by Charles McKenney
Published in Catalysta: http://catalysta.org/Interchange/Reaching-Out-Thailand
“Standing together with the poor” is the mission of the Human Development Foundation (HDF) Mercy Centre, a community outreach organization based in Bangkok’s largest slum district, Klong Toey. The community center/shelter founded by Catholic priest Father Joseph Maier, intimately known as Fr. Joe, and Sister Maria Chantavarodom (Sister Maria) 40 years ago welcomes abandoned children and teens, those affected with HIV, and older women who have trouble remaining employed. Its outreach also extends to the sea gypsies (situated throughout the surrounding islands of Thailand) who lack education, resources and the life skills to become self-sufficient.
1973 was the year that the HDF was started by its pioneers who saw a need in the community and strove to meet it. Fr. Joe's vision to establish the Mercy Centre commenced at the threshold of his 25-year tenure as the Catholic community Parish Priest in the slaughterhouse neighborhood of Klong Toey.
Throughout the decades, the work expanded to include prison visits, health clinics, housing programs, and AIDS awareness campaigns, to name a few. Consequently, HDF has gone on to receive a number of accolades in recognition of its humanitarian endeavors. Former US President George W. Bush visited the facility many years ago and Fr. Joe was honored by Her Majesty Queen of Thailand with a lifetime achievement award.
A large part of the work done by the organization encompasses its outreach to children and education programs. From taking in homeless, abandoned street children to providing off-site weekend excursions to conducting the annual summer camps, Mercy Centre embraces children from all walks of life, despite their religious affiliation. Some children simply need after-school homework assistance while others may require an environment that will ensure their maximum physical and mental human security. The children and teens can avail themselves of the plenteous activities and programs that exist at the center thanks to numerous benefactors and volunteers who manage these outlets.
Volunteers are always welcomed to apply for positions of all sorts (e.g., fundraising/grant writing, teaching, translation, social media marketing/website maintenance) at the Mercy Centre. An initial visit to the premises entails learning about the history of the Human Development Foundation (HDF), its community outreach programs, and the various sponsors that have enabled it to thrive as an NGO all these years.
One can observe local women at their sewing machines making dresses and blouses for sale in the community, young learners in uniform running through the courtyard, and artwork created by the children of the center. Their original creations, showcasing their admirable talent, are available for sale in the souvenir shop. Donations are also accepted in whatever form befitting the donor.
A tour of the facility ends with the coordinator showing the classroom and canteen area where the children are nourished each day. There is a special need for morning English instructors, a task most feasible for many foreign volunteers who can commit to being a regular presence in the Mercy Center family. “We need people who are serious about helping us and who can commit to at least three months of full-time service,” said Ms. Kanyaphat Niphonjaroenchote, the volunteer coordinator who was a former Mercy Centre child. After attaining higher education in Norway, she returned to her roots to pay it forward.
Mr. John Padorr, an advisor for the Mercy Centre for 10 years, left a lucrative New York-based career in advertising and communication to relocate in search of a more meaningful work life. Now he operates the media communications arm of the organization and witnesses the fruits of his labor whenever he hears laughter from the children.
Pure social justice lays at the heart of HDF’s untiring efforts to give hope and a voice to those who may have never deemed it possible.