The Harry Gulkin Schoolhouse

Written by  //  January 13, 2009  //  Asia, Education, News about Wednesday Nighters  //  No comments

A better life for children no longer remote
Schoolhouses are now being built in remote communities thanks to numerous charitable contributions, led by James Gulkin

By: TONY WALTHAM
Bangkok Post
Mae Hong Son province is remote, but whether you travel 16 hours from Bangkok by a tour bus or take the best part of three hours by air (with the right connecting flights), arriving at the provincial capital can be just the beginning of your journey.

That’s the case if your final destination happens to be where most of the province’s inhabitants live – one of the many communities that are scattered across often-inaccessible mountainous areas.

Such as the Karen village of Ban Huai Pom Fad, which takes three hours to get to from Mae Hong Son township along a dusty mountain trail that snakes for some 50km, and yet this cluster of wooden homes is still in Mae Hong Son’s Muang district.

I travelled there recently for the opening of a new village schoolhouse, and for the chance to experience fresh air in natural surroundings, and to mingle with a community of 250 people where there is no electricity, no television or FM radio signals, no mobile phone signals and no shops.

The newly-built schoolhouse is for 44 kindergarten and primary school pupils, many of whom live in outlying villages that can be several hours further away on foot.

On a Saturday morning late last November, we left Mae Hong Son shortly after 8am and along the way, after the mist cleared around mid-morning, we were greeted by dramatic views of mountains and valleys, occasionally glimpsing clear vistas across several ridges. And although we passed by a few other villages along the road, we did not see a single shop or commercial establishment before finally reaching our destination shortly before noon.

A little later, James Gulkin, the managing director of Siam Canadian Foods and one of the two people behind the initiative to raise funds to build the school, presided over the opening ceremony for the new schoolhouse in Ban Huai Pom Fad. And as he spoke, I saw one of the teachers who was attending the ceremony wipe tears of joy and emotion from her eyes.
A new schoolhouse at Ban Huai Pom Fad.

The teacher was among other school teachers present, along with the school’s pupils wearing traditional Karen dress, their parents, as well as village and district officials. These included the director and staff of Mae Hong Son Educational Service Area Office 1, while some of the main sponsors who had contributed a total of 1.5 million baht towards building the school also made the long journey there.

Also present at the event was Gulkin’s father, who travelled to Thailand from Canada to be present for the opening of the school building, which bears his name: “The Harry Gulkin Schoolhouse”.

The rugged structure of the building bears testimony to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of a construction team led by Udom Phokanha who overcame many logistics challenges and completed the work in two and a half months.

Udom, who was also the school’s architect, related how he organised over 100 shipments of sand and cement for the concrete foundations that ferried these materials, one cubic metre at a time, in four-wheel-drive pick-up trucks over the mountain trail that we had travelled along.

The structure itself, meanwhile, was built entirely of wood obtained from locally-felled trees that were used for pillars and which were cut and shaped into planks of appropriate sizes to provide a robust structure that now dominates and overlooks the community.

This schoolhouse is the fifth project jointly organised and co-sponsored by James Gulkin and Chupit Chutitum, managing director of Penner-Madison and Co, and it is the third one to address the educational needs of underprivileged children.

The two other school projects were a computer classroom at Ban Kae Sa Yai School in Surin province and the Ruth Penner Schoolhouse at Chantraram Temple School in Si Sa Ket province, Chupit explains.

The one-storey schoolhouse comprises four large rooms, one kindergarten classroom, two primary classrooms for Prathom 1 to Prathom 6 students, while the fourth room will serve as a library and administrative centre for the teachers.

Standing in front of the school, centre row from third left: Udom Pohkanha, who organised and supervised the construction of Penner-Madison and Co; managing director Chupit Chutitum; Harry Gulkin; and James Gulkin, managing director of Siam Canadian Foods, among the sponsors and Karen pupils in the foreground.

Siam Canadian Foods spearheaded the donations that helped build the schoolhouse, while the other 13 corporate sponsors included S&P Syndicate, Nippon Paint, Ocean to Ocean, Meata, Netrend, Zmedia, Export Packers of Canada, Eastern Fish of the US, In360, Tractus, Ag-Gro, Useful Food and GFC. In addition, many private individuals helped with contributions.

Chupit says her charitable work with Gulkin began with a small clinic in a remote part of Chiang Mai’s Omkoi district, where they were impressed by the self-sacrifices made by a doctor there. This was followed by giving assistance after the tsunami struck in December 2004, which they witnessed first-hand, while in Krabi at the time, she relates.

But Chupit says that offering educational opportunities to children in remote areas was her main focus now.

“Every year we select a primary school in a remote area where there’s no permanent schoolhouse and where other assistance might be needed. Our team will do a site survey, work on the schoolhouse design and raise funds from our associates and friends,” she said.

Gulkin notes how education is very important to national development. “The more educational opportunities Thai children are offered, the more they will develop themselves and the country,” he said.

Come mid-afternoon, after witnessing traditional dance ceremonies by the school children and later arranging games for them that included the universally-popular musical chairs, our group prepared to return to Mae Hong Son and Udom Phokanha, who oversaw the construction work, said it was lucky this was no longer the rainy season.

The trip back to Mae Hong Son should take us “just” three hours, he noted, explaining how, when he arrived there some four months earlier during the rainy season, the trail was a sea of mud. After first arriving, he found that he would have to wait the rains out – for six weeks – before materials could be shipped up.

During the rains, the journey up from Mae Hong Son would take as long as six hours while a 4WD vehicle bounced and slithered along the trail – and occasionally passengers would have to help push their transportation out of the mud. Udom, who is usually based in Kanchanaburi, noted that rainy season travellers to Ban Huai Pom Fad had to hope that their vehicle wouldn’t encounter another that had broken down, blocking the route entirely.

As we made our way back, leaving behind us the brand new schoolhouse and a happy community, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that while we could hop into our Isuzu MU-7 SUV and be back amid the relatively bright lights of Mae Hong Son in a matter of hours, for the youths of Ban Huai Pom Fad their only reliable way out of their village would probably be by getting a good education – and that their chances of this had now become a whole lot better.

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