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.
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.
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.
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.
Per home reconstruction costs: (Thai Baht)
Foundation pillars: 4,000
Door/Door frames: 2,000
Dry wall: 3,500
Screws, nails, bolts: 500
Toilet: 1000 Plus
Electric and Water: 20,000
Food/Emergency Aid: 1,000
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)