Stars & Angels & Magi
by Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
Slum Children teaching Jesus how to ride his bicycle
Before the heavens and the earth were formed - “even before the Bible began” after the time of Middle Earth - our Sacred Legends of Christmas started with a new star in the heaves. Three Magi – those who could plot lunar calendars and maps from the stars, learned men from the East - “discovered” this new unique star.
Their oldest accounts, dating back a thousand years before Christmas, spoke of mystic and sacred meanings: they told of a Child who would be born – a special child – the Son of God. That a Star would point the way to the birth place on earth of this child.
Right now is by far the most exciting time of year at Mercy Centre.
Every day it seems something wonderful happens. On a Monday Father Joe receives an honorary award as a Child Protection Ambassador for Thailand, the first foreigner ever to be so honored. On a Tuesday, two of our children, Miss Ewe and Miss Oom, score the highest grades in their class. Actor Jackie Chan drops by our Mercy Centre to sing and dance with our kids on a Wednesday. Then Thursday arrives, and we celebrate World AIDS Day at Mercy Centre, where hundreds of poor teenagers gather to learn about prevention and compassion. On a Friday, our boys living on the farm win their soccer match.
And every new day is one day closer to Christmas. The excitement builds. Our children know that Santa Claus and presents with cakes and ice cream are just around the corner. Plus the New Year celebrations!
We have much to be grateful for in 2009.
When the world economy plummeted in 2008, we began adjusting for this year, cutting costs everywhere except in staff numbers, and then we made a promise - Father Joe, Sister Maria, all my colleagues at Mercy, and myself - to the poor we serve.
We promised, no matter what, to make sure that every poor child we meet goes to school. We promised to never turn away a child in need and to welcome each boy or girl into our family. We promised to provide an umbrella of care for the poorest of the poor living with AIDS. We promised not to let our poor neighbors down.
As the year ends, even as 2009 funding declined as predicted, we have still kept all our promises. A few statistics:
3,451 Children enrolled in Mercy Kindergartens
753 Children graduating into primary school
434 Education sponsorships for Bangkok's poorest children
114 Emergency and micro-loans to our Women's Group
132 Street children we protect by the day
189 Children living in Mercy Centre
543 Children we represented in police stations and courts.
5,000+ Poor people living with AIDS in our care or receiving our assistance in our hospice, in their homes,, aand at government hospitals
1,000,000+ Servings of rice we provided to our children, students, the elderly, and handicapped.
And behind these statistics are thousands of individual stories. Father Joe wrote a beautiful piece - "It's All in The Game" - about three of our kids: Nong Fon and Nong Peh, both blinded from AIDS, and their Big Sister Miss Rin.
Miss Rin, age 15, mentally disabled and physically disfigured from birth, was abandoned to the streets where she, too, got AIDS. As far as we can tell, and we don't know much because Rin refuses to speak of her past, her whole life had been one of hiding from others in fear. Yet on the first day Miss Rin came to Mercy, in fact the very moment she met our two blind girls, Nong Fon and Nong Peh, Miss Rin found love.
Miss Rin loves Nong Peh and Nong Fon with a tenderness so profound it defies our understanding. They giggle and laugh together all day long. She showers, diapers and feeds them, plays games with them, and makes them laugh whenever they are the slightest bit sad. All three girls have speech impediments, yet somehow everything they say to each other is crystal clear. At night, Miss Rin tucks them into bed and sings them her own made-up lullabies.
These children are the beauty that is Mercy.
Thank you for providing our children with a world full of dignity and joy in 2009. Thank you for giving to our foundation in every way you give, for sponsoring our children, for volunteering, for every gift you bring or send us, for every phone call or letter you've written on our behalf, for every kind word you've said about us to friends and family. All of you make an enormous difference.
Please continue to support us in 2009 and 2010. Please help us in any way you can to keep our promises to the poor.
Wishing all our friends a Merry Christmas and New Year filled with joy,
Usanee, The Mercy Teams,
And All Our Mercy Children
We hosted World AIDS Day at our Mercy Centre on Nov. 27 - a community-wide event that brought together six local HIV/AIDS organizations, twenty three community leaders, five government schools (400 school children) and the Thai Health Ministry Director of AIDS Programs, Dr. Piyathayda Samuphrphut. It was the perfect day to get communities and organizations working together - organizations that included The HIV/AIDS Network of Thailand, Duang Prateep Foundation, Siam Care, Emergency House, We Understand Together, and, of course, our Mercy Centre. Together we used every tool at our disposal, from computers to sports to puzzles and games, in teaching the school children about prevention, understanding, and compassion. Please see our gallery of this event for more details.
Bangkok, Thailand: Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R., a Co-founder and Director of The Human Development Foundation-Mercy Centre, was named an Ambassador of Child Protection in an award ceremony held at the Thai House of Parliament and presented by Prime Minister of Thailand Abhisit Vejjajiva on November 22, 2009.
Fr. Joe was nominated for the award by the Child Protection Taskforce of Thailand (a coalition of groups working with street children throughout Thailand) in recognition of his continuous four-decade commitment to the protection and education of the poorest slum children in Thailand.
Father Joe, a Catholic Priest ordained in the Redemptorist Order, first arrived in Thailand in 1967, ministering to the poor Catholic communities in Northeast Thailand and to the Hmong in Laos before settling permanently in Bangkok as the Parish Priest in the "Slaughterhouse" neighborhood in Klong Toey, Bangkok's largest slum community.
In 1973 Father Joe co-founded The Human Development Foundation to protect and educate the poorest children of all faiths. Under his direction, the foundation now oversees the largest network of slum kindergartens in Bangkok; provides shelter to 200 orphan children; represents and defends poor children in police stations and courts; protects street children throughout the city; and advocates for the fulfillment of the 1999 Thai Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The award as Child Protection Ambassador 2009 follows a Lifetime Achievement award presented to Father Joe in 2004 by Her Majesty the Queen of Thailand as the foreign resident who, "over the long-term, has contributed the most to the promotion of status and protection of women and children in Thailand."
By Father Joe Maier, Bangkok Post Sunday, Spectrum Section, Nov. 22, 2009
With the sound of that lady judge's voice still ringing in her ears - even after three months in the kids' slammer for girls - Miss Angela came to us here in Klong Toey in a prison van from a Bangkok Girls' Remand Home - middle seat, sandwiched between two custodians.
That lady judge had said: "This is outrageous! Eighteen-hundred pills? Lock up this child and throw away the key, to protect her." Then sternly to the arresting officers: "You catch those criminals who used this child. Take her away. Hide her. Protect Her. Educate her as long as you can, at least till she's 18. Do whatever you have to do." And she added bitterly: "You tell the mother, if there is ever any buying and selling to do - and I do not want to know about any of it - tell her to sell herself - never her children!"
November 10, 2009 - It was a fabulous day at Mercy Centre! Jackie Chan,
the beloved actor, martial artist, and Arts and Culture Representative of
the International Peace Foundation, dropped by to visit our children.
He joined hands with the patients in our AIDS hospice, drew art with
our school children from our Janusz Korczak School, and then sang
and danced with the school kids at our Mercy Centre kindergarten.
As he was leaving our Mercy Centre, Jackie Chan paused for a moment,
got out of his car, and gave a garland of flowers to a neighborhood
child as she was waving goodbye.
If you had dropped by our Mercy Centre last Sunday, you would have seen something quite stunning, something even more beautiful than you could ever have imagined in a shelter for abandoned, abused, and orphaned children.
We held our 4th Annual Family Day for our Mercy children, and it was gorgeous. One-hundred-and-sixty-three family members attended this one-day celebration and workshop: tons of Moms and Dads, many out of jail, all of them full of hugs and kisses; even more Grandmoms and Granddads with pockets full of candy; Aunties and Uncles in glorious abundance; and a whole flock of brothers and sisters who are only just now getting to know their siblings at Mercy.
From the moment a new boy or girl arrives at our Mercy Centre, we start trying to get this child back home. In the meantime and for as long as a child is with us, we give all the love we can. Our children come to us feeling abandoned, damaged, and wounded, which means that a huge part of our love for these children must be in helping them to heal. Everyone who works at Mercy Centre - every cook, driver, teacher, security guard, homecare giver, hospice helper, social worker, our entire community service staff, absolutely everyone – thinks of and treats each child as his own, only perhaps more gently. The children call us Mom, Dad, Uncle or Auntie.
Yet no matter how much we love our children, nothing can replace the love of a real loving family… a mom brushing her young daughter’s hair or a dad teaching a toddler how to kick a ball.
So we try everything possible to keep families together. Often it takes just the repair of a single shack or occasional delivery of nutritious dry foods. (We furnish extra food and other simple necessities for 143 of the more than 500 families we visit in our HIV/AIDS Homecare Program.)
One family we recently visited had been living in a makeshift shack made mostly of cardboard and mildewed, waterlogged debris. To keep Mom, Dad, and Daughter together, we built them a sturdy, weather-proof shack with running water and a toilet, and found steady work for Dad as a parking lot security guard.
New boy at Mercy.
For our newest Mercy boy, Master Tone, there is no alternative right now apart from Mercy Centre.
An 8-year-old orphan, Tone had been living with his 83-year-old Grandpa in a bamboo shack on the outskirts of a remote village in Nokorn Pathom Province. Grandpa can’t walk and can’t provide or care for Tone the way Tone needs; and because he loves Tone and wants him to learn and play with other children, Grandpa asked us for help. It is a great honor for us to welcome Tone into our family. He will be going back to see Grandpa on the school holidays. More photos in gallery.
But what happens to children who apparently have no family and no documentation? Legally, these children don’t exist.
That was the case with a Thai boy named Bird, who came to us from the streets at age 8. He knew his nickname was Bird and that he once had a mother, that his mom left his dad and upcountry village and moved to Bangkok when he was four, that by age seven his mom was dead. By the time he came to live with us, holding no citizenship papers, no documentation at all, Bird had no right to live or go to school or ever hold a job in the country of his birth.
Bird stayed with us on holidays as a part of our family. During the school year, the government sent him to a special school/reformatory that allows stateless children to earn some rights of citizenship. Meanwhile, we never stopped looking for Bird’s family. We made over a dozen false starts and drove in many wrong directions on jeep-track roads to distant provinces and back again in search of Bird’s family. Eight years passed. Bird turned sixteen.
Eventually (by luck and sheer stubbornness) we found Bird’s home province, and from there his home district, and eventually the village leader of Bird’s village, who said that he remembered Bird, but that his mom had told everyone Bird had died. And then we found Bird’s Dad!
If you’re confused about this story, imagine how Bird feels.
Oh, and a few weeks later, Bird finally received his citizenship documents.
Here’s a quick overview of recent Mercy highlights.
Legal Aid and Anti-trafficking Centre for Street Children. We continue to oversee more than 60 cases per month, spanning every crime from murder to trespassing, with a focus on child protection cases. In the last two months we represented children in twenty-three cases of sexual and physical abuse and abandonment.
Hospice. Our newest projects aim to move our patients from hospice to homecare and include work therapy (sewing), and income generation (preparing tiger balm for sale). To measure the impact of these new projects and all our HIV/AIDS programs, we are starting to work closely with university research centers, collecting and analyzing data, measuring results, and adjusting each program accordingly for continuous improvement
Our Korczak School for street children – Lek, age fourteen, is the newest student enrolled in our Korczak School. Typical of street kids, he has no documents, no known parents, no rights to citizenship, and no right to attend school. Together with a kindly old man who has looked after him for many years, Lek picks through recylable garbage to earn a living on the streets. Our legal aid centre is now searching for his documents.
Please write and visit. We always miss our friends. Friends make our world go ‘round at Mercy Centre. Friends and Family.
Uanee Janngeon and Mercy Team
Through thick and thin, 'almost momma' Rin and her two little sisters are always up for another round of 'phong pah' By Father Joe MaierPublished in the Bangkok Post: 18/10/2009. Spectrum section.
It's a love story that needs telling. Three of the most fabulous children on the planet and their giggles galore version of phong pah - something like "blind man's bluff", with a Thai whiff of "hide and seek" added for spice.
The old man and the sea, and his granddaughter
by Father Joe Maier
The Moken people might struggle to eke out a living, but their spirits - like those of the sea - endure
It's true. The kids do swim and wade in water up to their neck to school when the tides are in. And they love it. Stilt houses on the shore have no connecting bridge so they swim the 50 metres - clothes and books held dry above their heads with one hand.
Great fun for 7-year-old Miss Jhin and the other children. Not every day, but according to the tides. And cameras. The tide had gone down and a boat arrived from the mainland with the camera lady - not the regular morning boat bringing the teachers and fresh food to cook for the school breakfast and midday meals.
Miss Jhin's favourite teacher, the one she trusted the most, Ms Phrong, introduced her kindergarten class to the camera lady from the government census office. Miss Jhin pulled her shirt over her face: "No Way! No pictures! I don't' trust anybody that much!" She was absolutely certain - no doubt - for sure - that she'd be captured in the camera and would not be able to get out. She didn't know why or how, but she just knew. Just like the television: how did they get out of the picture? But she suggested to the camera lady that she take not just one but several pictures of her four-year-old brother. She didn't dare giggle as she told her this wonderful idea!
From Asia Development, An Asian Development Bank Publication
"There is no secret to what we do, it's just...."
Hard Work in the Slums
By Floyd Whaley
In the sprawling Bangkok slum area where Father Joe Maier has worked for decades, his organization has often been called on to help people after fires devastated flimsy homes. And he often found many other aid organizations helping out as well.
“Everybody was there, passing out cans of sardines, school uniforms, pots and pans, but nobody was talking about the biggest problem: housing,” says Maier. “A dog can sleep in the streets, but people need a house. When we rebuild houses, all of a sudden people have a right to stay. They have a weapon to fight for their right to stay. Without a house, they have nothing.”
The organization he cofounded, the Human Development Foundation, has repaired, renovated, and built more than 10,000 homes in Bangkok’s slums. Many of those were built immediately after devastating fires to preserve the residential claims of very poor residents.