Junwon Lee

Third Place, Nonfiction: “The Small but Mighty Survivors,” by Junwon Lee

Grade 11, Cheongna Dalton School, Seoul, South Korea


The Small but Mighty Survivors at Yaowawit

I didn’t know gratitude until the school’s one old electric generator sputtered to life again, flooding my cramped room in Yaowawit with light. While my eyes adjusted after being in darkness for several hours, I heard shouts of joy from other volunteers as they praised the heavens for clean water rushing from the communal drinking faucet. It was only my second day volunteering with the Yaowawit School in Kapong, Thailand, and I’d already developed a newfound appreciation for steady access to electricity and drinkable water.

Located in Phang Nga province of Southern Thailand, Kapong is a densely wooded province that almost never makes it to any traveler’s bucket list. Unlike the resort-studded tourist mecca Phuket, just two hours south, the atmosphere of Kapong is quieter and gentler. The ocean is not overrun with boats and jetskis; nightclubs are few; the tropical sunset goes uninterrupted by colossal shopping malls. Although the area was greatly affected after a devastating tsunami in 2004 that killed thousands, it is still known for its temple-studded landscape and waterfalls and hiking trails at Khao Lak-Lumru National Park. Years after the tsunami, Kapong is once again teeming with life and local flavor.

Established in 2006, the Yaowawit School doubles as an orphanage for children who have been affected by the tsunami, poverty, or have been abandoned by their parents. The 138 children currently housed there receive a proper Thai education, English language classes, and personal development and enrichment.  The nearest convenience store is miles away, so the school is self-sustaining with farms and fishing ponds that the children work themselves.

Seeing children no older than ten vigorously working the land with their callused hands made me hyper-aware of the soft, sensitive skin of my own palm. I was supposed to be older and wiser, but the children made me feel astonishingly young. Some had lost their families to tsunamis or were rescued from human trafficking; it seemed as if they had lived so many lives already. How could they smile while planting banana trees when life had been so unfair?

It was ironic that I was there to assist and mentor the children when they clearly had grasped a concept of life that I hadn’t mastered. Still, as a mentor, it was part of my job to lead English language classes and hold counseling sessions for the children. I became close with one particular student named Que (pronounced Kew), who never missed any of my sessions. He was sold twice by his parents, who were poor and couldn’t afford to care for him properly. When he returned home for the second time, his parents dropped him off at Yaowawit. His smile lit up the English classroom. He hung onto my every word during our sessions and tackled every task with the same attention and earnesty. It was as if he was unphased by his past troubles and his life at Yaowawit was the only one that mattered.

When I visited his house later in the summer, we had to walk through a dense forest for two hours. There was no proper road because Kapong is one of two provinces not connected by the highway that ran the length of Phang Nga, so we struggled to make our way through bumps, overgrown roots, snakes, and low-hanging willows. Once we got there, we were invited into a tiny, roof-less wooden shack with holes in its walls. In the far corner of the room, a misshapen figure was lying on its side. It was Que’s dad. He had slipped during the rainy season and hurt his back. Because the family was poor, they couldn’t afford the proper medical attention, so all they could do was watch Que’s dad groan in excruciating pain for days, until his entire back took on an abnormal and twisted shape.

I’d expected Que to be angry with his parents when he saw them again. I know I would be if my parents had sold me twice. I’d been angry at my parents for much less severe offenses. But Que greeted his parents and the rest of his family cheerfully and zipped around the house to start his chores. The other volunteers and I followed his lead. We washed clothes in an old bucket and gathered resources from the forest for the family to use. At every turn, I was met with the father’s smiling face of approval. He said something in Khmer then to the translator that had come with us. The translator said, “He says that he’s very happy you’re here to help.”

It was easy to see where Que’s resilience came from. Here was his father, who had been dealt an unfair hand, and a debilitating injury to boot, thanking me for something as small as doing daily chores. I didn’t do much. I didn’t fix holes in the wall, heal his injury, or change their lives in a substantial way. I could only help that once. In the following days, the family would have to complete these tasks alone, but they appreciated that their load was a little lighter on that one day. In that moment I realized how powerful and uplifting gratitude can be.

The realization was followed by shame at my own privilege. In Seoul, I’d been annoyed at my parents for being overbearing. I complained about the heat when I had air conditioning or cursed when there was no wifi. My worries all seemed so trivial in comparison to theirs. By spending time with Que and his family, I learned that the decision to be happy is an immensely personal one, separate from one’s circumstances. I hadn’t met anyone else in my life who faced harder challenges than the Khmer people of Thailand, nor anyone with deeper gratitude or brighter smiles.


I was devastated when I read about the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and the broken families it left behind. Reading about how survivors toiled to rebuild their own lives, uplift others, and continuously honor their lost loved ones was awe-inspiring.

My research and volunteer experience with the children of Yaowawit School humbled me. Though I complain often, I realize that life in Seoul is comfortable and easy compared to the lives of orphaned children I worked with. Seeing them smile despite their bleak circumstances taught me that I can actively choose react positively to negative situations. I believe I should use the resources easily available to me in South Korea to better the lives of the disadvantaged.

Drawing from my own personal experience was the most helpful for composing this essay. The unforgettable and priceless first-hand experience granted me with invaluable memories that served as a great help in writing this essay.



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