Story by Mallika Naguran
ETC 2008 students get ready for a big feast
It is not everyday we hear stories of youths getting that golden opportunity to turn their lives around. One such story I picked up on the web made me pack my bags in a hurry to go and witness the miracle for myself.
Off I set from Singapore to Thailand’s idyllic Kao Lak coast in Phang-Nga province of Thailand. I gave just a week’s notice to Reid Ridgway, the founder of Ecotourism Training Centre, who simply emailed back, “Drop in and see us anytime.”
ETC, as it is known in short, found its roots just after the devastation caused by the Asian Tsunami in 2004 that claimed more than a quarter of a million lives. The centre helps rebuild lives of youths who lost their homes, parents or livelihood during the catastrophe. This through learning new skills such as English language and computer literacy, advanced emergency care and marine conservation leading to certifications as PADI master divers.
Students have done incredible work in marine conservation, coastal clean up, community building, with recent efforts to spearhead the use of bio-diesel fuel in dive boats. They have also taught more than 150 local youths to dive and care for the environment.
Considering that most of the students enrolled in ETC have not gone past primary school education, never used a computer before and could only manage spattering English, their personal accomplishments put me to shame. Not everyone can be a diver, let alone a dive master or an instructor (I should know - I dive yet can’t muster enough strength to tow an injured body against choppy water). It takes a whole load of grit too, as tests are conducted in English - a foreign language to Thais.
ETC 2007 students in a joint cleanup of Thai Muang Marine National Park with Green Fins
Masters of Sea
Three years since its inception, the centre has groomed 10 PADI dive instructors and 31 PADI dive masters. Typically between 17 to 34 in age, the graduates have found jobs that befit their newly acquired status: some with the Thai Royal Navy as rescue divers and others with scuba dive shops as instructors or dive masters, supplementing the ever increasing demand for qualified dive personnel. Thailand boasts many amazing reefs and coral pinnacles at Phi Phi, Sumilan and Surin islands, and as such, draws marine divers from around the world, as clown fish would to anemone.
Sarah Chernecki suffers the lack of nachos in Thai but loves her work
I had the opportunity of mingling with 15 youths currently undergoing ETC training who charmed me with their demeanour, between blushes and grins. “I am very lucky to be on this program,” says Ong, who is a divorced young father in his 30s, supporting three kids. This amiable man was orphaned at birth; he left school to earn scanty income as a tut tut (cabbie) driver on the dusty roads of Bangkok. Last year, upon hearing about the ETC program, he ditched his vehicle and headed to ETC to try his luck.
Ong was indeed lucky. With professional diving certification, he looks forward to a job that could potentially pay 50,000-60,000 baht (USD$2,500) a month. A waiter, I learned by snooping, earns a meagre USD $150 a month. With the costs of living on the rise such as rice, oil and property, it is no surprise that quite a number of Thais are in desperation.
Renewal Through Relearning
Troubled times can make way for opportunities. Only skills, knowledge and training can bring this about to match the rising wave of ecotourism. Plus, undying vision and commitment from people who run and fund the program.
Writer Mallika can't help giving Dach (left) and Ong (right) a hug
Sarah Chernecki, a Canadian who packed her bags and headed to Southeast Asia to help the impoverished in Thailand since 2007, teaches English and leadership skills at ETC. “As dive masters, they have to communicate well and exude confidence to win over tourists who seem to prefer one of their own kind to guide them underwater,” says Sarah.
Each year, more and more youths turn up at the doors to try getting into the program, but unfortunately, some are turned away. Funding aside, applicants are screened on their backgrounds as the centre strives to help only those who need rescuing from difficult circumstances. Fitness levels count too, as students have to undergo rescue diving drills, which can be strenuous.
Help Rebuild Lives
It takes only USD 2,500 to see a youth through this unique 9-month program. Do help to open more doors for the enthusiastic Thai youths who may otherwise be left behind, often times in deprived conditions and with a dim future. If sponsoring the full amount is beyond you, why not split the cost with family and friends?
On (left), female ETC graduate and dive instructor, cleans up Thai Muang Marine National Park
Read more inspiring student testimonies on www.etcth.org and support them by sponsoring a student or buying their merchandise.
Photos by Mallika Naguran and ETC.