With all the bad news in the world, it’s always inspiring to hear stories about good people doing good things. We’ve followed the work of The SET Foundation in Northern Thailand for years now, and hope to spread the word about this excellent charity for children’s education in Thailand.
The natural beauty and friendly culture of Thailand attracts millions of visitors every year, but in the lesser-visited rural areas of the country some familes are trapped in a life that bears little resemblance to the smiling, sunny postcard images.
People in the farming communities of Thailand’s north and northeast face a harsh day-to-day existence, often struggling to earn enough to cover even the core necessities of food and shelter. Education offers the best chance of escape from this cycle of impoverishment, but some families can’t afford to pay even the modest public school fees. Many bright kids have to drop out or give up their dreams of going to college or university.
A Monk Making a Difference
Back in the 1990s, Peter Robinson discovered these challenges when teaching English at a school in the northern province of Nakhon Sawan. The Briton had earlier ordained as a Buddhist monk and was practising at a temple nearby at the time. He met a young student named Seckson who had been accepted to study physics at university but was instead stuck working at a petrol station because his family couldn’t afford the tuition fees.
Update: Peter Robinson passed away in November 2019. May he rest in peace!
Fearing for Seckson’s future if he didn’t continue with his education, Peter began to contact friends back in the UK to help raise money for the fees. The outpouring of generosity not only raised enough funds to support Seckson’s university education, but left enough money to help other students, too. And that’s when the seeds were planted to launch the Students’ Education Trust (SET) in 1994.
In the years since, thousands of Thai students have received scholarships and other financial support. Just this month (August 2018), the foundation awarded its 8,000th scholarship.
Seckson, the first beneficiary of the fund, is now Dr Seckson after going on to earn a PhD in nuclear physics. He is now a director of the Institute of Fundamental Studies at a leading Thai university. Peter’s life also shifted as his work with SET led him to leave the monkhood and devote his life to the foundation full time.
SET Scholarships in Action
A SET scholarship is a long-term commitment, with funds given out in some cases from a student’s secondary school years all the way to a master’s degree. In return, students must show a dedication to their studies. Scholarships are awarded on a basis of “proven need plus proven diligence” on assessment of professional welfare officers. The foundation also supports vocational training, recognising that skilled labour is in short supply in Thailand.
The SET student welfare programs help to cover costs beyond the school fees, including food and transport, to ensure students have adequate support to stay on track. SET is also an active sponsor of Saengsawan orphanage, as well as the Kiriwong School for novice monks, which in the past struggled to maintain its staff and upkeep.
Educating Young Monks
Thai monastic schools often have the undesirable reputation as a dumping ground for poor children, and in turn have trouble attracting the needed staff and funds to thrive. SET helped to refurbish the school, set up a library and offers guaranteed scholarships to Kiriwong school novices when they finish their studies and disrobe.
Peter explained, “Many hundreds have disrobed and gone on to study for degrees or vocational qualifications. One – Phisarn – studied at Kiriwong more than 20 years ago. After he disrobed, SET supported him through his Bachelor and Master degrees and he also gained a PhD in political science. He is now head of a university Political Science Department, and he is also a trustee of SET.”
Struggles and Successes
SET is a non-governmental organisation that depends entirely on the support of donations, and Peter takes pride in the foundation’s extremely low administrative costs – just 2.91 percent in 2016 – ensuring that nearly all the donated money goes directly to support the kids.
The past few years brought some challenges for the foundation. Peter said, “The 2016 UK Brexit vote has been disastrous for SET. Although support from the UK remains as strong as ever, the poor British pound-Thai baht exchange rate has seriously affected the value of transferred donations.”
In a recent newsletter, Peter wrote, “Our general income is in decline, partly because of the poor £/Bt exchange rate but also because many of our original supporters – some loyal for more than 20 years – are now retired or in reduced circumstances.
“It’s easy to lose a donor but very difficult to gain new ones. Potential new donors are more attracted to current well-publicized social issues, such as refugees and human trafficking. They may be less inclined to support a charity in a country presently governed by a military junta and where corruption is widespread. Such internal issues shouldn’t affect our income or the needs of disadvantaged youngsters, but they do.”
Donating to the SET Foundation
Those looking for a way to help can find out how on the SET donation web page, with direct donation methods available in the UK and the US, as well as options for PayPal and Thai bank transfer payments.
Another way to support SET, as well as gain some insight into the fascinating spiritual side of Thailand, is to buy one of Peter’s books, including his excellent memoir Phra Farang — An English monk in Thailand and Little Angels, a collection of stories about the lives of novice monks in Thailand.
I also recommend visiting the website and signing up for the foundation’s newsletter. Always an inspiring read, and with stories about the children they’re supporting, it certainly opens your eyes to the difficulties they’ve had to overcome just to get an education.