Mandatory retirement does not accord with every person’s soul. It did not with Dr. Amporn Wathanavong’s. He was not accustomed to stillness. His life had been full of errant breezes. Like bamboo, he had become used to the wind’s force. He had learned that at times he had to bend all the way down to avoid snapping. Still, he had always found his way back to the center.
A few months into his forced retirement from an American based charity, he sat alone reading the Bangkok Post. It was January 6, 1998, and the Thai economy was in crisis. Overnight, the baht devalued in half against the U.S. dollar. Dr. Amporn knew that within months, the streets would swell with children and women who would have no option but to beg. He needed to do something.
As a child, Dr. Amporn was called Lek, or the “Little One.” He was familiar with begging. He was orphaned at the age of five when his mother succumbed to a fatal illness, one year after his father had died. He was left alone to survive in a world no one had taught him to understand.
His childhood and passage into young adulthood resembled a bamboo caught in a monsoon struggling against Mother Nature’s ferocious will, never able to stand straight for very long. For ten years, Lek survived by fighting with flea-infested dogs over scraps of pork tossed out by the noodle vendors and by sleeping in the empty stalls of a Surin market. He learned that poverty makes everything negotiable, including one’s soul. At the age of fifteen, exhausted by the futility of life, he was lured into the jungle of Cambodia and forced to become a boy soldier. He killed men and boys, much like himself, except they were displaced from northern Africa. All of them were trapped in a war called Indochina that was not theirs.
Lek almost did snap after returning from the war. He tried to commit suicide, twice. But the monsoon eased. In the midst of his haze at the hospital, a stranger gave him two precious gifts. The first: advice to go back to his village temple to be educated by the monks and the second: a few baths to return there. He took both. Through a circuitous journey, he obtained an education and dedicated himself to social works. He eventually became Dr. Amporn Wathanavongs.
He once again found his center in early retirement when, against all advice, he converted his U.S. dollar pension fund payout into baht to create his own charity. The Foundation for Rehabilitation and Development of Children and Family (FORDEC) was born out of the 1998 economic crash. Eighteen years later both FORDEC and Dr. Amporn are in good health.
June 18, 2016