Every child has a dream. But we all know that some are born poorly equipped to achieve them. As the daughter of Sansiri‘s President and recent Columbia graduate in Social Work, Chananda Thavisin does not fall into that latter category, but her dream is to help those who unfortunately do.
A new initiative in Thailand, UNICEF NextGen brings together networks of the country’s young generation who are passionate about making a sustainable impact to the lives of children both locally and around the world. Previously operating in the US, UK, and several countries in the EU, UNICEF NextGen Thailand is one of the first in Asia. Of course, this fact brings new and unique challenges to the committee of nine selected young ‘Champions’ — including Chananda.
Over scrumptious egg and kale flatbreads at Siri House, we had a chat with Chananda about her experiences working with children, what she hopes to achieve as a member of Thailand’s first UNICEF NextGen committee, and why she feels her education could never fully prepare her for what real life has in store.
[All images courtesy of UNICEF via Sansiri PLC.]
First of all, congratulations on your graduation last year! How long have you been back in Bangkok?
So, I’ve been back since last December. This is actually the first time I’ve properly been based in Bangkok, working here and all.
So all your previous experience working with children was back in New York?
Yeah, I did a course in Social Work at Columbia which involved two days of classes and three days of field work. I really liked it because the direct hands-on experience was so much more illuminating than the classes. Nothing compares to the real thing. I worked at a public elementary school, PS 705, in Brooklyn, alongside my studies. It taught me so much about the psychologies of children and how to interact with them effectively. I learnt that, with children, empathy is one of the most important things you need to have. I started to mimic their body language in order to make myself more familiar and less intimidating to them. They open up to you a lot more when you do.
And what about after graduation, before you came back to Thailand?
After graduation I continued humanitarian work and volunteered at Sanctuary for Families in New York. There I worked with women and girls who were survivors of domestic violence, and I would chat to them and help teach them maths. I also worked part-time as a childcare specialist for WomanKind. That’s also an organisation that helps survivors of domestic violence, particularly Asian women. As a childcare specialist I helped take care of the children of these women while the women attended group therapy.
So when did you first come into contact with UNICEF?
Well, I spent one summer as an intern at the UNICEF Headquarters in New York. I remember a couple of years before that, my brother also interned there and he was always telling us what an amazing experience it was, so I wanted to try it too. It was there that I became so engaged with humanitarian work and children’s needs. I interned specifically with the Child Protection sector, and it was life-changing. I then became a member of the UNICEF group in New York.
Did you already know you were going to study Social Work at Columbia while you were interning with UNICEF?
No, not at all! It was this incredible experience while I was interning that made me want to pursue it further at Columbia. Before Columbia, I was actually studying Neuroscience at Barnard College, but then decided that I wanted something that was less in a lab and more in a social framework. I wanted to help and talk to people through a more face-to-face mode.
And how did you then become a UNICEF NextGen Champion in Thailand?
This is the very first time that the UNICEF NextGen initiative has come to Thailand, so I was really excited to be able to do more with UNICEF directly in and for the country. I sent in my application, and with my already established relationship with UNICEF, I was delighted to be one of the nine on the first committee here.
How do you interpret your role on the NextGen committee?
There are nine people on the committee, which I think comes to both a good and bad thing. On the one hand it’s really good to have such a broad range of skills and educational backgrounds amongst us. One guy on the committee studied music, for example, and he can come up with great creative ideas for fundraising. We all have different ways of looking at things which is good. But the role also means having responsibility and taking charge. As an individual, you have to be very driven and not rely on any other group or organisation. We’re the ones who have to make things happen.
What will be the biggest challenge for the NextGen Committee being in Thailand?
The committee is very new. We only had our launch a couple of weeks ago, so the first committee have the challenge of trial-and-error with organising events as well as doing more to raise awareness of the initiative here. The culture and needs in Thailand are also very different to those in the US or the UK, so it’s not a matter of following the systems and methods of the NextGen committees already established. The main difference is that we’ll be working a lot more locally and addressing needs and issues within the country. Most of the funds raised in the US are sent to address problems globally, but for Thailand we’ll be working within the country.
What’s the main issue you’re passionate about addressing in Thailand?
I would say it’s education; it’s the foundation of children’s wellbeing. And especially education for very young kids. We absorb so much in our first few years and it’s actually the most important time to receive quality education. Some people say it doesn’t really make a difference whether you start school at six or seven years old, but I’d argue that it makes a huge difference. That’s a whole year of education missed that could have been most effectively consumed. I’d like to do more to build on the education system for very young kids. Whether through activities or educational toys, I really think we should be giving them love and encouragement, and be stimulating them through all senses right from their birth.
So what kind of fundraisers and activities can we expect from UNICEF NextGen Thailand?
Our earlier events will be very much focused on raising awareness and building up more of a community. I guess our first event was our launch party here at Siri House last week, and that was a great way to spread awareness and get more people involved. I was in charge of the marketing material for the event, so I was covering everything from the invitations to setting up QR codes and organising packaging. But because I had no experience in graphic design or anything, I found people who did and that was a good way to invite more people to use their unique skill sets to help out with the cause in their own way. It showed people that you don’t need to have studied social work or have a degree in education to help with UNICEF.
We’ve now also planned our next event which will be in August around Mothers’ Day. It’s a great opportunity for UNICEF, because I think education for parents and soon-to-be parents is also really important for the children. We’re having the event here at Siri House so we can organise yoga classes in the garden, and even some light yoga in the pool too. It’ll be a fun day with activities, workshops, and talks for expecting mothers. We want to encourage more nurturing environments for future children, showing parents how to encourage kids to have a winning mindset, and start empowering gender equality.
How do you measure success when it comes to humanitarian work like this?
For me, it’s the little things that matter. The bigger the problem, the more steps needed to tackle it. I remember one time when I was helping to look after little kids, one of them was throwing a tantrum. He went to hide in a closet and refused to come out. So I went inside to join him and talked to him inside the closet. I realised you have to copy these kids and imitate their psychology and body language to better understand them. You also become more trustworthy to them. Before, kids would avoid you in the corridors or hide from you. Once I began showing them that level of empathy, they started smiling at me and stopping to say hi. It’s a small change, but a huge achievement.
Do you think Columbia prepared you well for work in real life?
I was definitely glad to have had real hands-on experience alongside my studies too. It made me realise just how much of a trial-and-error system this work was going to be, and that’s something none of the classes could help avoid. The classes were more of way to form ideas about what kinds of things to try doing, but you really have to try it for real and then it may or may not work. There’s no clear step-by-step guide to solve these social issues. All kids are different; what works with A will not necessarily work with B. It’s all a matter of trial-and-error, but it’s always worth the trial.
What do you hope UNICEF NextGen Thailand will achieve — in this first year and ultimately?
I would love more people to join the initiative! It needs to grow and establish itself as a strong organisation in Thailand in order to stay. The initiative has previously been set up in Vietnam, but it couldn’t sustain itself successfully. One of the problems was that the committee there was too insulated; UNICEF isn’t just a charity — it’s also a social culture, and it’s one that the whole country should adopt. Sansiri, for instance, have had an 8-year partnership with UNICEF and the company has adopted many of UNICEF’s codes and practices. For example, their offices have private facilities for breastfeeding, which aids the health of mothers and babies. The company’s construction sites also have regulations for designated child-free areas to ensure better safety. That’s the kind of culture that the whole country needs to embrace. I really hope the NextGen initiative in Thailand will be able to stay for good. That way, we’ll be able to be not just a single committee, but a whole society of caregivers.
For further information on UNICEF NextGen Thailand, please visit www.unicef.org/thailand/nextgen.