Little Duck Nursery Rayong
By Mark Beales
Stephen Brusini (Pictured directly below) once had a company car, expense accounts and sold hi-tech gadgets to the US military.
Today, he pulls up in what’s left of his 23-year-old Yamaha Bell motorbike, and has more mundane issues to deal with.
‘Someone has crayoned on the wall again, I have to paint this room every three months,’ he says with a shrug.
He sits on a wooden bench at the Little Duck Nursery in Rayong, and it’s apparent that his mode of transport is not the only thing that’s changed.
Stephen was once a high-flying Rhode Island native who got to travel the world. Today he’s the Rev Stephen and for the past nine years has been running this nursery.
It’s not every day that you encounter men of God who are out fixing the plumbing, digging canals and re-positioning staircases. Yet that’s just what goes on here, with help from the nursery’s official owner Sivanart Imtub (nickname Tic). As we enter the nursery, six children are seated and busily scooping down spoonfuls of noodles. They stop eating to offer us a ‘wai’ before returning to their lunches. In the adjacent sleeping room, soft blue light falls on the faces of the babies as they lie napping on mattresses. It’s a remarkable sanctuary for the children, who would otherwise face a day of playing in the streets until their mothers return from work (nearly all the youngsters are from single-parent families).
Between 25 and 40 children aged from 15 months to four years attend. The fees are 1,500 baht a month. Sometimes the parents can pay, sometimes they can’t; nobody chases them up.
The Rev Stephen, 66, has been in Thailand 12 years, and still speaks with the same rapid-fire New York brogue and a knack for the vernacular that you suspect has allowed him to cut through considerable red tape. He came to Thailand to work on a religious website but soon saw a more practical way in which he could help.
‘I was living near Rayong and saw there were a lot of children whose parents worked. These children were left to play in the streets, or there’d be five of them in a home watching TV all day and I said “what good’s that gonna do anyone?”
‘If I weren’t here they’d be with grandma watching TV or playing all day in the streets, subject to all sorts of things you wouldn’t want children exposed to.
‘Here there’s a regimented schedule. They may play for an hour, then it’s Thai time and they learn some vocabulary, then we may sing a song or watch an educational DVD, then there’s English time, then a snack or colouring. They have a hot lunch and eat fresh fruit and vegetables every day. After that they nap for an hour or so.’
Aside from the occasional crayon mark on the wall, the place is immaculate. ‘You won’t find any bugs here, and the floors are washed twice a day,’ the Rev Stephen points out more than once.
The nursery walls display posters of the alphabet and animals, but there are no religious icons. The aim isn’t to convert; Rev Stephen just wants to give the youngsters a better start to life.
He said: ‘I don’t believe in talking religion. I could work in a church, stand up at the weekends and preach, but religion isn’t something you can do once a week then go home and live your life.’
He then sweeps his arm across the room and says, without any grandiloquence, ‘all this is a reflection of giving my life to God and serving others.’
Religion is a personal thing for Rev Stephen. He had a Catholic upbringing and is an ordained priest and pastor, but to him religion and the church are separate entities (don’t get him started on the Immaculate Conception). Having studied religion for a decade, he prefers to demonstrate his faith rather than discuss it.
The Rev Stephen and Tic (Pictured here above) have had several crosses to bear, including having to move to three different locations, and once coming face to face with robbers who snatched the few valuables in the nursery.
The overwhelming need for such a facility is constant, but then so are the challenges. More than 75 per cent of the parents here are working single mothers while the others are mainly from low-income households.
‘When the children arrive at the nursery most have never been away from their family and many are not toilet-trained. They lack discipline, good verbal knowledge and don’t eat properly. We’ve also had autistic, deaf and dumb and HIV-positive children.
‘We offer the Thai community a good, clean, safe, educational, low-cost facility where parents can leave their young babies or children, knowing they are being loved, taught, fed, showered and are well taken care of,’ said the Rev Stephen.
Today, before he re-paints the wall, the Rev Stephen has to get money wired from America. Next week he has to work on his visa. Then he must return to the drains, which are currently rather primitive. He’d like to find a new home for the nursery with a garden, but finding such a place for a reasonable rent isn’t easy.
Tic is just as busy; she visits the local market at 5am every day to buy fresh food and then returns to clean the site. The nursery employs other teachers but can’t afford to pay much, so the turnover is high.
The effort and motivation required to maintain standards is immense, and the obvious question is why the Rev Stephen does all this.
‘Why do I do this? I’m crazy!’ he says and slaps his forehead with the palm of his hand (his grandparents were Italian).
‘I fix the electric, I put up the lights, I do the plumbing – there’s always something. But if we’re not here these children would be out on the streets.’
Nearby charities in the tourist resort of Pattaya often receive hefty donations from benevolent ex-pats, but down the road in Rayong donations are something of a rarity. A wooden horse that once pranced around a carousel at a fairground now sits gathering dust in a storage room, a well-intentioned but unusable gift. Rev Stephen appreciates all of the donations that come his way, as they are few and far between.
He sees the nursery as his calling and so doesn’t complain. Having nearly died 20 years ago, today he’s grateful to have the chance to give something back. While visiting Romania he fell critically ill with acute pancreatitis. A 12-hour operation, performed in a grimy green room by a doctor with a packet of cigarettes poking out of his shirt pocket, saved his life.
Once he had recovered he devoted himself to religion. Today, the nursery is a living, breathing example of what one main’s faith can achieve. As we leave the toddlers to their nap and step outside the Rev Stephen gets back on his Yamaha Bell to face a new mission – finding balloons for a children’s party.
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Article from previous issue / April 2012