Dr. Amporn Wathanavongs was an only child, born in 1937 in the village of Sawai Jeek, Thailand. His mother doted on him, affectionately calling him “Lek,” or “little one.” Lek’s parents died of illness when he was 5 years old, and he was left without any relatives or friends to support him.
He grew up alone in a crowded marketplace.
He fought with dogs for scraps of food. Chased away by vendors when he was caught sleeping in their stalls at night, Lek lived in a world that didn’t seem to want him, until it wanted him to fight. In Surin, northeast Thailand, he was enlisted as a boy soldier.
At the age of 15, he began fighting in the First Indochina War (which lasted from 1946 to 1954). Two years later, he attempted suicide twice.
He was recovering in a hospital from the second attempt and was determined to make a successful third, when a woman gave him hope. She suggested he go back to his hometown and ask the temple there to take him as a novice.
He studied to become a monk. Though the religious vocation was not ultimately for him, the education he received at the monastery empowered him.
He learned to read and write, but he also wanted to learn English. He subsisted in the slums of Bangkok on menial jobs while studying English.
There he met a French missionary who sent him to the Philippines to study social work at Xavier University. Wathanavongs ironed his classmates’ shirts to earn money for food and books.
After graduating, he worked at a pharmaceutical company, then an American military base, and then he got a job with the Christian Children’s Fund (CCF), where he had a long and successful career. But his story of perseverance doesn’t end there.
At the age of 60, he was forced into retirement (due to a fixed age limit for employees at the CCF), but he used his savings to start his own foundation.
In 1998, he established the Foundation for Rehabilitation and Development of Children and Family (FORDEC).
Now, at the age of 79, he is a well-known and well-loved philanthropist in Thailand, affectionately called the “Foster Father of 50,000” because he has helped thousands of children.
Chantal Jauvin is a sponsor to four children through FORDEC. Her life and Wathanavongs’s became intertwined after a fateful meeting in 2010.
Jauvin, 42, was a high-powered international attorney. When her stepfather fell ill, she left her work at Western Union in Denver, Colorado, to spend time in her home city of Ottawa, Canada.
After he died, she went to Thailand. Her husband, Bill Thomas, had a place there and she decided to go there to recoup.
As a FORDEC sponsor, she decided to visit a FORDEC center in Bangkok. Two of the children there eagerly asked if they could bring her to their homes for a visit. When she assented, they were full of pride to bring her home as a guest.
Little did they understand how their homes looked through her eyes.
“It’s the slums of Bangkok. It’s mountains of garbage. Their homes are a floor of wood, four bamboo poles, and a tarp or a sheet of thin corrugated tin,” Jauvin said. She recalled: “There’s this strange dichotomy, because it’s brilliantly sunny, the [two children are] so clean, and they’re so happy, and we’re walking in mounds of garbage.”
“How those parents managed to keep those uniforms clean, I will not know,” Jauvin said.
Through FORDEC, the children spend six hours a day, six days a week at school. They play in a clean environment, learn to read and write (often becoming the only ones in their families able to do so), and eat decent meals.
The rest of their time is spent in what, to Jauvin, looks literally like a garbage dump.
Wathanavongs happened to be at the center when they returned. Jauvin’s first impression was that he was a spry and sharp 70-something-year-old.
After only a short conversation, Wathanavongs said, “You’re English is good. … So you write well?”
She replied: “I write contracts. I’ve been doing it for a number of years.”
“Would you write my life story?”
“Just like that,” Jauvin recalled with a laugh. Her answer, “Yes,” in a moment of enthusiasm changed the course of her life.
She never returned to her law practice. Jauvin and her husband have a condo near Bangkok. She spent much time there interviewing Wathanavongs.
“He’s telling me this story as though it’s my story … as if it’s an everyday story,” she recalled. “And it’s not an everyday story, it’s a hero’s journey.”
On the other hand, Jauvin said, it is a story that can inspire anyone.
As she was about halfway through writing this amazing tale of grit and perseverance, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Wathanavongs’s strength lent her strength as she fought and overcame the disease.
“We couldn’t be more opposite. I’m female, young, well-educated, come from a wonderful country (Canada); he’s in his 70s, he’s orphaned, he didn’t get educated until late in life,” she said. “But fighting to overcome trauma is a human story for all of us.”
He made it through all his hardships, Jauvin said, “because he believes in life, and he wanted self-respect.”
Through many interviews, Wathanavongs had told Jauvin the ins and outs of his life. But he never mentioned that he was a boy soldier.
They were sitting on the balcony of her condo. He explained how his hand, which is visibly scarred, was injured. At first he said vaguely, “It happened in the jungle.”
Then he added, “by a grenade.”
He revealed a dark and turbulent chapter in his life as they looked out on the ocean, peaceful and sunny, from Jauvin’s balcony.
“That’s part of my story, but we don’t need to write about that,” he finished. She didn’t press him.
In Thai culture, people tend to be private, Jauvin explained. Wathanavongs is well-known in Thailand, making it even more difficult to open up about this shameful time in his life.
Boy soldiers are often made ruthless, their innocence perverted as they’re fed drugs and violence.
Wathanavongs eventually agreed to let the world know about the trauma inflicted on boy soldiers.
As he helped her write the chapter, he went into great detail. “He was working his way back into a memory he had shut down for a long time,” Jauvin said.
Orphans are the easiest boy soldier recruits. Jauvin hopes to raise awareness about the international orphan crisis and encourage people to foster children through FORDEC and similar organizations.
There are approximately 153 million orphans worldwide, according to WorldOrphans.org. Asia is at the top of the list, with 60 million.
The author’s proceeds from Jauvin’s book about Wathanavongs, “The Boy With a Bamboo Heart,” published April 1, will go to FORDEC.
She explained why she chose this title: “Bamboo is resilient; it will sway in the wind in a storm and it will go all the way down to the ground, but it always finds its center again. It very rarely snaps.”