Education is the key to fighting poverty, Sr Joan Gormley tells Mags Gargan
“I don’t have any children of my own but, at any given time, I have about 100 grandchildren,” laughs Sr Joan Gormley.
Sr Joan, 81, works in the Fountain of Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya, the fastest growing tourist resort in Thailand which is attracting many visitors to its bars and brothels.
She works as a nurse in the centre caring for the health of the malnourished and neglected children of the local slums. This follows over 50 years of working with the most vulnerable and marginalised communities in South East Asia.
Originally from Dunmore, Co. Galway, Sr Joan was educated at the Presentation Sisters boarding school in Tuam. During her time there, she received a visit from two Good Shepherd Sisters from Sri Lanka and was so impressed with their work that she decided to join the order.
After initial training in Cork, Sr Joan was sent to France for further training and then went to England to study nursing. She took her final vows in 1952 and went on mission to Vietnam where she worked to help rehabilitate women who had been working in the sex trade.
“Vietnam was a lovely country,” she says. “The people were so keen to have education for their children.”
War broke out in 1955 and escalated in the 1960s as the US increased their involvement. Sr Joan remembers this as a scary time and the Tet offensive launched by the Viet Cong in 1968 particularly stands out in her memory.
“It was the Vietnamese New Year – a sacred feast of the family. The Viet Cong army, Vietnamese army and the Americans agreed a three-day truce during the celebration of the New Year. On the first night of the celebration, the truce was broken. Every base in South Vietnam was attacked and, because we were very close to a base, we were in trouble. Gunfire was coming over the convent and it ended up that we had to be taken away by helicopter with all the children. We lived on the American base for about a month and the children had classes in the army chapel every day. We went back to the convent but it was badly damaged and we had to build it back up again.”
Sr Joan left Vietnam in 1971 to work with the Good Shepherd Sisters in Malaysia, and later moved to Bangkok and then to north east Thailand – the poorest part of the country – working in an area covering 12 villages. She saw a great need to improve village life and decided to study rural development back in Ireland.
The villagers told Sr Joan they wanted two things: access to clean water and help for their children. This led to the development of the Good Shepherd Wells, income-generating handcraft organisations and pre-schools to care for the health and education needs of the local children.
“I learned a lot myself about how to help people to upgrade themselves,” she says of this time.
In 1996 Sr Joan requested an assignment in Pattaya to work with the impoverished and exploited people drawn to the resort for work. When she arrived, the Fountain of Life Children’s Centre was already operational but was situated in a small, overcrowded house. Following intensive fundraising, the new centre was opened in 2002.
A better life
The centre helps pre-school children, mainly from northeast Thailand but also from neighbouring countries, who come to Pattaya with their families seeking a better life.
Drug and alcohol abuse is common in the slum communities and children suffer from poor hygiene and malnutrition. Many of them know only their nickname and not their family name or date of birth.
Every morning, a ramshackle bus gathers up around 100 children, aged from three to 15 years old, to attend the Fountain of Life where they are given a nutritious breakfast. They receive a basic education which prepares them to enter government schools, and receive financial assistance for school uniforms and transport.
Older children are encouraged to study for their primary certificate and vocational training. Minor illnesses are treated at the centre and, as well as health education, the children are taught about their rights, especially regarding child abuse and child labour laws.
Some of the children have gone to study at third level, but still remain in touch with the centre.
“This year, one boy is studying law and one girl is studying Japanese, and we have two studying technology,” Sr Joan says. “One boy studied motor mechanics. Even when he was going to secondary school, on a Sunday he would come in to do odd jobs. Now he is married with a child and he maintains our trucks.”
Sr Joan believes that education is the key for taking people out of poverty.
“The desire of the people is to better their lives and the lives of their children and, if you can help in doing that, then that is the greatest thing you can do,” she says.
“Some people live in plenty, some people live in sufficiency and some people live in poverty, but all of us together are on our pilgrimage journey to the next life that will bring us into God’s presence.
“Jesus said before he died ‘I will give you a new commandment, to love one another as I have loved you’. So while we are on our pilgrimage journey or the walk of life, if we can be loving, compassionate and helpful to each other, I think that is the important thing.”
* Sr Joan’s work is sponsored by Thai Children’s Trust Ireland. To find out more or to make a donation see www.thaichildrenstrust.ie