Fellow Since 2000
This profile was prepared when Weerapong Kangwarnnawakul was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2000.
Weerapong Kangwanawakul is engaging older people in civic activities that make use of their abundant experience and wisdom and provide a productive outlet for them in their later years.
The New Idea
To harness the energy and experience of people aged fifty and older, Weerapong is establishing clubs to engage them in activities that greatly enrich the community and bridge traditional and modern ways of life. The clubs provide a life-saving outlet for many older people who might otherwise spend the last twenty or thirty years of their lives in a state of inactivity, neglect, or abuse. As older people provide the community's only link to a former era, important aspects of heritage, such as knowledge of traditional lifestyle, farming methods, and story traditions, are in danger of dying with them. To date, Weerapong has helped organize clubs that make traditional toys for village children, tend local herb gardens for producing traditional medicines, plan festivals, and develop a variety of other activities. Finally, he is encouraging club members to play a greater role in tackling pressing community problems such as garbage clean-up and government corruption at the local level.
For many living in poor villages, their productive life ends at age fifty or sooner, when they become unable to work in the fields, enduring heat and physical exhaustion. In many villages, veneration of older people and respect for their wisdom and experience is fast disappearing. At best, the families of older people support them financially but leave them home alone all day every day for years, isolated from the community and from others their age. At worst, these men and women are abandoned to live in the village monastery and are susceptible to abusemental, physical, and in some instances, sexual. The government's solution, group homes for seniors, is not available to most older people living in remote villages.Many rural communities in Thailand face urgent challenges, as they find and pursue a development path that unites traditional and modern influences in a positive, sustainable future. More often than not, the balance between traditional and modern, local and global is maintained poorly, if at all. Younger community members no longer respect older people and the wisdom they contribute but instead willingly drop their heritage, making way for everything new. This leaves communities rootless and vulnerable to the foils of rapid transition: drug trafficking, gambling, alcoholism, and damaged natural resources. Rather than contributing a valuable perspective at this critical juncture, older people are seen as just another problem for the younger generation to cope with.
Weerapong began his work in Chiang Rai province in northern Thailand. He noticed that older people were neglected, so he began organizing events and meetings to get them to work together. He introduced them to the idea of making traditional toys from bamboo and other natural resources. Older people began working together to create these toys that had all but disappeared from village culture. The children loved the toys, and their interest sparked a dialog about folklore and traditions between older and younger members of the community. Building on this success, Weerapong encouraged the older people in this group and in neighboring villages to pursue a wider range of activities. Now, the clubs meet three objectives: they link neglected older people with each other and their community, revive local traditions, and generate income. For one project, Weerapong encouraged the older people to compare a calendar of events from their youth to a present-day calendar. When they realized that many of the celebrations they used to practice were not on the current calendar, they reinstated them and set about planning the events.Because income introduces a measure of freedom, Weerapong believes that the clubs should not only be self-supporting but should be able to provide small emergency loans to members in urgent need. Weerapong has taught club members to preserve fruit and has secured production contracts with local and national businesses. Toy sales provide additional income, both from the local community and through nation-wide sales in craft fairs and department stores.Weerapong encourages his groups to participate in broader social activities as well. He helps clubs set up youth libraries and safe play areas for local children. Club members help screen the village for elderly people who most need medical attention, and they serve as counselors for victims of rape and abuse.Thanks to its success and popularity, Weerapong's approach has been adopted by neighboring villages. Older people frequently invite Weerapong into their community to help them start a toy-making activity. In the past year, he has been training volunteers and his core group of elderly participants to help other villages set up new clubs. The older people's groups from various villages exchange ideas with each other. By delegating start-up activities to his volunteers and the local elderly community, Weerapong can devote more attention to taking his approach to the national level. Since Weerapong established the first club, the idea has seen significant spread. Twenty-one nearby villages have instituted clubs, increasing the number of participating elderly from one hundred to two thousand in less than two years. Also in that time, more than one thousand youths have become involved. Weerapong has attracted the attention of Thailand's royal family, whose interest sparked national media coverage for the project. His work has also been noticed by the Ministry of Public Health. In addition, Weerapong has seized on recent opportunities for publicity, such as the government's Year of the Elderly campaign in 1999. He is beginning to collaborate with global organizations such as HelpAge International, which is well-positioned both to help him and to benefit from his approach.
Born in 1972, Weerapong grew up in a lower-middle income family living in the suburbs of Bangkok. When his mother and father died in separate car accidents only months apart, he began working full-time to support himself and his five siblings. Various jobs took him outside Bangkok, where he first became involved in helping the rural poor. At an industrial repair company, Weerapong worked his way up from errand boy to manager and redesigned the business to increase profits. He improved conditions and services available to the workers, introduced a profit-sharing mechanism, and became a trusted advisor, encouraging the employees to plant trees, take field trips, participate in sports, and further their education through correspondence courses. Weerapong reflects on this experience as being pivotal in showing him how much he could help people once he gained their trust. During this time, he and his soon-to-be wife often visited her family in their rural village, spending a good deal of time with her grandmother, who was sick with cancer and becoming increasingly withdrawn. On one trip, they brought mushroom plants for her to tend and harvest, and she took to the activity with great enthusiasm and joy. Eager to see how other older people in the village would respond to similar activities, Weerapong and his wife moved to her family's village, where he organized the first club in 1998.