Dance and music help heal our Mercy children. Because our children were abandoned, used, and abused before coming to Mercy, many had lost their way. They forgot, or couldn't feel, what it means to be kids and to embrace each new day with hope and joy. Our Classical Music and Dance Program helps them express themselves and find their way back to being children once again. Plus it's just plain old good fun! Photo gallery here.
by Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
A woman who grew up experiencing the worst of urban life still held to a fantasy of one day having a 'proper' wedding and despite staggering odds against her she found out that there is always room for hope.
Published August 5, 2012, Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum
Ever since she was 11 and on the streets, Noi had always dreamed she would get married in the proper style, with a dowry, a ring and a bridesmaid. Her husband would have a real job and talk nice and love her. After she met the right man she promised herself that she would make it happen, and she wanted it even more after her two children were born. Her husband Somchai, also street-raised, always had the same response when she told him of her matrimonial dreams: "Why not?" But that was as far as it went.
So it became yesterday's dream. Somchai was a good husband and a good father nonetheless and they were all pretty happy living in their Pattaya home.
But several weeks ago she showed up at our door, her daughter clinging to her, crying, and her son, barefoot, sniffling, nose running, with hiccups from crying so hard. Noi had whomped his bottom back at the bus station where he left his flip-flops, saying: "Five years old is too old to forget your flip-flops."
Published by Heavenlake Press. You can purchase Fr. Joe's new book here. A note from the publisher:
The Open Gate of Mercy is a collection of real-life stories of the poorest of the poor who share our City of Angels. We have seen many of them on Bangkok streets, but we often pass them by without taking any serious thought about who they are.
School-aged children trying to sell flower garlands we try to ignore when we are stuck in our car in a traffic jam. Old women and men hastily pushing their junk carts trying to quickly cross a busy road. Street vendors who sell us fruits, lunches, snacks, t- shirts, knick-knacks, etc. Who are they? Where do they come from? What are their families like? What happiness, sorrows, hopes or fears occupy them in their lives? The answers to these questions most of us are blissfully unaware.
In nearly 40 individual stories, Father tells us about these people that we see but never really know. The stories Father Joes recounts also tell us about their families and their community, and others like them whom we ordinarily never have any chance to meet. Each story stretches our worldview and transports us to a universe where we witness the daily lives of slum residents. Father Joe guides us on a journey through the heart of a community that he’s devoted most of his life in serving. Always with love and respect, he shows us that in spite of a life devoid of privilege, everyone possesses an inner dignity.
About the author
Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R., has ministered to the poor in Bangkok’s slums for over 40 years. As the Parish Priest of the Catholic community, he has lived alongside the poor residents around the city’s main slaughterhouse in Klong Toey slums—which is how he became known as “The Slaughterhouse Priest.”
Fr. Joe co-founded the Human Development Foundation - Mercy Centre, a community-based organization dedicated to strengthening the poorest slum communities of all religions and protecting and educating their most vulnerable children.
Her Royal Highness Princess Srirasmi visited our children this week to officially open the new Mercy Cultural Learning Centre, located on our Mercy farm in Samut Prakan Province.
The Mercy farm is home to twenty of our older Mercy boys, who plant, tend, and harvest the fields before and after school every day. As our boys learn how to farm the land, they are simultaneously gaining skills, confidence, self-esteem, and a better understanding of the world around them. Previously, most of these children felt they had never accomplished anything. They had been abused, abandoned to the streets, and told they were useless. Life on the farm is turning their lives around.
The new Cultural Learning Centre, built as a traditional Thai sala, is an open-air meeting and teaching centre for all group visits to the farm – a place where teachers and professors of agriculture give our boys lessons in sustainable and organic farming; and where, in turn, our boys teach what they’ve learned to their neighbors, school classmates, and other school groups who visit on fieldtrips.
Princess Srirasmi felt the joy of our children, and expressed her hope that our farm and new Cultural Learning Centre thrive, along with our Mercy children, long into the future.
Photo above, Princess Srirasmi and a Mercy child tend to the trees we planted in honor of her visit. Photo above by Jim Coyne; photo below, Starbucks (Thailand). Photo gallery here.
To be honest, we never wanted to call our hospice a hospice. Built as a temporary structure in 1993, rebuilt in 1995, and again in 1999, ours was the first, largest, and only free AIDS hospice in Bangkok for over ten years.
But our goal from the first day we took in hospice patients was to help them return to their families. For us our hospice was not by definition a hospice; it was a bridge back home.
Through 2003, until anti-viral medications became accessible to the poor, we took in up to 300 patients each year, most of whom died in peace at our Mercy Centre.
Yet, even in this first decade, through nourishment, rest, and emotional support from family and Mercy staff, many patients were able to return home.
One former patient, Apiwat Kwangkaew, volunteered to help pioneer our home-based care program (Today he is president of TNP+, the Thai Network of People Living with AIDS.) Along with several additional former Mercy hospice patients, we began to develop the methods and means to help those afflicted live at home with their families.
From the beginning, by necessity, we focused on the relationship between the patients, their families, and community. At that time, almost everyone in the slums was ignorant and scared of AIDS. (Even our hospice had to be called something else so that our neighbors wouldn’t protest its existence.)
To overcome ignorance and discrimination, we created three-way partnerships between our hospice staff, our patients and their families – a partnership that worked as follows:
- We asked the families to share in the hospice care of their family members;
- In return, we provided counseling to the families and taught them home care skills; and
- The patients agreed that they would contribute to the maintenance of the hospice as much as they were able.
It often took several months of counseling, sometimes even years, to unite families and patients and bring them home. Sometimes we also had to provide outreach and education for neighbors and community leaders. It was rarely easy.
Flash forward to 2012…
As our hospice needs diminished, our homecare program grew and continued to expand to its current reach of hundreds of families spread across 60 slum communities, as well as four major government hospitals. We now provide care and counsel to over 5,000 poor adults and children every year.
Today our greatest homecare challenge remains in trying to unite patients and families. We have learned much from our experience, and there is much to be hopeful for.
Poor people living with HIV begin treatments earlier. They are stronger, both physically and psychologically. They understand that their lives are not over, that they can lead productive and aspiring lives in their communities, at home and at work. If they become ill, our teams can care for them in their homes; and if they become incapacitated, they may enter government hospitals and receive free treatment. (A hospital registration card for Thai citizens costs 30 baht - approximately one US dollar.)
For all of these very positive reasons, we were able to close our hospice in 2012.
Recognition: Sharing What We’ve Learned.
Many AIDS organizations in Thailand and abroad now recognize our Mercy Centre as a regional leader in home-based care and have asked for help.
In 2011 we formalized our home-care training initiatives as a permanent program and began conducting workshops along the Thai-Burmese border for the Mae Tao Clinic and various health organizations serving refugee populations.
Also in 2011 Her Royal Highness Princess Ashi Kesang Wangmo Wangchuck of Bhutan visited our Mercy Centre for a two-week hands-on workshop in order to prepare for the opening of Lhak Sum, Bhutan’s first HIV/AIDS Care Clinic. Following her visit, Princess Kesang invited our homecare training staff to Bhutan to meet with the Lhak Sum Group, as well as the Ministry of Public Health, and begin a training program for the new clinic’s care providers.
Before we conduct our workshops, we make on-site visits and evaluations. The workshops that follow, also conducted on-site, are tailored to the needs of the organization. Post-workshop evaluations and training sessions continue.
This year we will be conducting ten more workshops throughout the region, including seven for PSI Thailand.
It All Started with Our Hospice – A Blessing in Disguise
Mercy Centre always has been and will be a celebration of life in our beloved slums. Our hospice, even during its bleakest early days, was never an exception. Our hospice patients were our family, and we celebrated every new day beside them.
To keep the moms and children together, we opened a beautiful and loving Mercy Home just for them. These were the most wonderful and deserving children in the world! And while many of them fell ill and died quite young, those that remained were so full of love of life, they gave us strength to celebrate each new day.
Today, our children living with HIV/AIDS are growing up stronger. They compete in sports and many are at the top of their class in school. And while their health and wellbeing are still of great concern, we can now direct most of our love and energy in preparing them for adulthood.
Over 60 children born with HIV live throughout our Mercy homes – not in separate homes as before. And we support dozens of moms and children who now live at home in their communities. Many moms are able to work, and we make sure all their children attend school!
And, finally, because of our hospice, we learned a world about home-based care – knowledge and experience we can share with organizations who are now pioneering homecare in their own communities.
In the future, with your support, we will continue to expand our homecare program and reach out further to help educate the poorest of the poor.
Education, outreach, and compassion – theses are the cornerstones of our future.
Thank you for your support through these many years!
Usanee and the Mercy Teams
Photos from top: i) Our old Mercy Hospice; ii) Apiwat Kwaengkaew, our first homecare giver and current president of TPN+, visiting a Mercy patient; iii) Teaching homecare in Bhutan; iv) A workshop home visit in Bhutan.
Our children rushed home from school last Friday afternoon to receive a group of special guests – The US Third Marine Expeditionary Force Band – a traditional 12-piece military marching band of the highest caliber and spirit.
Most of us have heard near countless versions of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” but for our kids the song was new, refreshing, and exciting. (Also it was beautifully played.) A few of the many highlights:
- Our blind girls Nong Peh and Nong Fon not only heard their first Sousaphone; they also held onto it while it was being played and felt its sonorous vibrations!
- Our boy Galong danced up a storm. (He believes, perhaps quite rightly, that every upbeat tune is for dancing, and who are we to tell him otherwise?)
- The band invited our children to conduct a few songs, and they didn’t miss a beat.
- Our children returned the favor by performing music on their own traditional Thai instruments.
- The band played a gorgeous rendition of the classic R&B song “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" here in our Mercy Centre.
Finally, inevitably, chaos ruled. Galong persuaded the rest of our Mercy kids to join him on the dance floor. Photo gallery here.
This past week Israeli Ambassador H.E. Itzhak Shoham and his wife Madam Dalit Shoham made a special visit to our Mercy Centre to meet the students who attend our Janusz Korcack School for Street Children.
Honoring their visit, our Korczak school children performed a traditional Thai dance, and served food they prepared themselves and coffee brewed from their own Korczak coffee stand. Ambassador Shoham gave a Hebrew blessing for the children, their teachers, and their school.
The Ambassador’s visit sends a strong and positive message to the street children attending our Korczak school, letting them know that they are important - that their lives and their education are meaningful. His visit also strengthens our own teachers' love of teaching and guiding Bangkok’s poorest children.
Janusz Korczak, a hero to the people of Israel and Poland and children around the world, was a Polish-Jewish doctor, writer, and orphanage director, who pioneered the legal rights of children. In 1942, when his Jewish orphanage was removed to the Warsaw Ghetto, Janusz Korczak refused an offer of help for his own safety. Months later, he and his children walked together in quiet dignity to the train bound for Treblinka, where they perished. Our school is dedicated to the memory of Janusz Korczak and to the children in his care.
Photos: Above: Kindergarten children present a gift to Ambassador Shoham, whose embassy has helped connect 15 of our 22 preschools with computers and skype. Below, our Korczak children perform classical Thai dance.
by Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
Published June 17, 2012, Bangkok Post, Spectrum Section
Her dowry was a nice gold chain and sacred medal. His? A threat: a knife and a gun displayed on the table in front of him – a reminder of what would happen if he didn’t take his vows seriously.
It all went down in Aunty Tien’s Noodle Shop.
Auntie Tien – proprietor of the Slaughterhouse Ladies Local Noodle Shop, where the matriarchs of the neighborhood trade stories and gossip – had taken the girl in. A teenager on the run from the brokers. Sleeping nights in a stall in the Klong Toey fresh market. Auntie asked around. No one knew her. She was just a “stray.” So Auntie Tien gave her a home and protected her. She became Auntie Tien’s assistant at the Noodle Shop.
The girl, in her middle teens, was from the border in the far North. Fragile. Not sickly, but almost. Not a first choice for marriage. She couldn’t hold up under long hours in the rice fields and would quickly lose her pretty looks, so best move her on to Bangkok. She was attractive enough, and in Bangkok, they don’t know anything about rice fields. A woman who came to the village now and then gave her parents a down payment and said she would get the girl a nice job.
Old-time protection against guns and knives can be engraved on to the skin, but as 'Uncle' found out, even the shaman's best inks are powerless against the pain of shame and lost loved ones
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
He doesn't wear amulets, but says his tattoos are the best on the planet. Amulets, nowadays, can be fake, or even worse – not even blessed, no power. You can't be too careful. So tattoos are safer. His Chinese dad told him that long ago.
And Uncle Mongkhol's tattoos are real, no doubt about that. Thumb-nail size on each shoulder and barely legible, faded by time. But ancient beliefs say that a khom tattoo does not lose power or potency through the years. Both tattoos are letters written in Khmer script, signifying ''mother'' on one shoulder and ''father'' on the other. Uncle says quite piously that the letters are to remember his beloved parents. No doubt about that, but not quite so piously, a khom tattoo from years gone by is comparable to the awesome Gaw Yawd (Nine-Pagoda Peak), strongest of all tattoos for those who live by the gun and the knife.
Old-time protection and healing for both police and gangsters against lethal gunshots or knife wounds, together with a sachet of sacred blessed herbs (worn around your neck), which you swallow immediately if wounded, either by gun or knife. These herbs are expensive and most difficult to obtain. Plus, you must believe. Trust the potency of the herbs together with the spiritual strength of the shaman who bestowed them upon you.
This is the second recent news article about our work with the Moken – the ethnic Sea Gypsies – on Koh Lao, an island in Ranong Province. Both articles focus on the plight of these poor island villagers who have lost much of their past and are lost in the present. We are doing for the Mokan what we have always done for the poorest of the poor – we are sending their children to school and taking care of the moms and grandmoms. In addition, because of their precarious legal status in Thailand, we are working in myriad ways with the entire village, together with the local provincial government, to help these poor seafarers gain recognition and status as permanent Thai residents. Please read the articles at your leisure (the earlier one is posted below), and help if you can. Many thanks, as always, for all your support.
Prayers, Fr. Joe
Moken Gypsies Find Themselves at Sea in the Modern WorldSydney Morning Herald and The Age, May 22, 2012 (For slide show with commentary from Fr. Joe, please visit here. Photo above by Jim Coyne.)
Article by Lindsay Murdoch
They live in stilted shacks on a mudflat above piles of oyster shells, broken glass and rubbish, their nomadic days on the seas of south-east Asia gone forever.
Liya Pramongkit, an elder and midwife of Thailand's largest group of Moken-speaking sea gypsies, saw her people on the small island of Koh Lao dying at the rate of one a week, many of them starving mothers and babies.
"We have lost our traditional way of life as our children no longer hear the stories that have been handed down by our ancestors," Liya says, her deeply lined face showing the hardship the Moken have suffered since they were forced to leave their seafaring lives, where the only things that mattered were the tides, the fish, the storms, the moon and the sea spirits.
"Before, when we lived and died on the sea, life was much better," she says.
More than three decades working in Bangkok's slums did not prepare Catholic priest Joe Maier for what he saw on Koh Lao when he made his first 30-minute boat ride here from the Thai fishing port of Ranong, in south-west Thailand, four years ago.
"The people were literally starving to death, trapped between the modern world and the Moken world," Father Maier says. "I have never seen people as poor.