Community service pays tuition at new boarding school

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A former movie star has opened a boarding school in Pattaya where parents plant trees instead of paying tuition.

Mechai Viravaidya, a former senator and the man behind Pattaya’s Birds & Bees Resort, opened the Mechai Pattana School May 26 with the idea that parents and students would undertake community service to pay for schooling.

To date, 23 girls and 5 boys have enrolled in the program. For the students, ages 14-16, it is their first time away from home.

Former Senator Mechai Viravaidya welcomes everyone to the launch and speaks a bit about how it all works.Former Senator Mechai Viravaidya welcomes everyone to the launch and speaks a bit about how it all works.

To pay for the boarding school, parents must undertake 400 hours of community service and plant 400 trees per year. Students must perform seven hours of community service a week in Pattaya, Chonburi and Rayong.

Two specific elements of this school stand out when compared with typical secondary schools around the region. At Pattaya, student representatives will be elected to sit on the school board as well as to become members of the purchasing and audit committees. There is also a surprise waiting for anyone wishing to become members of the teaching staff. These aspiring teachers have to first be interviewed and approved by the student committee prior to further interviews by a committee of teachers. Students hail mostly from the poor, mountainous regions of Northeast Thailand and will spend one entire year by the sea studying as well as experiencing the realities of the Eastern Seaboard of Thailand.

The regular school week is from Thursday to Monday. Certain hours of Saturday and Sunday will be reserved for experienced external teachers and volunteers from the Eastern Seaboard area and Bangkok. The school’s weekend will be Tuesday and Wednesday, which will be used for out-of-classroom activities in the provinces of Chonburi and Rayong, where important institutions and industrial estates are located. Students will also be organized in small groups to assist outlying schools and communities as part of their sharing experience.

Mathew and Mary Kelly pull back the curtains to reveal the honorary plaque and officially announce the new school is open.Mathew and Mary Kelly pull back the curtains to reveal the honorary plaque and officially announce the new school is open.

Surprises are unending at this Pattaya school – students are required to write letters home once a week and mobile phones will be locked away except for one hour per week when phone calls are allowed. The school aims to make these students from the Northeast to be bilingual, as well as endeavor to create new young Thai citizens who are honest, caring, resourceful, and know how to manage life, as well as business enterprises.

A highlight of this iconic education institution is the establishment of the Kelly Lifelong Learning Center, dedicated to the enrichment of the quality of life, advancement of knowledge, and improvement of opportunities for deserving citizens of the Kingdom of Thailand. This facility was donated by Matthew Kelly Sr. and many of his close friends, together with his son Matthew and daughter-in-law Mary, to honor Matthew Sr. on his 90th birthday. Kelly was present last year for the laying of the foundation stone of the Kelly Lifelong Learning Center, which includes the main classroom for the students, as well as an 80-person conference center.

Honored guests at the opening try out the desks and chairs in the new school, where young people will be given a chance they might not otherwise have had to become tomorrow’s community leaders.Honored guests at the opening try out the desks and chairs in the new school, where young people will be given a chance they might not otherwise have had to become tomorrow’s community leaders.

Apart from the significant contribution of the Kelly Lifelong Learning Center by the Kelly family and friends, the establishment of the Pattaya campus is also a result of the generosity of several groups, including the Birds and Bees Resort (owned by Mechai’s daughter Sujima), IKEA, Microsoft, and many other socially-minded individuals and organizations. The yearly operating costs during the first few years will be provided by the Birds & Bees Resort.

The students will rise at 5 a.m. for beach cleaning and exercise followed by working in the vegetable garden and milling rice prior to a glass of milk. After that, they will take a shower and begin their first class at 7 a.m., one hour before breakfast. The in-class school day ends at 1:30 p.m. for a late lunch. The afternoon will be spent out of the classroom on music, practical science, workshops, business operations, in the fruit and vegetable gardens, or performing necessary chores at the school.

The “biggest ukulele band in Thailand” performs for the honored guests in front of the new school.The “biggest ukulele band in Thailand” performs for the honored guests in front of the new school.

At the May 26 orientation, students watched a video presentation and toured the school. The rooms and restrooms sparkled and the furniture, supplied by IKEA, gave the school a modern European look.

Mathew and Mary Kelly performed the opening while students performed songs on ukuleles, with one girl calling it the largest ukulele band in Thailand.

Matthew Kelly and Mechai both thanked sponsors in their opening speeches and expressed hopes that the school would make a difference to students in their daily lives. Mechai also announced that volunteers were always welcome to teach students new skills, be it language, painting or handicrafts.

Lunch followed with guests also participating in a language demonstration class taught by Judy Hudson from Australia.

Visitors are welcome at the school to observe its poverty-eradication laboratory farm, which was established in partnership with the Kelly Lifelong Learning Center and land provided by the Birds & Bees Resort.