Little did they know that they were laying the foundations for the island’s oldest charity – a collective force that would go on to change the lives of thousands of young Thais through its scholarship programme and still be rocking three decades later.
The PIWC has been an enduring presence in Phuket, despite the transience of expat life. ‘Meet-and-greet’ coffee mornings help new arrivals settle in; social groups – gardening, mahjong, golf and bridge, to name a few – provide long-term residents with the opportunity to forge meaningful friendships and
hobbies; and annual fundraisers bring swathes of the community together in the name of philanthropy.
You might hear the PIWC labelled as ‘ladies who lunch’ but this misses its purpose entirely; the focus of the club is firmly fixed on giving back to Phuket.
The PIWC’s membership reflects the diversity of the island at large; amongst 130 members, 28 countries across six continents are represented. Ladies from Thailand, Luxembourg, Hong Kong, France, the US, Poland, New Zealand, the UK and more have all found the PIWC somewhere along their individual journeys.
Sue Arnulphy, from the UK, went along to a PIWC coffee morning at the Royal Phuket City Hotel in 2002, shortly after moving to the island and seeing an ad in a local paper. The then president Linda Cumming and fellow members welcomed her with open arms, and she hasn’t looked back since.
“Joining the PIWC shaped my life here. I have made lasting friendships with women of all nationalities, particularly our Thai members, as sometimes living here is not so easy to navigate and their help in understanding Thai ways has been invaluable,” she explains. “I learned more about Phuket than I think I would have done otherwise and visited many places around the island.”
Beyond friendship, the community ethos of the PIWC, reflected in its scholarship programme, is also important to Sue, who oversaw the programme in her former roles as vice president, president and treasurer.
“When we interview our scholarship applicants at the beginning of the school year, it is very humbling. I am extremely grateful to Wipa and the ladies who have set up the system whereby we know that every baht raised goes to the students,” she says. “The students are now doing well in their professions and I am very proud to have been involved.”
Like Sue, Jureewan Smulders-Wongprom, a Thai member of the PIWC since 2008, served as the club’s president and on the scholarship committee, and valued her time spent interacting with local children and teachers in the process.
“I’m so proud as a Thai to see that our poor students get financial help from the expat community,” she explains. “I’m glad to be a part of the group because I’m in the position to both enjoy the activities and help people at the same time.”
Jureewan came to hear about the PIWC through a neighbour and was quick to join. Having spent 26 years as an expat in the Netherlands and as a member of the International Women’s Contact, The Hague, she was well aware of how such clubs ease newcomers into the local community. She soon formed the PIWC’s gardening club, which brings together ladies with a passion for the island’s tropical flora and continues to bloom with each meetup.
“My fondest PIWC moments are with friends of different nationalities, mindsets and ways of thinking. You are never too old to learn once you open your mind,” she says. “There are always jokes about our differences and that’s the charm of the club. I can’t think of my life without it. Imagine the world, like this, without prejudice!”
The diversity of the PIWC is something that well-travelled American expat Missy Devlin values too.
“I loved the women I met at the first lunch. Bright, international, interesting…and most importantly great fun. My PIWC friends have been amazing in helping me get settled and feel a part of Phuket,” she explains.
Although relatively new to the PIWC, having joined 18 months ago, Missy has already established herself as a vibrant member of the club’s committee, working on their marketing, social media and scholarship programme.
She’s no stranger to volunteering her time in this way, having held leadership roles in the Junior League of Seattle and sat on the Board of the Seattle Symphony. She maintains that the PIWC is every bit as professional as these former organisations, with the added bonus that it’s relaxed, personal and has more heart.
“Our purpose is raising money for scholarships. We are very hands-on in meeting and coaching the students,”she says. “In turn, our student routinely support our events with time and money. While successful, they are in most cases the single income earner for their family, so to give to our scholarship fund is a major statement. You know an organisation is on track when its recipients give back.”
Success through scholarships
As Missy highlights, the PIWC measures its success by its scholarship programme for disadvantaged students which goes to the very core of the club’s tagline “Friends with Purpose.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly at what time in the club’s history the programme was established, but it started to gain momentum and focus after the tsunami in 2004, and has seen over 1,200 students through school and/or university/college and onto fulfilling careers as doctors, nurses, veterinarians, marketing officers, teachers, graphic designers, hoteliers, accountants, engineers, translators, tour guides, secretaries, personal assistants and more.
At the helm of the programme is Wipa Tanmanatragul who leads the scholarship committee. A graduate of the American Field Service programme, Wipa knows the transformative power scholarships have on their recipients.
The committee interviews students selected by teachers, counsellors and advisers in schools across Phuket – contacts carefully built up over the years – and selects eligible students based on their economic need and potential for academic success. Once chosen, funds are set aside to cover the student’s academic course – funds pooled from events, membership fees and donations from kind benefactors.
It doesn’t end there. The committee works tirelessly to monitor the progress of each and every student, stepping in and providing extra support should they falter. Wipa’s inbox is a constant stream of exam results, and her Line abuzz with messages from grateful students. She tackles it all with a quiet, admirable tenacity.
In a heartwarming and somewhat cyclical show of gratitude, former students are known to donate their time by helping out at PIWC events and even donate money back into the scholarship fund. Three such thoughtful students are Teeraworapong Surarit, Sithatcha Wongkom and Sutthipan Hunyoung, pictured above.
Teeraworapong has been supported by the PIWC since he was 12. The committee had sight of a teacher’s report which described his difficult living conditions and so offered him a ‘continuous’ scholarship to see him through high school and university.
“My father used to have his own garage, but when his health declined, he had to become an employee of the garage instead,” explains Teeraworapong. My sister has Down’s syndrome and my mum has to spend all of her time looking after her.”
Teeraworapong, now 21, is in his final year at Phuket Rajabhat University (PRU), studying Innovation Design. Although he had to give up his place at a university in Bangkok to care for his father back in Phuket, he remains grateful for the opportunities the PIWC and PRU have afforded him, and he recalls particular highlights with a childlike glee.
“In my second year of study, one of my seniors introduced me to the Anime Festival Asia fair in Kuala Lumpur and I was able to sell my designs for the first time. I also got to meet and share ideas with my graphic design heroes. It was amazing.”
The peak of Sithatcha Wongkom’s career so far came a year after she graduated as a doctor, a feat she is adamant she wouldn’t have accomplished without the support of the PIWC.
“I got the chance to fly to Osaka, Japan and present research about non-recreational drug use,” she explains, pushing back round, scholarly glasses.
Sithatcha harboured a dream to become a doctor from a young age, but after her father passed away when she was 12, leaving her mother as the family’s sole breadwinner, that dream slipped out of reach.
Fortunately, her teacher singled her out as a high achiever and nominated her for a PIWC scholarship. The six-year scholarship, awarded to her at the age of 18, paid the tuition fees, textbooks and equipment medical college demanded, and Sithatcha, now aged 26, works as a general physician at Patong Hospital.
“The strong impact of the scholarship is that it gave me more motivation to learn,” she says. “I had to keep getting good grades and exam results so I didn’t disappoint the people who have supported me in this way.”
Sutthipan Hunyoung, who the PIWC also guided down the medical route and who works as a nurse in Vachira Hospital’s surgical department, echoed this sentiment.
“It was a motivating pressure to do well to keep the grades up so I could maintain the support. Nursing studies contain a lot of preparation and exams. I had to work hard,” she explains.
Sutthipan was also 18 when the PIWC agreed to fund her four-year studies. Her parents had separated and her mother was keeping the family afloat on a stretched salary from selling Thai sweets. Now aged 24, Sutthipan is a permanent member of staff at Vachira. But her career highlight, aside from a good sleep after a string of night shifts, took place away from her hospital.
“I was so happy to represent the hospital at a convention at Ramathibodi Hospital [in Bangkok] about wound care after surgery,” she recalls, playing with the hem her lilac hospital scrubs. “After that, I was confirmed as a permanent government nurse.”
These scholarships are not just helping these remarkable and deserved individuals but their families too. The ripples of the PIWC’s work spread further with each scholarship. May they continue to ripple for 30 years more.