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Difference Maker

Why Tracy Cosgrove opened day-care centers in Thailand

A plucky British ex-pat in Pattaya, Thailand, saw kids playing in the dirt while parents worked at a construction site. So, she set up day-care centers and orphanages for needy children.

By Tibor Krausz/ Correspondent / May 23, 2011



Pattaya, Thailand

One afternoon in 2004, Tracy Cosgrove decided to follow a lumbering old truck. The British expatriate had just dropped by to take a look at an apartment she'd bought in one of the brand-new high-rises that dot Pattaya, a bustling seaside city some 100 miles southeast of Bangkok.

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"I saw the construction workers get onto this massive cattle truck," she recalls. "I'm very nosey and was curious about how they lived."

The men and women who earned $5 a day on 12-hour shifts lived in abject squalor in a crammed makeshift laborers' camp. Each family occupied a tiny tin hut. Children played outside in sewage-tainted dirt with anything at hand: an empty beer bottle or a piece of wood with nails sticking out of it.

"How on earth," Ms. Cosgrove recalls thinking, "can someone build luxury condos and keep their workers like this?"

A few days later, she was back – with boxes full of new clothes and toys. "You don't want to see children sad and dirty," she says. "You have to give them dignity."

Cosgrove then set about building an on-site nursery. A tireless networker, she went about it the way she always does when she wants something done: by soliciting, by hustling, by cadging.

She cornered the head of the construction company for permission to build on its property. She "hijacked" – as she puts it – local business meetings to obtain building materials and furnishings. She sought help from fellow expat buddies. She acquired steep discounts from toy stores.

Cosgrove has since opened several more kindergartens at temporary labor camps and slums in Pattaya and Bangkok. They're staffed by local volunteers, and she claims no ownership over them.

A widow with two children, she named her nonprofit the Melissa Cosgrove Children's Foundation after her daughter.

Her husband died in a road accident in Britain more than a decade ago. Soon after that Cosgrove decided to take her young son and daughter on a round-the-world trip. She took them to orphanages, schools, and children's hospitals.

"I wanted them to see both sides of the coin," Cosgrove says. "We lived in five-star hotels, but I wanted them to see that not everyone was so lucky."

"Even when we were children," says Melissa, now age 20, "we gave presents to other children at Christmas. My mother has taught us that [the poor] are not statistics but real people."

Melissa and her brother, Paul, 21, are involved in their mother's work, taking groups of disadvantaged and abused Thai children to amusement parks and pools.

In 2005, during a trip to Burma (Myanmar), Cosgrove arrived in a village of tumbledown dwellings in a township north of Yangon. In it stood a dilapidated orphanage.

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