The Isaan Record unveils today a new section called “Isaan Lives.” It will feature the stories of Isaan people—the low, the mighty; the rich, the poor; the actively engaged and those just carrying on with their work and lives.
We debut with the work and life of a Village Health Volunteer who takes care of the underprivileged in a slum community that is both in the center of Khon Kaen City and yet still on the margins of Thai society.
By Zoe Swartz, Mariko Powers, and Katie Mathieson
KHON KAEN – “My life is hard but then I look around and other people have it worse than me,” says Uthumporn Srichai standing in a narrow alley of the slum community she calls home. To make a living, she works nights as a cleaner, but she spends her days as a Village Health Volunteer (VHV) looking after the people of her community.
On a daily basis Ms. Uthumporn visits the elderly, the sick, the crippled, and the mentally ill. She sees infants, children, and alcoholics. She also sees a community that is becoming more developed and unified.
Ms. Uthumporn thought her life would turn out much differently. Growing up in a rural village near the Cambodian border, she always wanted to become a teacher. But after she graduated with a BA in Education she could not pass the teacher certification test after computer skills were added to the requirements.
Ms. Umthumporn, who is single and without children, could have lost heart when her dream did not come true. Instead, she measures her life not as the teacher she could have been, but by the lives she impacts today.
“It is better to give than to receive,” says the 52-year-old, who has been a VHV for six years and receives a monthly stipend of 600 baht. She says the service she delivers to her community makes her happy and gives her confidence.
Each day, Ms. Umthumporn begins her work by delivering free lunches, donated by a local school, to disabled residents in her community and nearby neighborhoods. Amphon Phosanit, her friend and patient, is always with her providing her transportation and company.
“I realized that there were many people with disabilities who I could help, so I wrote a proposal for a budget to deliver food,” says Ms. Uthumporn, who started the new lunch delivery program a few months ago.
But she does more than deliver meals. She also visits patients to check their blood pressure and blood sugar, reminds them to take medicine, and sometimes helps them get to the hospital.
As Ms. Uthumporn and Mr. Amphon walk the narrow streets of Theparak 5, the pair are recognized and greeted with warm smiles and small talk from everyone they pass. While many VHVs only volunteer a few hours a week, Ms. Uthumporn dedicates a large portion of her day to serving her neighbors.
Theparak 5 is a slum community alongside the railroad tracks in Khon Kaen, tucked away on the margins of urban society. Many of the residents here make a living weaving baskets that sell for 50 baht apiece. Once a squatter settlement, it is now legally recognized by the government and residents have access to running water and electricity, although some still cannot afford them.
Like many other residents of the community, Ms. Uthumporn left her home in Buriram sixteen years ago to look for work in the city, eventually finding a home in the slums along Khon Kaen’s railroad tracks.
Without family networks to support them, many slum residents have limited options for home care when they become sick or immobile, a need Ms. Uthumporn recognized. “We treat each other like family members. I don’t treat them as a patient,” she says.
Ms. Uthumporn received VHV training six years ago and completed a six-month certification program in which she learned how to take care of peoples with disabilities and how to lead the blind.
This training also taught her the confidence to act proactively during crises, she says. One time, when a neighbor suffered a brain aneurism, she was the first to respond.
While eating breakfast together, the neighbor told her that he had a headache. She recalls that he had already drunk a small bottle of rice whiskey that day. He then sat down and coughed up blood. She called an ambulance and other VHVs to assist her. They administered first aid for thirty minutes before the ambulance arrived.
With no family to take care of him it was left to Ms. Uthumporn to be by his side. The man died in the hospital later that day, but Ms. Uthumporn says she “felt prepared for the situation” and is grateful that she could be there to help.
Thinking beyond how she can help others, Ms. Uthumporn makes it possible for them to help themselves– like Mr. Amphon, her driver, patient, and friend, who lost his left arm in car accident five years ago.
“I used to have a girlfriend who helped take care of me, but we broke up. We used to drink a lot,” says Mr. Amphon who rents a space in Ms. Uthumporn’s house.
She encouraged him to get sober during Buddhist Lent, and she helped him secure disability benefits from the government. “I didn’t have a disability card so I didn’t know what benefits I should be getting from the government until I started renting from Ms. Uthumporn,” he says.
In the small living area they share, Mr. Amphon pulls out a rudimentary portable speaker with his right hand and plugs in a USB drive with recordings of his favorite songs. Ms. Uthumporn bought him the speaker and encouraged him to use his talents to work as a street musician at nearby markets.
“My life is a lot better now because [Ms. Uthumporn] helped me to go out and get a job for myself. Without her I would be homeless, just wandering around and sleeping at night by the trains,” he says.
Mr. Amphon then sings a ballad into a microphone, the tinny sound of a keyboard and synthesizer drums ticking alongside his voice. He sings with confidence as Ms. Uthumporn looks on, smiling.