Thursday, 26 July 2012 11:17

HRH Princess Srirasmi Opens Mercy Cultural Learning Centre

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.
Mercy Boys Farm 

Tuesday, 24 July 2012 07:57

Our former Mercy hospice
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:

  1. We asked the families to share in the hospice care of their family members;
  2. In return, we provided counseling to the families and taught them home care skills; and
  3. 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…
 Bangkok homecare

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.
Homecare Workshop Bhutan

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.
 Homecare Bhutan

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.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012 07:36

US Marine Band plays Mercy

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.

Chaos on the dance floor

Friday, 29 June 2012 04:12

Israel's Ambassador Visits Korczak School

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.

Korczak Children Perform Classical Thai Dance

Monday, 18 June 2012 06:47
Ladies Local Noodle Shop
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.

Read more...

Monday, 28 May 2012 05:13
Honour They Parents

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

Published May 27, Bangkok Post, Spectrum

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.

 

Read more...

Tuesday, 22 May 2012 06:01

Moken Mother and Child

Dear Everyone,

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.

Read more...

Monday, 14 May 2012 06:06
Sea Gypsy Children, Koh Lao
Note: This article is about a community of sea gypsies in Ranong Province. We have been working together with these poor island villagers since the tsunami. Link to full text and photos here. Text only - below.


Published in Bangkok Post, Sunday, May 13, Spectrum Section

By Craig Skehan

Village elder and midwife Liya Pramongkit, skin brown and furrowed as a walnut, spent her early life living as a nomad aboard handcrafted wooden boats called kabang. They were fashioned from giant rainforest logs; planking held together with vines.

The kabang symbolised the human form and elements of the boat were named after body parts such as the stomach and ribs. All around them were the spirits of the sea. Whole families once lived on kabang, often for months at a time. A thatched roof would provide only partial protection from the weather.

Ms Liya still sings a fittingly haunting Moken lullaby about a hungry child. So many Moken children have gone hungry, not least in recent years, as their parents' subsistence way of life has ebbed away.

There was the devastating 2004 tsunami, greater enforcement of the arbitrary maritime Myanmar "border" with Thailand and the commercial depletion of marine life. Many children have died from malnutrition and disease.

If there are sea spirits watching over the Moken, they must be weeping.

Read more...

Monday, 14 May 2012 04:26
Sea Gypsy Children - Koh Lao
Note: This article is about a community of sea gypsies in Ranong Province. We have been working together with these poor island villagers since the tsunami. Link to full text and photos here. Text only - below. Photo above by Chawalit Kumsatok.

Published in Bangkok Post, Sunday, May 13, Spectrum Section

By Craig Skehan

Village elder and midwife Liya Pramongkit, skin brown and furrowed as a walnut, spent her early life living as a nomad aboard handcrafted wooden boats called kabang. They were fashioned from giant rainforest logs; planking held together with vines.

The kabang symbolised the human form and elements of the boat were named after body parts such as the stomach and ribs. All around them were the spirits of the sea. Whole families once lived on kabang, often for months at a time. A thatched roof would provide only partial protection from the weather.

Ms Liya still sings a fittingly haunting Moken lullaby about a hungry child. So many Moken children have gone hungry, not least in recent years, as their parents' subsistence way of life has ebbed away.

There was the devastating 2004 tsunami, greater enforcement of the arbitrary maritime Myanmar "border" with Thailand and the commercial depletion of marine life. Many children have died from malnutrition and disease.

If there are sea spirits watching over the Moken, they must be weeping.

Read more...

Friday, 04 May 2012 07:41

Rama 9 Fire - Homeless families

On April 24 a devastating fire struck a slum community in the Rama 9 area of Bangkok. Fifty-one homes were destroyed leaving 178 people homeless, including 61 children and 117 adults.  Among the homeless are four children with severe disabilities and 11 elderly residents.

The situation is dire. Most families in this community are headed by parents who work as day laborers, earning below the minimum daily wage (300 baht  - approx. US $10.) Like most slum residents, they are already over-burdened with household debt. And following the fire they have lost what little they ever called their own.

The slum community leaders and residents  have asked our Mercy Centre to assist.

Our outreach and housing teams are working hand in hand with the community. In addition to providing emergency assistance with food and shelter, we are helping the community to organize and petition government welfare and housing offices in order to rebuild the 51 homes as quickly as possible.

There are obstacles all along the way. Even removing the debris left in the wake of the fire is a major hurdle that requires petitioning government authorities.  As soon as we can, we will start to rebuild.

Please help us as the need is urgent. The government will provide some support; and the community itself will provide much of the labor; but our own costs in rebuilding the community, home by home, are staggering. Please see the detailed housing costs below. Our out-of-pocket costs are 54,000 Thai Baht  (approximately US $1,800) per home

Slum fires create chaos, especially when they hit squatter communities, like this one, where the residents have few or no rights to rebuild their homes on the land where they have lived their whole lives.

In the past 40 years we have come to the aid of dozens of communities throughout Bangkok  – and built over 10,000 homes - following major slum fires. We know how to expedite construction and how to rebuild in ways that strengthen the community and make it safer. In every instance, we have needed additional support from our friends around the world.

Please help as you can today. The community needs to move quickly if it is to survive as a community. Please contact us if you would like more details. Pictured above - community residents left homeless; below, remnants of their homes.

The Rama 9 Fire

Per home reconstruction costs: (Thai Baht)

Foundation pillars: 4,000

Wood: 37,000

Windows/frames: 4,000

Door/Door frames: 2,000

Roof/tiling: 5,000

Dry wall: 3,500

Screws, nails, bolts: 500

Toilet: 1000 Plus

Electric and Water: 20,000

Tools: 1,000

Food/Emergency Aid: 1,000

Labor: 5,000

Total Cost per home: 84,000 Thai Baht (note: 31 Baht = US $1)

Government Subsidy: 30,000

Mercy Centre’s Cost: 54,000 Baht per home (Approx. US $1,800)