The Volunteer

Travel Stories: A Thai orphanage needed helpers to "play with the babies." Will Kern answered the call.

12.12.02 | 10:02 PM ET

My Chiang Mai guesthouse has a sign on the bulletin board from the local orphanage.

Handwritten, the sign is obviously by a woman. You can tell because the letters are all round and fat and there are little flowers drawn here and there. There’s a color photo of a wide-eyed kid at the top, about two years old. The sign is asking for volunteers.     

I’m an American, middle-aged, a little closer to the grave than the cradle, divorced, no kids. It’s not that I don’t like kids, because I do, so why don’t I have any? It just didn’t work out that way. Truth be told, I’m not very good with children.     

But I feel sorry for them. I remember childhood vividly and it was rough. So the sign says they need somebody to “play with the babies,” and that isn’t going to be me obviously, but maybe I can help out with painting or whatever needs to be done around the place.     

The Viengping Orphanage is at the back of a large, walled complex which includes the Boys’ Home, an office and a hospice for infants with HIV. I go into the office and say I want to volunteer.     

No one understands me. They don’t speak English.     

I try explaining that I am here to paint or whatever they need me to do. I even swipe phantom brush strokes with an imaginary paintbrush, but I’m not getting my point across.     

Finally a woman picks out the words “volunteer” and “orphanage” and she says: “Mayuree speak English. She teacher.” So Mayuree is who I need to talk to. They point the way.     

I step into the orphanage and see a woman, but when I ask if she’s Mayuree I am told: “She no here. She Bangkok.”     

I say: “When will she be back? I’m here to volunteer.” She says: “Oh. You volunteer. Come.”     

I’m led upstairs. The woman opens a door, I follow. Suddenly I’m standing at the threshold of a nursery. “You play with baby.”     

I look in at the kids. “Um, um!” The woman puts her hand on my back and gives me a gentle push, I trip two steps in. I look back at the door, which is closing, then out at three Thai women and 13 Thai toddlers. “But but but…” The kids see me and stumble over, arms outstretched.     

And so it’s me and the babies for an hour and a half.     

Here’s the deal about playing with babies, at least at the Viengping Orphanage. You don’t need to keep them entertained. They just want to touch you. I’m not here 30 seconds and I have three kids hanging off my neck and one planting himself in my lap. And he’s settling in. He’s not going anywhere.   

Six girls, seven boys, one- and two-year-olds, looking well-fed but all really starved for attention.     

They are all snot-nosed, huge gobs of the stuff running down or caked on their faces, and they wear dirty baby clothes with smiling cartoon characters peeking out from under unidentifiable splotches.     

The nursery is painted an off-white, the paint job slopped on, and the Heroes Of Youth (Mickey, Pluto, et al) are on the walls in jagged strokes, put there by an artist whose crude handiwork pegs him as a former prison tattooist. The characters are half-finished and uncolored, and I can only guess the artist ran out of time or paint or inclination, or all three.     

But these kids are a very colorful cast of characters themselves, with very different personalities.     

Happy is a two-year-old, and nothing bothers him. He grins from the time I walk in to the time I leave.     

Big Ears, also two, is a smart boy but a little mean, into the roughhouse even with the little girls.     

Saucer Eyes is a girl of about one, fragile and a little lost, but she has the biggest eyes you’ve ever seen in your life, eyes like an adult. Monkey Head is somewhere between an infant and a toddler. She has a big tuft of hair shooting out of her forehead and I feel really sorry for her because she cries and cries and she wanders around the room and neither I nor the three Thai women can fix what is wrong with her.     

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Will Kern is the author of the plays Hellcab and Shakespeare Kung Fu. This story, which won a 2002 Lowell Thomas award, originally appeared in The Straits Times, Singapore's national newspaper. Visit the Chiang Mai orphange website.

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