 that I decided to leave my job as a producer in a video production company, and act on this nagging prompting. Rather than volunteering at any charity organisation, I chose to help the Father Ray Foundation, after seeing an article on it in CatholicNews.
I visited the Foundation's website and found that it was very well-organised and that it had a good programme for volunteers, so I applied to go to Thailand from April to October 2005. I later learnt that I was the first Singaporean to volunteer at the organisation and one of the few Asians that lasted for that long.
During my stay at Pattaya, I helped out at the School for the Deaf, the School for the Blind and the Home for Street Kids, but the majority of my time was spent taking care of babies and toddlers at the Orphanage, and teaching English at the Redemptorist Vocational School for the Disabled.
The orphanage was started during the Vietnam War when American G.I.s frequented Pattaya as a recreational area. After the American soldiers departed from Pattaya, they left behind many children. Even today, the region continues to have a reputation for (sexual) recreation, and the number of orphans continues to grow.
Before I volunteered, I had no prior experience in taking care of children. I had spent about a year teaching catechism at the Church of the Risen Christ, but that was different from teaching a foreign language to the Thai children, as these children are poor and have little background in the subject.
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Right, Faith Png (centre in photo) at the Redemptorist Vocational School for the disabled in Pattaya, Thailand.
Life at the orphanage The Father Ray Foundation taught us how to change diapers and each of us was given a teacher's manual, and we were sent to Pattaya with just that basic knowledge. Fortunately, the teachers and other volunteers at Pattaya were very helpful and I was able to cope.
In Singapore, babies are afraid of me, and I of them, but at my first visit at the orphanage, toddlers ran up to me asking to be carried, so I obliged. As the children see many people in the orphanage, it is good for them to see familiar faces on a daily basis.
In Thailand, the physically handicapped have very little future. Most of them end up selling lottery tickets by the roadside or begging. The Redemptorist Vocational School equips them with skills and trains them to become electricians, computer programmers and to hold other deskbound jobs.
At any one time, there are about 15-20 volunteers helping at the Foundation, although most of them are Westerners and some are not even Catholics.
The Father Ray Foundation is owned by the Thai Redemptorists, but they do not proselytise, so most of the orphans remain Buddhists. A group of religious sisters do bring the orphans for Mass on Sundays.
About a week before I left Pattaya, a mission team from the Archdiocesan Commission for Missionary Activity (ACMA) came for a retreat as part of their Mission Orientation Programme. I brought them around the place and they asked me many questions about their opportunities to be missionaries here. Some of them were a little disappointed to hear that I did not convert anyone in my six months here, but my reply was that I did not come here to convert souls; I came to share my time and my talent.
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Towards the end of my time in Pattaya, I was roped in to help make a video for Father Ray's memorial celebration. I had made a number of corporate videos in the past, but this time, when the video was presented to a crowd of about 2,000, some members of the audience were so touched that they cried. It was the first time anyone had ever cried after watching a video I made.
Perhaps one of my most memorable encounters was with a person with no hands and a stump where his legs should have been. I am not sure how, but he manages to wheel himself about, and he can grasp a pen with what's left of his arm. But what struck me most deeply was that he was smiling all the time.
Seeing the poor and physically disabled smiling and happy despite their situation really does put things into perspective for me. During my stay there, I met other full-time volunteers, as well as those who have returned repeatedly after going back to their home country. I now know that it is possible to become a life-long volunteer, to do without much material possessions and still be able to make ends meet.
(Faith Png is back in Singapore, working hard to earn enough to return to mission work at the orphanage in May.)
The Father Ray Foundation is the umbrella organisation that manages several social projects in Pattaya, Thailand. Named after Father Ray Brennan, an American Redemporist priest who founded the orphanage in the early 1970s, the organisation is now home to over 750 people of all ages.
More information on the Father Ray Foundation can be found at http://www.fr-ray.org/.