Growing up summer time for me meant playing outside after dinner until the street lights came on and then racing home before you heard mum calling for you. The sound of cicadas, sprinklers on the grass and a dab of zinc on the nose. But summer time in Australia was all about the water. You were either in it, on top of it, underneath or crashing through it.
Learning to swim was a given and it was what we all did. The level of proficiency varied through the kids you grew up with and there was the stand out swimmers who come the annual school swimming carnival would win everything that they stood on the blocks for, but regardless of speed and distance we could all swim enough to save ourselves.
Whilst the life skill of learning to swim for those of us who grow up in Australia is as normal as footy in the winter and cricket in the summer, sadly that’s not the case for all.
Boxing Day of 2004, the water that brings such joy to so many had a deadly impact claiming the lives of somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 people as a result of the tsunami that followed the earthquake off the cost of Indonesia.
I would deploy to Thailand following the tsunami to lead teams in the forensic identification of the thousands of victims who perished as a result of the deadly tsunami. I spent several months there and on my last deployment I met a group of children who had all lost their parents and at the time were living in a tent. I quickly realised that I couldn’t change what had happened but it felt within my capacity to change what happened next for them. I started a charity called Hands Across the Water with the intention of building them a home where they could all live.
In 2007, the first of our homes was opened and then in 2009, we opened a second and now, ten years on we operate in seven different locations supporting hundreds of children every night. And whilst there is no doubt we have had a positive impact upon the lives of so many of the children and communities in Thailand, whilst at the same time creating positive experiences for those who support us, it hasn’t been without lessons and mistakes.
Mistakes that have cost lives.
In 2010, I had developed a relationship with the General Manager of one of the five star hotels that was close to the home in Khao Lak of our kids, to the point where I had him agree to create pool time for our kids so that they could learn to swim. Despite the importance and proximity of the ocean to so many Thai’s the skill of swimming or even the knowledge of water safety is sadly lacking.
I thought we were onto a great project that in my mind was as equally as important in their development as their studies at school. With great excitement I advised our director of the home that we had secured weekly uninterrupted access to one of the pools and we had swimming instructors eager to teach our kids to swim.
But the excitement I had was not shared by the director of our home. To her and to many Thai’s it wasn’t something they had grown up learning themselves and didn’t place the same importance on it. So despite the opportunity that was presented it was never taken up. And herein lies the greatest failing of the work that I have done in Thailand since first arriving in the days following the deadly tsunami. I encouraged our director to take up the opportunity and did all I could to make it easy for them, but when they didn’t embrace the offering with the same enthusiasm as I did it slowly and quietly drifted off the agenda.
This was not a failing of the Thais as it wasn’t something they previously did. Learning to swim wasn’t what all kids did growing up. The real failing was in my recognition of the importance and then allowing it to fall off the range of activities the kids did.
So in March of 2014, on school holidays the children were away on camp. It was after lunch and it was nap time for the kids. As they laid down to rest the staff took time to enjoy their lunch. But kids been kids three of them snuck off to the dam without the knowledge of any of the staff. Within an infinitely small amount of time, as that’s all it takes, the youngest of the three had gone into the water and quickly found herself in trouble. The two older children would follow her into the water and find themselves equally in grave danger.
Minutes later staff would discover the three children missing and they were located all unconscious in the water. They were pulled from the dam and quickly rushed to hospital where one of the three would survive but sadly Tong Khao and Tip, would not.
They didn’t need to be champion swimmers for this to be avoided, they didn’t need to be able to swim the length of the olympic pool, they didn’t even need to be able to swim. All they needed was enough water safety knowledge to be able to save themselves and get out of the water.
A very hard and tragic lesson learnt from the passing of the two girls was that if you clearly believe what you are doing is right, don’t let go because it is difficult or there is resistance from others. The most important part of my role back in 2010 when I started the conversation was not in securing the pool space or the swimming teachers, but to deal with the resistance and effectively implement a change program. The execution of the swimming lessons was always going to be the easiest part, I failed the kids by going straight to the easy part.
I can’t change what’s happened, but we can change what happens next. Now once a week our kids head to the local pool where, just like kids across Australia, they line up to plunge into the water learning a skill that will not only save their life, but should the circumstance present, those around them.
Now summer time for our kids in Thailand can also be about the water. They too can be in it, on top of it, underneath or crashing through it and they will be safe.