Looking up to hometown heroes
For its 75th Anniversary, UNICEF features a community champion inspiring the new generation
COVID-19 isn't our first global crisis – we've recovered before and we can do it again. For The Wisdom Project launched to mark 75 years of UNICEF’s work for children, young people ask our elders where to start.
Seventeen-year-old Snooker in Bangkok’s Nang Loeng district looks up to local hero Suwan Welployngam, or Ms Deang as everyone calls her. Long before waves of social solidarity swept through the world in the wake of COVID-19, the 62-year-old had always known that communities are our front line of defence.
“I was a hothead, impatient, I wanted to make things happen. Anything that didn’t feel right, I felt the urge to intervene somehow, to make it right. I always preferred being out and about and learning from my father,” Ms Deang told Snooker about her youth.
“My father had an open house policy. He would always be helping drug addicts, drunks, men just out of prison and outcasts from all over. He would call out through a speaker in the courtyard every evening, asking if anyone needed help. Countless people found shelter thanks to him. At first, I could not comprehend why he helped those who I thought were bad people. But with time, I grew to understand that one should not be so quick to judge others.”
Her ever-growing desire to follow in her father’s footsteps, endless reserve of energy and penchant for humour paved her way to leading a local network of do-gooders who to this day, over three decades later, help their community overcome challenges big or small.
“I started doing more and more, helping people like my father did. My friends wanted to help me, so I started delegating tasks. This is how I became a sort of leader and organizer in the community. This wasn’t really the plan, it just happened. Growing up, I actually wanted to be a comedian. I always loved telling funny stories, I still do.”
The Nang Loeng community, which is home to many traditional Thai theatre and dance performers, was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and with tourism grinding to a halt. Ms Deang quickly mobilized a community response when already struggling families were losing their livelihoods. By the time people started getting sick in the community, a strong support system was already in place.
“I launched the Community x COVID-19 project to help the neighbourhood get through this time. We distribute food and supplies on an almost daily basis, and it was non-stop during the recent COVID-19 outbreak. We were all exhausted but kept going.”
Ms Deang was also the focal point for medical supplies and was instrumental in making sure that everyone in the community had access to vaccines.
She credits the younger, tech-savvy generation for teaching her how to use modern tools to manage communication and donations more efficiently. Technology also helped her turn her many ideas into reality, from T-shirts designed by local artists to virtual tours of the neighbourhood and even an evening tour on local ghost stories.
“I have always been coming up with ideas to help young people earn an income, and during these hard times, it’s become even more urgent.”
For young Snooker, Ms Deang has always been a great listener.
“She doesn’t just give advice. She listens and learns from our generation too,” she explained.
“I really love learning from young people,” said Ms Deang. “As challenging as it can seem, I always try and understand young people’s ever-changing ways of thinking. I’m always open, and I guess this is why young people put their trust in me and share their deepest fears and concerns. I try to chat with them as often as possible, since many had lost their bearings when they couldn’t go to school (during the pandemic).”
Snooker says she is inspired to help others, thanks to Ms Deang’s encouragement.
“Even if it’s just small things, like helping to cook or to carry things, it all helps, and I try to do what I can,” she said.
Snooker and her friend He-Ma say they miss the classroom and their friends but doing their bit for the community has taught them that there’s power in numbers. And this is key to Ms Daeng’s approach.
“A good community spirit is essential to rise up to all our challenges, especially now when many young people are losing hope about the future,” said Ms Deang. “It’s a two-way street of listening and giving advice. We need to listen to young people more. Our lessons based on our own past do not always apply to here and now.”
When asked if she would have done things differently in life, her answer is a resounding no.
“Thanks to my dear father, I learned that to give is empowering. My hope is that people here, in this community and elsewhere, will remember that and carry on this spirit.”
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