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 , / Correspondent

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.

"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.

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"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.

"There were just three filthy beds for 20 children," she recalls. "They ate stale rice off banana leaves."

The building had no showers or toilets.

Within two months, it had both.

Thanks to Cosgrove, the newly renovated orphanage also had its own generator – and lots of toys. She has since built several kindergartens and homes for boys and girls, each overseen by a local village committee.

On any new project, Cosgrove starts from scratch. "If I have a passion for something, I'll make it work," she says. "I know what I want, and I know how to get it."

Just five feet tall, she recently bluffed her way into a high-level United Nations meeting in Yangon. She wanted to get an update on Burma's cyclone-devastated south.

"I just walked right in, flashing my business card at the security guards," she says. "If you've got a go-getting attitude, who's gonna stop you?"

"Tracy has boundless energy and goodwill, and an ever-expanding network," says Vicky Bowman, Britain's former ambassador to Burma, who worked with her on some of her projects. "And she is never ashamed to ask."

Even as a child, Cosgrove says, she was a doer. When she was just 12, she started a lunch-break snack shop at her all-girls school in Manchester. At 17, she became England's youngest (and shortest) traffic warden. Later she would reinvent herself as an interior designer and hotel manager.

In 2003, Scotland's Evening Times named Cosgrove, who then lived in Glasgow, Scotswoman of the Year for her independently funded good works, which included buying 200 bicycles for HIV-positive children in northern Thailand.

She used publicity from the award to kick her work into high gear.

Cosgrove, who now lives full time in Thailand, has several airlines and luxury hotel chains among her sponsors. She's acquired more than $1 million worth of goods from suppliers in Britain for children in Thailand and Burma.

"Tracy is very straightforward and has this infectious quality about her," says Paul Strachan, a Scottish journalist based in Pattaya who has followed her work closely.

"She's created a mind-set where local construction companies now feel obligated to build kindergartens at new camps for their laborers. So they just call her."

• To learn more go to www.mccf.uk.com

• For more stories about people making a difference, go here.
 

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