Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Help Build a Muay Thai Gym in Issan: Fight the Poverty!

I first heard of the poor rural province of Issan when I was living in Phuket and jokingly asked, "Why are all the trainers from Issan?" It turns out that growing up in the poverty, the main ways to escape are through Muay Thai or unsavory occupations.

When I heard that we could all chip in and help support this community, I knew I had to get involved. I interviewed Muay Thai fighter and advocate of the new gym Frances Wattanaya and asked why she decided to help build this new gym, what it's so important for kids to compete in Muay Thai and how it can literally save their lives.

I asked Frances more about Issan, here's what she said:
Our village is located in Nakhonratchisma Province in Northeast Thailand.  The area, more commonly referred to as Isaan, is by far the most under developed area of Thailand.  It is plagued by poverty, and low quality education.

With this systematic suppression endorsed by the Thai Government, it is hard for even the brightest of individuals to break free from this kind of isolation.

Aside from farming there are occasional labours job in the village.  If you are from a good family you have chance to get a government job at one of the schools or hospitals near by.  These jobs are difficult to get; in addition to having access to post-secondary education, you must have someone in your family who is already working within the government sign for you.  Nepotism is a big problem in Thailand, only further isolating the lower classes.

There is nothing to do here.  The schools are poorly funded and offer just the bare minimum in education and extracurricular activities.  For many years locals in the Muay Thai community talked about building a gym here, but it is just never happened because of the lack of investment.

A simple carpet is the only ring they know 
It may seem crazy and almost immoral for young kids to be learning to fight, and even competing, but in Thailand, it's part of their culture, heritage and is their national sport. It's akin to Brazilians learning to play soccer and having football be their escape from poverty. 
Frances: Our focus remains the kids and local youth.  They are the most marginalized and need it the most.  What we are hoping with this gym is that we can create a balance between developing fighters, and offering after school actives for kids.  The community has really come together to show their support.  Everyday people stop by to watch, help clean up, or bring food.  It gives the adults something else to do, something that is fun and exciting.  Others come to use the exercise equipment, like the free weights or the sit-up benches.  Overall, the gym enlists a sense of pride amounts the villagers whether they are directly involved in it or not.  

What the reality of poverty is for these kids now?

Farmers in the area don't register their incomes; instead wealth is measured how many bags of rice are harvested.  The farmers here rely solely on the rain fall for their crops, making it a very precarious career. Rice farming is incredibly arduous, but for today's current generation, also very expensive.  Rice prices are kept low while farming costs are inflated.  Furthermore, there aren't other options in the village so, many people leave to work menial labour jobs in Bangkok.  In turn, kids are left behind with their grandparents who are only able to offer minimal care due to their own poor health from the back breaking labour they have endured for generations.  

Families in Isaan have now become dependant on relatives sending money home, putting a lot of pressure on those in the capital.  Minimum wage in Thailand is approximately $10 per day with no benefits.  

*That's around $1US an hour, sometimes people get paid even less. 

The escape begins with having a place to go and something to do.

The good news is there is hope, and for the cost of us skipping one night of drinks, you can help build a real Muay Thai gym where kids need it the most, and make a difference. I donated, and you can too. Here's how you can help.

How will my contribution can help and what it will go towards?

Frances: The reason we started the gofundme campaign is that Boom and I are not set up financially to build a gym.  We need to have the full cost of construction up front to get started.  Our goal with the campaign is to raise enough money to put a roof over these kids' heads and provide them with a ring needed for training.  However, your contribution is doing so much more: it is providing them with a safe space to participate in a structured activity, it is giving them a chance to get away from poverty, and a method in which they can improve the livelihoods of their families.  Whether the kids make it to the big time or not is irrelevant, we are giving them the chance to dream!

Without running shoes, kids in Issan run in $1 sandals

I was really interested in France's story and asked her to share a bit of her story with us:
Frances: I started training Muay Thai out of Pride Gym in Trail, B.C when I was 14 years old.  My trainer Glen Kalesniko encouraged me to go to Thailand and when I was 17 I was given a scholarship by Arjan Suchart to train Muay Thai at his gym in Northern Thailand.  After working construction for a little over a year I booked a ticket to go in 2006.  I was taken to a Muay Thai street gym in Bangkok, affiliated with Sor. Thanikul, and fell in love with the gym and the community there.  

Needless to say, didn't make it to Northern Thailand. From there I fought in Bangkok for a year before moving to Isaan with my husband Boom, whom I met at the gym.  I fought all over Isaan, farmed rice with the family, and lived in the village before realizing there was nothing there for us.  My husband came back to Canada with me so could attend university.  During that time I had my daughter, and now the we are back living in Isaan.  Being able to live both in Thailand and Canada really made Boom and I aware that we in a position of privilege; we can help these kids and that is why we are doing it!

Boom and I would like to thank everyone for the outpouring of support we have received and are continuing to receive.  Every donation, regardless of the amount, is making a difference.  We promise to develop this gym with the kids best interests at heart, and to take care of them as if they were our own.

Support the campaign: http://www.gofundme.com/worwatthana

Also check out their Photo Auction on eBay to Raise Money for the Gym.

Thanks for the support and please share this post with your friends!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Hey if you've read this far, you might as well at least leave a comment. Even just to say what's up! If you have any questions about training in Thailand just ask it here in the comments and I'll answer so everyone can benefit from it.