On a wooden bench outside a local massage shop in Chaing Mai, Thailand, Sao's face glows as she proudly speaks of her son Beam to her social clique of aging women. While it is not uncommon for mothers to boast about their children, Beam's path to success is far from ordinary. Born with visual impairments and multiple disabilities, Beam proudly uses his earnings as an experienced masseur to pay for Sao's diabetes medicine.
For years Sao was burdened with worry over what would happen to Beam when she and her husband could no longer care for him. Now, as she studies the mature face of her son kneeling before her, she sees an independent man whom she relies on for her own well-being.
Any doubts about Beam's resilience were erased in 2002 when he arrived to start his fifth year of kindergarten at the Northern School for the Blind (NSB) in Chaing Mai – a longtime partner of Perkins International. In order to reach the first level of primary school all children must pass a national evaluation.
"He was a brilliant 11 year old, who had strong self-help and social skills, and a passion for music, but he could not meet the standards in reading and writing because of his disabilities," said Siriporn Tantaopas of this year's Educational Leadership Program, who began teaching at NSB that same year.
It certainly was not a lack of effort from Beam that was holding him back. Although the school for the blind was well-developed, it was not meeting the needs of students with additional disabilities. So as Beam threw his energy into another year of kindergarten, Tantaopas and her colleagues started planning a Visually Impaired with Multiple Disabilities (VIMD) program at NSB.
After learning that he had been chosen to enter the new VIMD program the following year, Beam paused for a brief celebration and then took off. He couldn't wait to tell his parents that he had passed out of kindergarten, recalled Tantaopas, and he continued to tell everyone he met in the weeks that followed.
"[The news] gave him the feeling that he had the ability to do many things," said Tantaopas, "And his parents were so proud and happy to know that their child would have the opportunity to move up in society."
With a renewed sense of confidence Beam entered primary school through the VIMD program. Finally equipped with the proper tools and accommodations, he transitioned smoothly from one level to the next each year.
While other children grew up dreaming of various careers, Beam dreamed of completing primary school – what most felt was an overly ambitious goal. So, at 15, when Beam sat down with his parents and teachers to talk about a future vocation, the decision was overwhelming. He initially experimented with making beaded keychains and learning the elaborate 2 week process for preparing traditional salted eggs. Although he decided to pursue other options, Beam passed on this knowledge to his family who used it to add to their income for over a year.
Following four months of managing the NSB's mobile shop, selling snacks and school supplies, Beam was introduced to Thai massage. A new passion was suddenly unveiled within Beam and he spent the next four months training at the Public Health Center. Most individuals start working immediately afterwards but Beam was not ready and many doubted he ever would be. Just like kindergarten, Beam knew it was just a matter of time. Beam practiced for two hours at the end of each school day – a routine he followed for the next four years.
Surpassing his childhood dream, Beam graduated from primary school and began earning an income as a masseur in a local shop. Withholding just enough to pay room and board at the shop, Beam proudly sent the rest of his earnings to his mother back in the remote village where Beam was born.
"At NSB we teach all of our children a lot about giving and also about showing respect, especially to parents," said Tantaopas, "Beam has really embodied these lessons."
Inspired by Beam's success as a masseur, NSB expanded the school's massage service room in 2011 and subsequently added a position for a full-time masseur. The ideal candidate would provide massages as well as teach techniques to VIMD students. Beam was the perfect fit and he accepted the job with great enthusiasm.
Beam is now a proud employee at the school that saw his potential when no one else could. He spends each day doing what he loves and inspiring students to dream beyond graduation day.
"Beam is a great example of what students enrolled in the VIMD program can achieve," said Tantaopas, "When given the time to learn at their own pace and a proper curriculum that incorporates a transition plan, these students will lead successful, independent lives."