The Volunteer

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

None of the Thai women speak English, so they can’t tell me what to do, and whatever it is I’m doing I must be doing it wrong. Why can’t I make Monkey Head stop crying?     

I’m lucky because 15 minutes after I get here, another American comes in. Fifty-seven years old, this guy is former LAPD and an ex-private detective with the L.A. county prosecutor’s office. Dale Douglas.     

Retired now, he’s come to live in Chiang Mai with his 29-year-old Thai girlfriend. He and I get along famously. This guy has grown children. I’m confident now.     

And of course he takes Monkey Head and she stops crying.     

Feeding time comes at 11 a.m., and one of the Thai women gives me a bowl of oatmeal with a little bit of meat in it and points to this kid and now he’s my charge.     

I’ll call him Hungry though he doesn’t seem like it at first. He doesn’t want to eat at all, but he does a little, then after he gets about a quarter of the way through he loses interest completely.     

I press him, putting the spoon up to his mouth and doing the humming and cajoling like I’ve seen parents do in the movies. My hands are shaking the whole time.     

Finally he starts eating, then suddenly he’s inhaling the stuff and I can’t believe all this food is going into this little kid. He keeps giving me the wai, pressing his hands together like the Thais do when they say thank you but I’m thinking this can’t be possible. The kid’s two years old. How can he know how to do that?     

The ex-cop is feeding Saucer Eyes, and he says she’s doing the same thing.     

Hungry finishes the oatmeal but not before the other boys come up and dig their hands in what’s left of it and jump off my crossed legs like a springboard. The floor in this place is really hard, and the springboarding leads to head-conking and wailing, of course.     

The cop looks down and notices there’s a huge wet spot on his jeans where Saucer Eyes is sitting. She has urinated all over his leg. The orphanage can’t afford diapers, so when a kid has to go she does it in her clothes.     

Nap time up next, which means we’re almost through, thank God, but first a shower.     

The three Thai women march the kids into a shower room next door. When they emerge, they are all clean with no snot running down their faces and they are all wearing clean clothes and smelling like soap.   

Then this two-year-old takes a big poop on the floor. Another kid walks over and sticks his hand in it. I have to lead the second kid to the Thai women and explain in sign language what that stuff is on his hand. Both kids are led to the shower for another go round.     

Nap time. 11:30 a.m. Thirteen cots are dragged out, 13 pillows. The kids lie on the cots, some gurgling, some sniffling, some sleeping. And there’s a boy and a girl crying.   
I don’t recognize them.     

They’ve been here the whole time obviously, but they’ve stayed clear of us and just kind of blended in with the others.     

The American cop and I look down at the two criers, and he says: “I know what this one needs.” He kneels down and puts his hand on the boy’s shoulder and the kid stops crying immediately.     

I kneel down and put my hand on the little girl’s back and she stops crying and shuts her eyes and falls asleep.

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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