Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Population, Poverty & SDGs

HIV/AIDS-THAILAND: Mercy for Children in the Heart of a Slum

Kimberly Shen

BANGKOK, May 26 2005 (IPS) - Though right smack in the middle of the Thai capital’s largest slum, the Human Development Foundation teems with life and children struggling to live.

At lunch hour, children of all ages stand in a row along their long table, enthusiastically singing, giving thanks for their food. Home mothers, as female volunteers at the foundation are known by, smile genuinely at their brood as they tuck in.

The little ones give you cheeky grins as the peer out of their bowls while they eat, talking amongst themselves. The older children act as elder siblings to the younger ones, carefully scooping spoonfuls of rice off the bowl, into their mouths.

Rev. Joseph Maier – a Redemptorist priest known here as Father Joe – and his staff at the Human Development Foundation (HDF) care for 41 babies and children and 26 adults with HIV, as well as 220 other children without it, at the Mercy Center. The foundation’s open, breezy three-story complex really stands out amongst the shanties in the Klong Toey slum.

Since being assigned to Thailand about 35 years ago by the Redemptorist Catholic province in Denver, Father Joe has created a network of social services and built schools and shelters.

His Human Development Foundation was founded in 1975, and it oversees 243 employees and a budget of over 50 million Thai baht (1.25 million U.S. dollars), most of it donated.

The six homes in the Mercy Centre house children from different backgrounds – some have been abused, others either abandoned or orphaned by either one or both of their parents dying of AIDS.

The tranquil environment of the centre leaves a peaceful aura of healing – and most of all, normalcy.

Father Joe says the key is to ”normalise” the lives of these children.

”AIDS is here to stay, and children have AIDS. Children have to go to school and have to live with other children without AIDS, and children without AIDS have to live with children with AIDS,” the Catholic priest tells IPS.

”I think if we allow them to lead normal lives, it helps tell them that they’re not weird; it helps them feel accepted by society.”

According to the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Global AIDS Programme, at the end of 2003 an estimated 570,000 adults and children were living with HIV/ AIDS in Thailand, and 65,178 adults and children were estimated to have died that year.

Also in 2003, 1.2 percent of women attending antenatal clinics were found to be infected with HIV.

According to local child rights groups in Thailand, over a quarter of a million children have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS. By 2010, they say, this number is expected to increase to over 350,000 orphans.

Father Joe is indeed in awe of his charge and says they have so much to teach adults.

”We consider these children our professors. They teach us tolerance, love and friendship. They demand to be loved, they demand that you hold them, they demand that you love them. They’re only human,” he points out. ”These young individuals have dreams and aspirations, like any other children.”

A quaint room that serves as a chapel at the Mercy Center is unearthly and empty but extremely serene.

Here, the children gather every Sunday to attend Mass, with Father Joe giving the weekly sermons.

But John Padorr, an advisor at HDF who helps it with fundraising, says that despite being taught Catholicism, the foundation raises the children as Buddhists as well.

”Though it is through Sunday Mass that the children integrate, interact and learn from each other,” he points out.

A boy with Down syndrome boy sits in the art room drawing a picture of two people sitting on an elephant.

He makes it a point to draw the same picture everyday – the same composition but with a different colour scheme. He will start by sharpening his colour pencils, arranging his art materials before settling down into a mood where he’s swallowed into his little own world of elephants that no one can gain access to.

He begins depicting what possibly is reality in his head, with the power of a pencil.

Father Joe has an explanation for this.

”He’s trying to get over his pain. If one had to watch their family and friends disappear slowly, as their bodies deteriorate, slowly consumed by AIDS; wouldn’t one be emotionally traumatised?”

Lek (not her real name) is currently in the third grade and performed in a dance item during the 15th International AIDS conference held in Bangkok last July. Demure and shy, she quietly confesses that she wants to be a Thai language teacher and loves to dance.

Having been in the centre for five years, Lek is not without a family. Her mother used to stay at home with her but decided to leave and marry another HDF patient. Lek’s mother continued to visit her weekly, but one day, she just stopped coming.

This made the volunteers very worried.

”We found out that her mother died in a construction site accident,” said Padorr. Lek took the news calmly and when asked where her mother was, she’d point up towards the sky quietly.

Home mother Wee has been working in HDF for five years and reckons she has taken care for more than 100 children.

In an interview, Wee says she ”loves these children like my own” and feels sorry for them, not having parents of their own.

A mother of two herself, Wee points out that the children at HDF, despite having HIV/AIDS, are just like every other child and play just as hard.

Looking back, Father Joe says, ” When our work here first began, I was the parish priest of a small Catholic enclave in the slaughter house neighborhood of Klong Toey, and living in a shack next to my parishioners.”

Now, the Human Development Foundation is a testimony of his hard work. But Father Joe remains just as humble as the day he first started.

”We always have been and always will be a field organisation based in Bangkok’s slums and dedicated to the needs of the poorest of the poor, especially children.”

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