Those dreadful waves ended the lives of more than 230,000 people in 14 countries, with an untold many more who disappeared; the lives of millions were affected, with many losing parents, siblings, relatives, friends, if not their houses, cars and financial stability.
But Boxing Day 2004 is not only a story about tragedy. At least not for philanthropist Franz Sticher, even though he lost his daughter Jennifer on that fateful December 26, later discovering her lifeless body on New Year’s Day in Krabi.
Just two years before that, he had lost his wife to cancer.
But despite such misfortune, Franz has never let the sadness get the better of him.
In Jennifer’s memory, he set up a foundation to award scholarships to poor students affected by the tsunami, ensuring that his daughter didn’t die in vain.
“The whole world was touched by the tsunami. People really opened up. They wanted to help and donated a lot of money so that I could do something... At first, I had no idea what to do, but then I met someone who put me in touch with the International Women’s Club of Phuket.”
That someone was well-known Phuket educator and heritage icon, Professor Pranee Sakulpipatana, the president of the Phuket Community Foundation, Vice President of the Thai Peranakan Association and now the Honorary Consul of Nepal in Phuket.
With the advice and help of Prof Pranee and another respected educator, Wanwilai Leenanithikul from Phuket Wittayalai School, Mr Sticher created a scholarship for five locals who had the desire but not the means to go to medical school.
“The first thing was to find students who had been affected by the tsunami and wanted to study. I established the profile of potential students and wanted to make sure that they could find employment upon graduation, and that the investment in the scholarship would be sustainable.”
A man who knows success first hand, Franz has worked for three global companies in the area of operational finance, having faithfully served the food (Nestle) and pharmaceutical (Schering-Plough and Roche) industries. Retired now for 17 years, he dedicates all his passion to his charitable work.
“Half of it [the foundation] is funded out of the pockets of my daughter (Vanessa) and I; the other half comes through donations from friends and from collection at the church during Jennifer’s memorial services.”
The initiative has already begun to bear fruit. The first five scholarship recipients have graduated and become doctors, and are already working in local government hospitals; namely, Patong, Koh Lanta, Thalang, Vachira Phuket and Takuapa.
At the end of February, three of them met to thank their benefactor at Central Festival Phuket.
“Basically, we entered into something like a contract with the students – we would be responsible for providing the finances and they would be responsible for successfully completing their studies,” says Franz.
“As they have all graduated, that contract has been fulfilled on both ends. I have the highest respect for their perseverance in coping with the tough challenges of a 6-year medical study programme.
“They are now perfect role models for other young people of what determination and a positive attitude can achieve... they have become a source of inspiration for others, and perhaps they might also be in a position to help change the lives of someone less fortunate with financial support of their own.
“Many people said this charity is wonderful but for me it’s a gamble also. I like to see success. I want to make sure we do everything right. It’s management,” he says.
Satianpong Limpatthanakit, a PSU (Had Yai) graduate who is now working at Patong Hospital told The Phuket News: “I feel glad and thankful that Khun Franz gave me the scholarship... If I have the chance, I will give a scholarship to other students.
“Even if it will be not much in value, I believe that it helps those people who don’t have much money. I think these people can be better people in society,” he says, adding that his envisioned scholarship may become a reality under Franz’s foundation.
“Khun Franz is a kind person, like a respectful father – I could feel it since the first moment I met him. He’s so warm in his heart,” he added.
Two other doctors, Ms Kanjana Koydul and Ms Janjira Taesakdatham also were grateful for Mr Sticher providing them with the opportunity to pursue a better future.
“It was an incredible coincidence. It reduced a burden for my family. My mom was so glad that she cried when she heard about this because she worked so hard for me,” says Miss Kanjana.
“Khun Franz gave the scholarship for free without any expectation of us. If there wasn’t Khun Franz and the teachers at that time, we may not have arrived at this point in our lives today,” says the 26 year-old, who has worked for low wages in state run hospitals – Lanta Hospital, Krabi Hospital, and Phiphi Hospital – as opposed to earning more in a modern and comfortable private hospital in Phuket.
Miss Janjira, 27, a doctor at Thalang Hospital, told The Phuket News that she is also willing to earn less working at a government hospital as she is devoted to helping others, not getting rich.
“Everybody has their own goals in life, many people lay out a path to get rich. This is why some might decide to become a a doctor, for example. But for me, it is about being dedicated to society.
“I had some problems while studying, but I always thought about the ones who support and believe in me. It makes me want to do my best for my patients too. I intend to [continue to] be in a government hospital even if I cannot make a lot of money. It makes me happy.”
“We have to remind ourselves from time to time what our goal in life is because sometimes we may forget it,” continues Miss Janjira.
“Khun Franz is a good example for us. He is already rich. He can live comfortably without thinking about others, but he still helps people. Life is so short, but what we do lasts longer. If we live to give, our lives will be more valuable.”
Prof Pranee, who has known Franz for 10 years, told The Phuket News that in her 38 years as a teacher, in a role where she has always tried to bridge the gap between the rich and needy, she has never seen or met anyone with as big of a heart as Franz.
“He has a big heart, big enough to love and care for others. He used to say to me that, ‘You know that Jennifer has passed away, but she’s only disappeared physically. In reality her legacy is growing and growing through these medical students.’
“I think this is great. It’s such a good story at a time when society is at civil conflict. People feel hate for each other, but I found someone who really loves others. This is meaningful to me,” she says.
“He loves his children and other human beings. He has good intention to others even if he’s an unfortunate man. I wish that all these lucky students will continue to help society and put it first.”