Frances & Thanit Watthanaya
In 2006, 19-year-old Frances Pettitt arrived in Thailand to train and compete in Muay Thai. The Canadian had arrived with a dream simply to immerse herself in the Thai national sport, but it opened her eyes to a different dimension of the country that would change the course of her life.
Frances would fall in love and marry Thai fighter, Thanit Watthanaya who was her fellow camp mate at Bangkok’s Bor Breecha gym. When Thanit’s mother got really sick, the two went to his hometown in Isaan to help out on the farm. During her time in the village, Frances witnessed a prevalent social cause where the lives of local kids were engulfed by all forms of negative influences.
After their marriage, the newlyweds returned to Canada where Frances finished a degree in Asian Studies while Thanit found a job and fought on the side. But with his family constantly on the back of the latter’s mind, the Watthanayas decided to return to Thailand in 2014 with baby Parvati in tow.
Back in Thanit’s hometown in poverty-stricken rural Isaan, they came face to face with Isaan’s afflicted youth once again. There and then, the couple decided to venture out with hopes of making a difference.
We have heard of the inspirational stories behind many great Thai fighters from Isaan, who rose from dire poverty to become world champions. The reality in the North-eastern provinces of Thailand is actually a lot more grim.
The odds are heavily waged against the children of rural Isaan, just as soon as they are born. Frances explains,
“Kids die all the time from gang violence, drugs, and motorcycle accidents. Rape is also an issue, as is teen pregnancy. It doesn’t get reported much because no one cares.”
Isaan is comprised of 10 provinces with a total population of 23.1 million, accounting for one-third of Thailand’s population. Despite being the most populous region, it contributes only 10% of the country’s gross domestic product.
The average per capita income in Isaan is only about $400 per year. Most people work as farmers but agriculture is extremely problematic in the region. The climate is prone to drought, while the flat terrain of the plateau frequently leads to flood in the rainy season, rendering a large proportion of the land unsuitable for cultivation.
Due to the shortage of decent jobs, the majority of the adults leave their rural village to find work in Bangkok. This domestic exodus leaves an estimated three million Thai children who are abandoned or raised by their grandparents or relatives.
This is where Frances and Thanit hope to fill in the gap through Muay Thai, by offering support to children where a lot of the families simply can’t. Frances explains,
“We help out financially of course, but also act as role models, care givers, and teachers. Boom or I are at the gym every single day. We are constant, something the kids here desperately need.”
After a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2014, they were able to raise enough money to build a Muay Thai gym on land that belonged to Thanit’s father.
Wor Watthana Gym opened in January of 2015 and saw a steady stream of kids coming from all around Isaan. Some of them stayed with the camp from day one, while others came and went. Today, the Watthanayas look after 20 children, 14 of whom actively compete, aging as young as 5. The rest come to exercise and just to hang out.
“Of course we want to build champions, and give the kids the opportunities to reach their full potential in the sport, but just keeping them safe and focused is as equally important”, said Frances.
Wor Watthana aims to offer support in education, guidance, hope, sense of community, discipline, a path out of poverty, life skills, to see Muay Thai as both a skill and a gift. Frances adds,
“My husband is particularly proud of this (the gym) because there is no place in his village (that is drug and alcohol free) where kids can come and work out. We provide proper training and opportunities for those kids who want to pursue Muay Thai as a career.”
Adding, “As an athlete growing up, there was no support or outlet for my husband. His talents, for the most part, went completely unnoticed.”
The gym now runs largely on donations, however, monthly expenses often overrun. The donations go beyond ‘running’ the gym towards such expenses as doctor’s visits, birthday parties, clothes, food, nutritional supplements, after school snacks, ice cream, haircuts, running shoes, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, etc. The list goes on.
Local gyms in the area, as well as some of the families who are in particular hardship have also benefited by receiving cash and supplies from the Wor Watthana initiative in times of need.
Giving the Gift of Giving
Bpaet (pictured) is one of the kids who has benefitted from the gym. In the past 4 years training at Wor Watthana, the 15-year-old has competed about 100 times, capturing the Muay Champ Isaan Championship title along the way. Frances shares,
“Bpaet is focused, he is staying away from drugs and alcohol and has a plan. He was abandoned by both parents shortly after birth and has been raised by his elderly aunt ever since. He lives with us full time now.”
With the wages he receives from fighting, Bpaet is able to now help his aunt out financially and even bought her a washing machine to help lighten her burden.
Monthly donors are monumental to helping kids like Bpaet achieve their dreams as well as to Wor Watthana’s long term success. As a nonprofit operation, Frances and Thanit receive no income from the donations, and on months when there is an outflow, they make up for the deficit with their own incomes. Frances laments,
“Poverty is like a black hole here. Whatever we get goes directly back into the community, and while it always helps, the poverty isn’t just going to go away.”
Not every kid at Wor Watthana will pursue the path of professional Muay Thai fighting. There are very simple benefits such as experience, healthy mindset, community benefits, etc. The gym, like many others often act as a community center or safe space for children in the area. There, they can have a comfortable place to hang out and a fridge full of food.
For the children of Isaan, there isn’t a whole lot more to ask more.
You too can make a direct and positive benefit by pledging a monthly donation to Wor Watthana. Whatever amount you are able to contribute will go a long way in bettering the lives for the kids of Isaan. Donations can be made via https://www.worwatthana.com/donate
For those considering other ways of contributing, it is easy to give back by buying a big box of electrolytes for the kids, or a big package of instant coffee for the trainers. A small gesture can go a long way and it makes these people feel appreciated and valued.
Link to Donate: https://www.worwatthana.com/donate
Link for Singaporeans: paypal.me/worwatthana