Ford Fund's Bangkok Community Center Redirects Resources to Address COVID Pandemic

Ford Fund coordinates complex array of NGO efforts to help most vulnerable residents

BANGKOK, Thailand — Within just months of opening its new community center in Bangkok, Ford Fund and its nonprofit partners quickly changed course and redirected resources to address immediate coronavirus-related needs.

When the Ford Resource and Engagement Center (FREC) opened in October 2019, it did so with eight of the most creative and progressive nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Bangkok. Each had its own mission and sought to serve the community in its own way.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, FREC and the NGOs pooled their resources and talent to develop a coordinated approach to serve the larger community.

Scott Chang, director of FREC Bangkok, explains it this way: "We got together and asked these questions: ‘Who can we help? Where are they? How do we reach them? What do we give them? How do we collect it?'"

Working together over the last several weeks, the NGOs set up a system through which 1,000 care packages were distributed each week. The care packages include enough rice, canned fish, soy milk and fruit for 30 meals—as well as soap, hand sanitizer and masks. By the end of June, the group plans to distribute more than 13,000 care packages, enough to serve 400,000 meals to the city's most vulnerable—the recently unemployed, elderly and families ordered to stay home due to virus exposure.

Filled shopping bags arranged on floor

Na Café, which employs disadvantaged youth and is located at FREC's next-door neighbor and partner project Bangkok 1899, helped kickstart the COVID relief effort. Two other FREC partners, Scholars of Sustenance and Urban Studies Lab, joined in and the three NGOs together determined the contents of a nutritious care package and called on the public to donate the contents.

Within days, generous people across the city had sent hundreds of bags of rice, thousands of tins of fish, boxes of hand sanitizer and countless face masks. Individuals, private companies, government agencies, grocery stores and several Thai celebrities have all contributed to the effort.

Before the pandemic, Scholars of Sustenance had operated as food "rescuers," collecting leftovers from hotel and restaurant buffets—following strict safe-handling guidelines—and delivering to orphanages and women's shelters.

But with hotels and restaurants closed, the team is using its safe-food handling expertise to create sanitized zones to process the donated items into individual care packages.

Scooter with filled baskets in front oc COVID sign

Many of the donations are a result of FREC's work with Saks Rouypirom, founder of the SATI Foundation that runs Na Café. Saks, a high-profile philanthropist in Thailand who has worked with runaway refugee youth, is a medical doctor and restauranteur whose extensive network has made significant contributions to this effort.

Urban Studies Lab is a group of university instructors and researchers that work on "placemaking," designing healthy and desirable public spaces. As part of the COVID relief effort, they shifted their focus to finding the people who needed the care packages most. Working from their own homes, they are using census data to draw up detailed maps of Bangkok's 50 districts, identifying the most vulnerable in each district.

Volunteers from the city's public health team—who for months had been using FREC as a training center—support the team's efforts as well. Based on their longstanding relationships with low-income and elderly residents, they are helping to identify specific families and distribute care packages to them.

Filled shopping bags arranged on floor

Other Ford Fund partners at FREC Bangkok are also shifting focus in the face of the pandemic.

Precious Plastic Bangkok, a plastics recycling program, is using its public awareness expertise to separate fact from fiction and educate the community on COVID-19. They printed flyers called "Myth Busters," which are stuffed into each care package.

Bangkok 1899, the FREC's next-door neighbor, is a popular cultural and civic hub. With its performances and art exhibits cancelled, it has become the drop-off location for donations of food and cleaning supplies. Because Bangkok 1899 faces the street, private donors can make curbside drop offs without going indoors.

FabLab Bangkok, a group of technology experts that teach STEAM to students through afterschool math and science programs, is running online hackathons and building prototypes of ventilators, face shields, masks and other hospital equipment.

Person wearing facemask

And the cluster of conservation groups at Nature Inc. are working to take their environmental education initiatives online, so that people can access their workshops while safely staying at home.

"We work with an amazing team of compassionate experts that recognized a shifting community need and pivoted on a dime," said Chang. "Thanks to their passion and expertise, we were able to transform our new facility overnight."

Last year, Ford Fund invested $1.75 million to open FREC Bangkok—the fifth of its kind globally—in the city's historic Nang Loeng neighborhood. Ford Fund used its global FREC model to plan programming and provide resources that bring economic, environmental and educational opportunities to the local community.

The renovated old school building—with meeting spaces, offices, a community kitchen and modern classrooms—metamorphosed overnight into a warehouse to store incoming food donations and supplies.

Volunteer doctors and nurses use the space to train community members on COVID-19 safety, and the team set up a care-package assembly process in the kitchen with sanitized "clean zones" marked off to prioritize safety.

"This pandemic has heightened everyone's sensitivity around how we interact with one another," Chang says. "We are working hard to make sure everyone is treated well whether they are on the giving or receiving end of things."

For its part, Ford Fund is actively involved with the relief effort's planning and, where possible, using company vehicles to help with transport. Moreover, with some NGOs seeing a decrease in funding during COVID-19, the Fund's consistent support is helping some partners ‘keep their lights on' so they can continue to deliver meaningful work for the community.

To learn more about how Ford Fund is responding to COVID-19 and how you can help, visit fordfund.org/covid19.