It’s difficult to know where to begin, because the last few weeks have been such a whirlwind!
On Tuesday, June 11th, I officially began my internship at Urban Light. My first day began with a short ride in the CCT van, and when I got to the Urban Light Youth Center (ULYC) a little after 10am, the staff was just starting to arrive (that’s something to note about the culture in Thailand – everyone runs on “Thai time,” or anywhere from 10-45 minutes late. As a person who is perpetually late, it works just fine for me!). When Alex, the founder of Urban Light, arrived, she conducted an orientation for me and discussed the history of Urban Light, introduced me to the staff (there are 11 people on the staff, and besides Alex, they’re all Thai!) and the other current intern Zuzu, went over my tasks and responsibilities, and informed me of the daily schedule.
Each day, the staff and I arrive around 10am, and it’s usually pretty quiet at the center until noon, when lunch is served. Everyone eats together family style, and you know when it’s ready: the boys come up to the office saying gin kao, gin kao (let’s eat!). After lunch, it’s time for workshops, lessons, games, programming, or anything to interact with the boys and keep them engaged. So far, I’ve played UNO with them (they love UNO soooo much! One boy in particular would play all day if you’d let him!), and a few games of ping pong. So far, there hasn’t been much programming – Alex was telling me it’s difficult to get a consistent program rolling, because the boys usually won’t participate for long unless it’s really fun and interesting. Around 4pm, things quiet down again until the center closes at 5pm.
Of course, this schedule is not a hard and fast rule (with the exception of lunch!). Since the ULYC is a drop-in center, every day is different. Some days, it’s loud and crazy with boys everywhere – playing games and guitar, watching movies, and listening to music. Some days, all they want is a hot meal, a shower, and a place to rest. Being adaptable, flexible, and able to tune into their moods and needs is key.
So far in my internship, I’ve:
- shadowed Zuzu, the other intern. She’s awesome, and we get along really well. She’s also great at engaging the boys, so I’ve learned a lot from watching her. For example, the best way to interact with the boys is a delicate balance of persistence and doing your own thing. Sometimes, if you want to involve a boy in a lesson or activity, you have to enthusiastically pester him and take charge of the moment until he’s engaged. Other times, it’s best to relax and do your own thing: start an art project or play the guitar, and eventually, if they’re interested, the boys will join you. Again, it’s all about learning to read the situation!
- helped Zuzu with her greeting card project. Right now, we’ve just finished designing and painting holiday and greeting cards with one of the boys. We’re planning on selling them to generate income for Urban Light.
- started to build relationships with UL’s participants through games of ping pong and UNO and my favorite, a guitar/ukulele jam session! It’s definitely taken some time for the boys to get used to me, but I’m starting to earn their trust. Every time they ask me to play a game or listen to music, it’s a little victory. One boy even insisted on walking me part of the way home this week!
- began brainstorming and implementing the social media part of my role. I’m enjoying coming up with ideas for content development and generating awareness online, and am so excited to use my communications experience in this way. Alex and I have also started talking about her ideas for a social enterprise project, which I’ll start assisting her with soon.
I’ve learned a lot so far. But, as one would expect, there have also been significant challenges and moments of discouragement as well. However, even though I’ve felt lost and inadequate at times, I’m trying to give myself the space and grace to settle into the role. And truly, I have such an incredible support network here! The staff at UL and CCT are amazing and have done so much to encourage and prepare me.
My biggest challenges so far have been:
- the language barrier. Oh yeah. This is definitely top of the list. For one, it’s difficult to form relationships with the participants at UL when you can’t communicate clearly. I want so badly to connect with them in a meaningful way, but I need to learn more Thai. I’m trying not to get discouraged because I know it’s a process and every day, I learn something new. I’ve made flashcards for words and phrases, so I can say hello and thank you and how are you? and what’s your name? I can even play UNO in Thai! And there have been funny moments too. On my third day, I said hello to a boy in Thai and he responded with “you say that a lot...” (Zuzu translated). I was bummed for a moment, but he was right! And it motivated me to learn some new phrases.
- my name. Turns out, Lauren is really hard for the boys to say. So, I’ve started introducing myself to them as Lo, one of my nicknames back home.
- finding my niche. Since, I often can’t use words to engage the boys, I have to figure out other ways to interact. Painting is good, and so are UNO games, but as I mentioned, I recently played music with a few of the boys and it was a blast! I just played along on a uke while they played guitar and sang in Thai, and it was great. So, maybe that’s my niche To be determined.
- the greeting card project. I’m seeing firsthand some of the challenges of workforce development social enterprises! For example, we were on a schedule to get the cards done by a deadline, but the boy who worked with us had a lot of important things to worry about, so it was tricky to find the time to work on them with him. In addition, it was hard to communicate, given the language barrier, exactly what we wanted the cards to look like, and then to give feedback and edits after the fact. But, it all worked out, and we ended up with some beautiful cards to sell. He is super sweet, great to work with, and a very talented painter.
One last bit – I’ve had some other adventures the past few weeks! I visited Pai (a hippie/expat village in the mountains), went to Mukata (mostly a local place that has Mongolian-style bbq), shopped in a local mall (and realized how much more expensive the markets can be), tried to speak in Thai at the market (before realizing it didn’t matter because I couldn’t understand people’s responses), took a Thai cooking class, and found a way to stream the new Game of Thrones season with my roommates at the volunteer house.