Introducing Sati Foundation — The Mindful Agent of Change for Thailand’s At-Risk Youth

Sakson Rouypirom started Sati Foundation, motivated not by ideas but by people. His passionate need to understand human problems on a deeper, more data-driven level, has been providing local Thai youth with long-lasting and impactful solutions for an entire decade. Today, the Bangkok-based foundation works all around the country, keeping on the pulse of the most pressing issues - from mental health awareness, skill building and sex education to intervening in cases of drug abuse and child prostitution. SATI non profit group of children practicing meditation Alongside the launch of our limited skateboard art collection with Korakrit ARUNANONDCHAI, we are shining the light on this grassroots organization in an inspiring conversation with its founder.

What is the meaning of the name SATI and how does it relate to your mission?

It comes from a Buddhist Pali word meaning “mindfulness”. Buddhist philosophy is one that I grew up with so I’ve always been interested in meditation and mindfulness. Pretty much most of my life I’ve been involved in the social sector and there are certain patterns there about how to solve problems, but I think often they should be looked at in a more holistic manner. We work with youths so instilling that mindset in them influences how they lead their lives. Mindfulness also works in so many different aspects with the way we operate as an NGO and how we identify solutions. We do a lot of workshops - whether it’s mental health or sex education - where we keep mindfulness as a component. We want to understand emotions and how they are reflected. Understanding the participants as a person. Our core mission is being mindful of problems and taking action.

Being mindful of the needs of society around you probably exposes you to a lot of pressing issues. How do you choose which ones to tackle?

We’ve been established for 10 years and what we’ve learned is that problems are intertwined. It’s very difficult to work on poverty and not work on education, or work on education but not work on health care. The way we manage this is by having our core values - youth, healthcare and education is very broad on purpose, but going deeper into it there are two main pillars which are the core of our NGO. One is options - opening options up to those who were born into social issues. Another one is empowerment. As an example - we work with a lot of young people who are impacted by sex trafficking and prostitution. Minimum wage in Thailand is about $10 (340 Baht) for 10 hours. Working at a supermarket they would have to stand on their feet for 10 hours. Whereas, as an individual who’s been through physical and emotional trauma, they can close their eyes and open their legs for 15 minutes and make 1000 Baht. Our goal is not to judge them, but to open up their options and also empower them with positive reinforcement. Many of them have only been exposed to negative reinforcement which resulted in them making choices where they don’t see value in their body. So how do we empower them to see the value in themselves? That’s why there are so many different programmes. Whether it’s a skateboard or a music class - these create a vehicle for them to value themselves. Being able to do an ollie or to make a cup of coffee - these are little wins which build up their psyche. They send a message of - I can do this, I can be somebody. I have a psychology background and, when working with trauma, you can’t sit down with a child and ask them - how long were you abused, how old were you etc. That doesn’t work. Let’s focus on the moment, on skill building, and on being mindful of the joy and positivity that they feel in class.

Is your background in psychology what led you to start the foundation?

For me, it’s been a lifelong dream. From a very young age I knew I wanted to go into the social sector. I volunteered at different NGOs - everything from the environment, to street kids, to healthcare. I had this very young impression of an ideal world. As I got older, I was still very set on accomplishing this mission, but the mission kept changing the more I got into it. I realized that there is not that world that I thought there was. But I’m still an eternal optimist. When I was younger I thought I would be much older and established when starting an NGO - the traditional path. But then I realized - I don’t know when that day will come, so I started quite young, over 10 years ago, and it slowly grew from there. We’re grassroots still, a small group of 4 people. I’m considered a volunteer. We’ve been able to make a lot of impact with such a small size. But, to answer your question, it was a lifelong dream of slowly accumulating knowledge and experiences, always with the intention of someday starting Sati. I’m very lucky to somewhat reach my dreams.

In terms of logistics, how does Sati implement change?

We divide youths into two groups. One is underserved - often in schools outside of Bangkok, up in the mountains, in tribes, lower income families, hard to reach. Those are more preventive programmes, such as sex education, mental health, sanitation, skill building activities… The second group is called at-risk - these are youths who are mostly in Bangkok and they are already in sex trafficking, drug abuse etc. Here we target not schools but community centers, shelters, drug rehabilitation institutions etc. We also have a little cafe in Bangkok where we do upskilling, running programmes on how to be a barista, a chef etc. The reason there are two groups is because they are intertwined. One group is prevention and the other one is tackling the issue.

With such a small team and children of different needs spread around the country, how do you monitor your processes and ensure that the participants are given the support they need?

Our team is made up of two social workers and two child psychologists and we have a few ways of keeping track. One is a typical follow up, but we also have an app only for the youth which allows them to sign up and use an open forum to come and talk to us. They can message us and that allows us to keep track of them. We run that app through all the communities and schools. It’s a supervised open forum where people can discuss their problems, and there are also private chats.

This is a great example of your mindful approach and of being responsive to the needs of the people you work with, creating tools which allow them to communicate in a way that is familiar to them.

They’re really the ones who provide information and tell us what they need. I’m just the medium, floating around, I’m here for them. I had a very comfortable upbringing, I went to school in New York and had a very supportive family. It’s not a story where I had a rough background and now I want to save people. I was taught that I had a lot to give back, and now the kids are the ones who teach me. They’re the ones telling me - we’re getting pregnant, there’s three different fathers, we’re using drugs… We are just listening to them and trying to make it easier for them to get out of the cycle.

Is it difficult from a cultural perspective to raise awareness around topics such as mental health, sex education etc.?

It’s a double-edged sword. From the research we’ve done, the reason why there seems to be an increase in mental health issues, seems to be because of social media. Most recently I was up North in the mountains where they recently got more access to the internet. All of a sudden, there’s this higher rate of anxiety, depression and even suicidal tendencies among users, which I’ve never heard of before in that area. For comparison - kids in Bangkok want to be like kids in Europe or Korea. Kids up North want to be like kids in Bangkok. So there is this constant social pressure, but also cultural pressure. There are certain things that are accepted in certain cultures and tribes in the mountains, which don’t really translate in modern times. Like young pregnancies, for example. Back in the day they would get married at 15, have a kid, raise them on the farm and work. It was normal. But now those kids are going on social media and want to go to school and do other things. Their parents don’t understand this, they’re like - you already know how to read, why don’t you come and work on a farm? Of course there is nothing wrong with that (that’s the options part). So then there is this tug of war within their psyche - there’s the cultural expectation, the person they see at school, and the person they see on their phone. It’s a lot for young people to handle. I feel like, in the past, it was more about what your friends were doing. But now you compare yourself to the rest of the world and you don’t even know the context behind it but it’s causing a struggle. The social media part and the cultural part is something that we have to battle with. We can’t change the culture but we can empower the youth to have more understanding, start new conversations and educate their parents.

How are parents responding to this shift in mentality?

What we try to do is create role models within the community. If I come from Bangkok and tell them - your child can be a doctor, they will look at me like - what do you know? You’re some rich person from the city. So this doesn’t really click culturally with them. But if the neighbor’s kid gets a scholarship, goes to school in Bangkok and does well, then they’re like - if they can do it, we can do it too. I noticed this with a lot of the cultures I work with, that you have to do and show. It’s hard to fathom experiencing something that you’ve never experienced before. We try to develop the youth and help them lead the way. It’s a pay-it-forward type of approach.

Are there any particular stories of kids who have broken through this cultural mold with Sati’s help?

We work with kids whose stories are a bit rough. We probably won’t have any youths who go to med-school. I’ll be happy if our kids survive to 25. The stories are quite extreme, but hearing them you realize that their lives are actually much better than before. We used to do a photography workshop every year in a youth shelter - a type of art therapy class. We had a young girl in that programme, she lived in the area, her mother was a sex worker. She was very quiet, around 13 at the time. But she loved taking pictures and all the photographers were like - this girl is really talented, she really has an eye. We used that as a conversation piece. She was doing very well and we knew we needed to support her more - this could be a career for her. So we gave her a scholarship. But right before - she went missing. Because her mother doesn’t make a consistent income, she often can’t pay rent. It got to the point where she couldn’t pay enough, so they locked up everything and she didn’t have a room. They had to go around finding places to stay, and we couldn’t keep track of where she was. It took us about a year to find her and we didn’t think we would. When we finally traced her, she became a scholarship student and we sent her to high school. She would come to our cafe for a training programme after work to learn how to be a barista. Through this process we learned a lot of things. My first initial vision for her was - she’s so talented, she could be a really good photographer. We nurtured her on that. But as she got older, she became a teenager and was more distracted with other teenage things. The NGO would support her, she would go to school, but she liked to take more selfies than photos, which is totally understandable. At first I wasn’t sure about this, but then I realized that this is what Sati is about. The goal is not to make me, or the people at the NGO happy. The goal is to make her happy. Her being a photographer doesn’t make her happy, it makes me happy. She ended up graduating high school, got a job at a boba tea place and is doing quite well now. She recently got into college and is another teenager. So, within that context, we have two main goals. One is to keep her safe - it’s very likely that she would’ve fallen down the same rabbit hole as her family and environment. The second is to empower her - she is now empowered to be an individual, a teenager. That’s why context is important, because she might not look successful to other people. But for us, she’s amazing and her story is the essence of Sati. If we can build that value within the youth, then they can choose not to harm themselves, they can choose not to harm others, not to do drugs, not to sell their body... So ultimately, every activity they do, whether it’s photography or skateboarding - the goal is to build that sense of value within.

You build a lot of that value through developing the children’s creativity. Is that link between art and social impact a big focus for you?

It’s all about allowing the youth to understand that their creativity means something. That’s why we focus on positive reinforcement. It sounds very simple but positive reinforcement, like letting them know that what they do is good and that they’re doing a great job, is very impactful and it’s missing from their lives. We try to push that creativity through working with many different artists, but it’s not going to be a traditional art class where kids are taught how to draw a tree etc. Most of the artists we work with are quite expressive and passionate - they have to be a vehicle. They have to be able to connect. There has to be a connection between creativity, energy, growth and sharing together. We also don’t want to develop a narrative of - this person is coming to teach you. We want it to be a session where everybody shares. And a lot of the artists end up learning just as much as the youth. Most of them are quite successful, so there’s no way they’ve ever experienced anything like those kids have. So this changes the mindset of a lot of people. Sati is not about just the kids - it’s about the connection. I always say that I get so much more than I give.

Earlier you mentioned believing in an ideal world. After 10 years of Sati, how does your vision of an ideal world look like now?

The story of the photographer is actually a perfect example. My ideal world is my ideal world. Not necessarily your ideal world. My job is to take all the negatives out of the world. To support the basic needs - safety, health, education, trauma support - to make it so that they can be on an even playing field. Empowerment is ultimately our goal, so we have to do our best to help with what we can. Even though it may sound quite abstract, I also believe in data and something that we focus on a lot is emotionally based responses. There is a difference between being emotional about something and being passionate about something. Imagine you’re on the street and you see a homeless youth, a 5 year old child, sitting on the street and asking for money. You’re walking to the pub to see your friends after work. That initial sight is probably shocking, you might have a sudden rush of sadness, maybe you donate some money. And then you go see your friends, you cheer, and that sadness turns into happiness. So these are fading emotions. But let’s say you talk to that youth and you find out that their parents left them at a train station and they have no food. Then you start to understand their problem and maybe you help them, maybe you don’t, but you start to feel sorry for them. The compassion that you feel for them based on that understanding, will stay with you for the rest of your life. I believe that our problems need to be solved with understanding, not with emotions. In terms of data, our app is kind of like a heat map, so we are able to see where there is drug abuse, where there is sex trafficking, and then we can pinpoint our workshops and match specific topics to specific communities. We also do outreach, so we never just randomly go to a place. We collect data, send a team there, do interviews... And so we’re working with different trends. I know we’re very small and we do what we can do, but I don’t want to follow the same patterns and systems in life. You can’t fix problems with the same tools that created them. So I’m trying to look for a formula to help more youths and help them in a longer, more stable way. Whether that’s being more preventive or proactive, we’re trying to develop long-term solutions. Data and understanding is very important and it has to be well-planned and well-researched - otherwise you’re just doing it for yourself. These are issues that are global issues. People suffer, people have problems - how are we going to fix it together?

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