Unification News for December 1998

Religious Youth Service Volunteers Extend Rehab Center in Thailand

by Eric Wenzel and Delia Javanasundara

For thirteen years, the Religious Youth Service has created a model for world peace through interfaith service projects. The tradition continued in Khonkaen, Thailand, where a summer 1998 Religious Youth Service project was held.

The location for the project was the Northeast Drug Dependence Treatment Center, one Thailand's largest drug treatment programs, and a pioneer in rehabilitation therapy. The center's ambitious plan to help Thai youth wrestling with substance abuse was under strain due to recent funding cuts. RYS project coordinator, Mrs. Delia Javanasundara, then met Dr. Suchart Threethipthikoon, the center's director. Mrs. Delia delighted Dr. Suchart with news that an international group called RYS might be interested in supporting the center's work (titles followed by given names are commonly used in Thailand). The project was also made possible thanks to the tremendous efforts of Mrs. Rabieaprat Pongpanich, wife of the governor of Khonkaen and president of the local chapter of Red Cross International.

Partnering with Dr. Suchart brought extraordinary benefits to the RYS group, as Dr. Suchart was able to offer convenient accommodations, meeting rooms and transportation for the RYS group. Mrs. Delia worked with the Woman's Federation for World Peace in Thailand and Japan find financial support for the project and contacted RYS headquarters in NY seeking participants. Within a few weeks, forty volunteers were ready to come to Khonkaen. Volunteers came from China, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and the United States.

Prior to the work portion of the RYS, participants and staff gathered in Bangkok for an orientation and training designed to prepare for the RYS experience and strengthen unity and leadership skills. The orientation was guided by an international staff led by Fazida Razak, Eric Wenzel and John Gehring This period gave the international participants their first taste of Thailand , to some a shock, for Bangkok is laden with smog and heavy traffic problems, a stark contrast to the rural beauty to which they would soon experience.

The RYS took a six hour bus trip through rice fields checkered by Buddhist monasteries and rural farms as they relocated in Khonkaen in the Northeast sector of Thailand. Arriving to the Drug Treatment Center opened the eyes of many participants who had never seen the human suffering inflicted on those who are battling drug addiction. The treatment center filled with many teenagers and young adults pointed to a problem that many youth worldwide are confronting and Thailand is struggling with.

Soon after arriving a welcome banquet with 200 guests was hosted for the RYS at the Khonkaen Hotel in which the Vice-Governor, Mr. Kittisak Tungamanee, the former Chair of the IRFWP Thailand, Dr. Pichai Tovivich and Red Cross, WFWP and the National Council of Women contributed as speakers. Students of Khonkaen University provided a delightful cultural program of dance and music that opened a window to the beautiful and unique side of Thai culture. Near the conclusion of the evening, moved by the spirit of the occasion, Mrs. Rabieaprat Pongpanich, the Governor's wife began to dance and soon was joined by all the RYS participants and guests.

The morning after the welcome banquet, RYS volunteers initiated the construction of a room and bathroom for nurses attending detoxification patients and a basketball court for the patients' rehabilitation program. Although the Thai summer sun was scorching hot, the volunteers worked joyously each day. The local government through the Ministry of Public Works and the Red Cross supported the work through donating materials, food and time. The inter-generational support for those at the Treatment Center helped lift up the morale of the patients who also could recognize that life has other more positive alternatives.

During the work period, the participants experienced worship, heard presentations or visited the religious sites of Islam, Catholicism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism. More significant than the presentations and visits to religious sites, was the very personal experience each participant had in offering selfless service side by side with people from another nation. This practice continues to make RYS a unique interfaith encounter.

Along with the inter-religious component the theme of this RYS project was "Building health and harmony through service". Education programs were varied and included talks by the director of the treatment center Dr. Threethipthikoon, by Mr. Anthony Aparo of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification on, "Differences between love and sexuality", Mr. Tipmanaworn spoke on the theme: "Building global citizens through values education and multi-cultural awareness", while Dr. Charoensetsil gave a presentation on "Quest for inner peace" from a Buddhist and Sai Baba perspective. All these programs provided time for question and answers and helped stimulate team discussions.

Those who experience RYS see the service aspect of the program as a critical to achieving a working harmony among cultures and religions. Service itself, often transforms or confirms deeply held notions. Halfway through the program, a Japanese participant said he had been skeptical of volunteer programs but based on his experience at RYS, he now saw the value of charity. Realizing the transcendent joy of serving those in need, a Thai participant suggested that the nation's Buddhist monks could reap great rewards from joining a program like RYS.

In the end, some participants lamented that more groups and representatives of more religions did not participate in the project. For example, although the project was held in Thailand, there was only one Thai Buddhist monk among the participants. On the positive side, a few participants who professed to have no religious inclination spoke of the grand experience they had at the RYS and said they would recommend the program to others. Through their experience they had come to discover the universal spirit of religion and gained an appreciation of its value in today's society.

RYS projects traditionally conclude with a reflective time and by including a visit to the 13th century temple built during the Khmer civilization in Pimai added a special depth to this period of inner search. Other visits during this period included trips to the Emerald Temple, the Reclining Buddha and the Taekwood Palace. One staff member wrote during the orientation that, " Truly, we come here as lowly caterpillars-jaded by urban life-but we live here transformed-now butterflies-ready to spread our wings." Other participants were amazed that they could make such good friends with young people who came from nations that are political rivals or who had fought against each other in a world war.

With six RYS projects, Thailand ranks second to India in the number of RYS projects to date. Considering the difference in population, Thailand's support for the RYS program, and the allure of the country makes Thailand a favorite location for RYS. RYS Alumni are already considering their next Thai project.

If you are interested in learning more about, please visit us on the web at www.rys.net or contact John Gehring rys@pipeline.com or at RYS, 4 W 43 Street, New York, NY 10036 212-869-6023.

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