Mission “I’m possible”: Youth volunteer competition highlights power of the next generation
BANGKOK, July 2005 – Thai youth have received quite a negative press recently. Smoking is on the rise. More young people are drinking. The kids just don't seem to respect their elders anymore. Perhaps most shockingly, as any Thai grandmother will happily tell you, the clothes that some of them wear are absolutely outrageous.
However, despite the fears of conservatives and the health implications that accompany some modern youth lifestyles, there is a positive side to the fact that a new generation is pushing at the boundaries of traditional, conformative Thai society. Why? Because while there are certainly teenagers getting loaded in the clubs, there are also loads of clubs of teenagers who are taking a long hard look at the world around them and saying: “We can do better than this.”
“Lots of young people want to help others who have less then them,” said Kritiya Sreesunpagit, the director of YIY (Why I, Why), a project that aims to foster and support youth participation in social development. “Young people have the inspiration and the idealism. The problem is that when they are young, they may not have the planning skills they need or the self belief – and once they get older and gain experience, they often forget their original ideas.”
So YIY contacted UNICEF. They had a plan, which UNICEF funded – to hold a competition for young people interested in social development. The young people would send in ideas, and the YIY team would provide funding, advice and help in turning those ideas into reality.
They had 200 entries – testament to the growing enthusiasm among young people in Thailand for social development. For many of them, this competition was the first realistic chance they had had to put their ideas into practice.
“Similar competitions run by major donors had all been in English, which excluded most Thai students,” explained Kritiya.
The criteria were simple: applications must be from young people themselves, original and likely to have a real development impact.
YIY selected 17 winners, including a library project that provided rural schools with books and rural school children with training on how to run the libraries. By training the children, the project overcame the resistance of teachers whose fears of increased workloads had stopped similar projects in the past from getting underway. The project now advises other youth groups on how to run similar interventions.
This year’s competition, entitled “I’m Possible”, came to an end last week. Winners were selected during a one-day fair in Siam Square, a shopping area infamous for being a gathering place for young people to hang out, drink, smoke and wear the clothes their grandmothers complain about.
“The best way to target young people is to be where they usually hang out,” explained Kritiya. And so, for one day, Siam Square’s ubiquitous fashion and music billboards competed for young people’s attention with booths explaining the ideas of this year’s entrants.
They included the “Movie Caravan” project, which aims to set up movie clubs in universities and schools to show films dealing with social issues, both to raise awareness and to identify students who may be interested in getting involved in development projects. They also included projects to get primary school students involved in community development in the poorer industrial neighborhoods of Bangkok, and a plan by high-school students to establish counseling systems for anxious and depressed teenagers, among whom suicide is on the rise.
But the winning application was a proposal to provide ethnic minority and stateless children in rural areas with computers and training on how to use them to find information that will help them and their agricultural communities live and work. The project’s leader, university-student Yeunyong Yiewyongyiam, explained: “The idea is that the children will be able to use the skills they learn to help them find work in the future and to help their own communities.”
The fair also showcased another YIY initiative – the Youth Volunteer Marketplace, which brings together organizations looking for volunteers and young people looking to make a difference. The idea is to give young people a chance to get their first experience of social development in a meaningful way. “Young people have a lot to offer and can provide answers to some social problems – they are more than just cheap part-time labour,” said Kritiya.
“But it is important to show real examples to convince people,” she added. Many of last year’s winners have already started to show a skeptical adult world what is possible with young people. No doubt, many of this year’s will soon be helping them.