Allow John Golfin, co-founder of Mercy Centre Australia to personally introduce you to the "Children of Mercy" from a sponsor's and traveller's point of view. This could be you...
The Human Development Foundation Mercy Centre or HDF Mercy Centre or Mercy (for short) is an orphanage and AIDS hospice for children between birth and over eighteen, mainly from the slums of Klong Toey, only 9km from the Grand Palace in central Bangkok. Mercy was started near an old pig slaughterhouse in Klong Toey by a Catholic "Redemterist" Priest Father Joseph Maier (known as Fr Joe) and a Catholic nun Sister Maria Chantavarodom in 1973. Since that time they have housed over 70,000 different children and currently house 141 kids in three large complexes and one boys home. The children are mainly from parents who have died from AIDS or abandoned them and many have AIDS themselves.
The main complex offers free housing, food, medicines and above all education. A further 21 locations around the "slaughterhouse slums" offer day care and primary education. Fr Joe was born in 1940 in Portland, Oregon USA of Irish parents and came to Thailand when he was still in seminary. His motto for Mercy is "we partner with the poor" with key emphasis on education of children. Often to achieve this, the very basic of shelter needs to be provided to the parents or guardians of poor children to enable them to come to school. I was introduced to Mercy by Lucy and George Braoudakis back in 2006. George was my best friend at Sydney Boys High School and we later attended Sydney University together. I was best man at Lucy and George's wedding. Lucy works for Qantas and through this was introduced to Mercy Centre by a charity run by Qantas Cabin Crew.
They give up their personal time to directly assist orphanages in these cities including Mercy in Bangkok. In 2009, I visited the Mercy Centre in Klong Toey for the first time with Lucy and George and met Fr Joe and one of the long time directors, Usanee Janngeon. Even though Fr Joe is Catholic he welcomes all faiths and testament to this is the pregnant copper Lady in the garden that represents procreation and care of all children of all backgrounds. The set up and operation impressed me so much that in 2011, after I returned from South America and met Usanee in Sydney, I decided to take up the challenge of setting up "Mercy Centre Australia", to enable people in Australia to take up fully tax deductible sponsorship of or donations to the children in Mercy Thailand.
Mercy USA and Mercy UK had just been set up. At the time there were already 120 sponsors in Australia making non tax deductible contributions through the Qantas Cabin Crew Charity. Lucy and I agreed with Fr Joe and Usanee that tax deductibility meant that existing people may give more and many more new people may join on the basis that they can have a direct relationship with their child and visit them (since Bangkok is a popular stopover or holiday destination). Most expenses at Mercy are covered by specific individual donors or services given free so that every dollar of $AUD280 per child per year sponsorship can go the individual child. On Saturday 16 March 2013, Lucy, George and I hosted a celebratory dinner at Circular Quay in Sydney with Fr Joe, Usanee and husband
Sommai, Ratana (Fr Joe's assistant and chief administrator) from Thailand and thirteen other key benefactors from the Qantas Cabin Crew Charity to officially mark the launch of "Mercy Centre Australia" after 9 months of legal work - we were legit!!! It was an honour to have Fr Joe stay at The White House (the nickname of my unit in Bondi Beach - that's another story for another blog!) and visit with my parents across the road! That made this visit so much more meaningful despite the slight drama in me getting there! Waking up in the slums of Klong Toey at 6am for a run on Sat 28 July was indeed a strange but welcome experience.
I ran along as much of the crowded slum road as I could before turning into the large arterial road that connects the Port with the city in order to be able to run a full 10km. Whilst I was not in the slums themselves I was able to see them next to the canal I was running along. Not only could I see Klong Toey but smell it too. It was a good run and I was looking forward to get back and join Lucy and George in our day long excursion with some of the older kids. We had done this on our previous visit together. The Mercy van set off at 9am with us and seven kids bound for a very large Tesco store along Rama IV where we would let the kids buy what they needed. One of the kids was Manow, one of three sponsor children of Lucy and George.
Their relationship is more like adopted children, rather than sponsor children and they have visited each other so much that the kids call Lucy and George, mum and dad! Once Manow completes year 12 she will join 9 other kids studying abroad on scholarships, a new program, recently set up by Fr Joe with assitance from Norway. Another of the kids who came along was Bung Ann, my eleven year old sponsor "son". It was terrific helping him choose stationary for school and some new clothes and shoes. The kids are very polite and careful about what they buy and even share things. They have literally grown up together and a very close to one another and clearly treat each other like family siblings. That is the Mercy family.
The kids had a riot at Tesco's, comparing clothes and running around. I could not help myself but buy some olives, cheese and wine - such was the size of the store and such was my missing them! All that shopping made for ten very hungry people, so we treated the kids to lunch at "MK's" - a popular Asian chain where you cook your own Thai dishes at the table using three large pots filled with broth. Brilliant. These kids eat more than adults. Sadly, the medication is mainly to blame and most of the food quickly passes through their system without much absorption. They are quickly hungry again. After many dishes of fish, pork and even duck it was off in the van again to a nearby cinema for a movie!
We watched "Turbo" a Dreamworks animated 3D movie about a snail that wins the Indi 500 - yes, the famous car race in America! Ridiculous but very entertaining for the kids. Even us grown-ups laughed in many spots - the one good thing about animation is that you can "see" what is happening given that the whole thing is dubbed in Thai without subtitles. Not only did the adults laugh in places but we also slept in laces given the comfy seats and bulk aircon. The picture and sound were like home - first class but the tickets only $AUD9 for an adult and half for kids. After the movie the kids enjoyed massive ice-cream sundaes at "Swensans". Like I said, they are always hungry.
By 4:30pm we were back at Mercy and very pleased with the day's events. The kids immediately proceeded to sit on a circle in the main office to indentify their shopping in the many plastic bags that we ferried out of the van. During this time, Lucy, George and I went to visit the very little kids, 5 and under, in a special part of the main complex. It was so much fun. I played a number of games with them and got drenched in my own sweat - there is no aircon where the kids are. After a quick shower, Lucy, George and I sat down to a chilled Rose with ample cheese and wine to ready us for dinner with Fr Joe, Ratana, Usanee, Sommai and the kids we had spent the day with. We had dinner in a new house, specifically built for Fr Joe by a generous benefactor who wanted him out of the slums due to ill-health.
Fr Joe had lived in a shack in the slums, almost next to the slaughterhouse for 40 years. He reluctantly accepted to move only recently. Some of the staff cooked up many absolutely wonderful traditional Thai dishes at Fr Joe's home and we sat around a large circular table, laughing, sharing, eating and discussing the highs and lows of life in Thailand. Deep fried soft shell crab balls, large scampy with garlic, fried whole fish, stir-fried veggie medley with chilli, satay pork skewers and even a mussaman chicken curry that all our hosts insisted the Bangkokians have perfected as their number one favourite most widely eaten local dish - amazing fact.
The evening was terrific - the ozzie Mercy family together at last! The morning of Mon 29 July was one of the most humbling and interesting of not only my Indochina trip but many recent journeys. At 7:30am, Fr Joe took Lucy, George, myself and a long-time friend Gerry on a very long walk through the slums that he knew so well over the last 40 years. We were out for several hours and did not even realise it, since Fr Joe would often stop and talk to us about a person he just met or recall a past story about a shack or monument we were looking at. It was captivating. accept Fr Joe! We heard many stories with the real life characters in front of us, like the young mother of three who "accidentally" stabbed her brother to death, twice! She delivered her brother to the hospital with two stab wounds to the chest. She was on drugs at the time and her brother was a nasty person. Does not justify the act but Mercy thought it important to somehow "get her off" so that the kids would not be sold or end up with an abuser. We actually passed this lady and Fr Joe talked to her and told us the story once she left. We met an old lady with cataracts who had a leaky roof that had not been repaired in 20 years! She was in some of the older photos back at Mercy. We came across the alligator shrine which was erected next to the only dwelling not to burn down in the last great fire. Locals felt that an alligator caught in the local sewer had saved the place. Fr Joe would stop to talk to any adult who had a child with them becuase he wanted to know
why that child was not at school. To Fr Joe, education is more important than shelter or food or drink, although the lack of the later often hold up the former - that's why he hands out his own money along the way or has his handiman (who walked with us) make notes on which dwellings need repair so that the parents have no excuse not to send their kids to school. Fr Joe pointed out the myriad of empty cans of sniffing glue and what is called "elixir", a mixture of caffeine and sugar syrup - the red bull of Klong Toey! We also saw several "holy trees", a type of rubber tree that the Buddha stood below when he reached final enlightment. People discard old or broken religious artefacts uder these trees since it is unlawful to put them in the rubbish. There was even a very ornate wooden temple that Fr Joe made a note to come back and "rent" for the centre since you are not allowed to buy or own Buddhist artefacts.
Then there's the thin tatooed guy we met with large horizontal lines across the inside of his arms - an ex-crystal meth user! We saw dwellings that were in a very bad way but we also saw some with colourful tiled porches and interiors. We also met "the Yakult lady" who's husband abandoned her with three kids and a huge debt and she sells the drinking yogurt in the area to pay off the loan. Real people with real stories and real problems. On our way back to Mercy we were lucky enough to have Fr Wirath drive past and stop so I could meet him. He is a young Catholic priest that Fr Joe is grooming to take over from him and I must say that my first impressions were good ones.
A very engaging guy, great English and a face that lights up when he speaks. I also met the Prawina, the fifth director of Mercy Australia, a stunning young girl with dark hair who Lucy calls "Miss Thailand"! Fr Joe then introduced us to Pho and Nan who would drive us to the old slaughterhouse and Fr Joe's shack of 40 years. Pho grew up in the slaughterhouse and was one of Mercy's first children. Nan is one of six Mercy university graduates to get a scholarship abroad. She graduated business from the University of Idaho in Calwell, near Boise. The slaughterhouse was empty when we passed it and
it looked like it was going to fall down any minute. It is a big place, approx 100m by 30m made of old dark rusted corrigated iron sheets and decaying wood. Noy it was smelly. It has been there for over 40 years and is STILL used to slaughter pigs! Fr Joe's wooden cabin in a nearby alley was very small and humble. A Catholic nun called Sister Joan now lives there administering to the needs of the poor around her. Unfortunatley she was not home when we passed. Back at Mercy I had the pleasure to spend more time with my new son, Bung Ann and to meet a twelve year old girl called Fai who, after not long, I considered to be the smartest person in the place.
She learned English from TV and how to play piano from YouTube. She played several pieces for me on the chapel piano - amazing. She wants to be a concert violinist when she grows up - what an ambition! This kid "is on her way". Fai often showed me around the centre and acted as my interpretor as I met staff. What a pity she has a sponsor - and a good one I must add! That afternoon I decided to catch up on blogging whilst Lucy and George took their daughters out for lunch and some shopping. I parked myself next to Prawina in the admin office where the air was cold and the WiFi super fast. I then returned to my unit to edit some photos. At about 5:30pm as I was taking my third sip of wine, Ratana knocked on the door to remind me to get ready for the staff dinner that Lucy, George and I would be hosting tonight. It was pouring rain when the seven staff set out with us in the Mercy van.
Usanee and Sommai had picked out another Italian restaurant in town, this time outside but covered and with an extensive wine shop attached where you buy the wine at store prices and drink it there with your food. I picked out a lovely French Rose and an Agrentinian Shiraz Malbec - both of them winners with the staff. I met each of the staff and asked them about the tenure and roles at Mercy. All the staff at dinner that night shared 127 years of experience at Mercy between them.
They are also all locals. This makes for extra high care and consistency of care for the kids. I met Fai's sponsor mum, Tan who had 23yrs and co-ordinated visits to dwellings in the area. Prawina or Miss Thailand had 13yrs and was also secretary to the Executive Director. Phueng had 12yrs co-ordinating the provision of food or money to the needy. Sa with 1yr was the newest staffer and took car of organising the boys at the centre in terms of sleeping and eating. Keng with 10yrs did the same for the girls. Nut with 6yrs manages all the sponsors. Usanee had 22yrs and is one of the directors and
Ratana we now call "employee number 1" who has been with Fr Joe from the every beginning for 40yrs and continues to be his personal assisant and chief administrator. There are a total of 300 staff at Mercy taking care of 2,500 kids. Half the staff are teachers. 141 kids live at the centre and the rest attend school either at the main complex or one of the 21 Mercy locations around the slums. The main office has a scoreboard summarising all the activity of the previous month. In June 2013, a total of 71 visits were made to 48 dwellings with 309 kids and adults assisted in some way. It is a huge task.
Mercy is under the Royal Patronage of HRH Princess Srirasmi, one of the daughters of the much adored King of Thailand and third in line to the throne. Even President George Bush Junior visited the centre in 2008. Such is the acclaim and reach of what Fr Joe has done here. The dinner on the evening of Mon 29 July was a great way to get to know the staff and thank them for their efforts. As I mentioned earlier, their salaries and office asstes and expenses are covered by specific donors. We hit the sack early that night at around 9:30pm and just as well - I woke up in the middle of the night with a terrible, fever, headache and painful joints. What was this all about and where did it come from? I took some ibuprofen but it was ineffective.
When I awoke for my run at 6am I was still the same so I decided to sleep in until 11am to try and shake it. No good. I got worse and ended spending all of Tuesday in bed. I was so disappointed. I was meant to visit the temple in the morning with Lucy, George and their girls and then in the afternoon talk to the head nurse about the evolution of the AIDS inhibitors. I also wanted to look at the Mercy staff structure and help out with any of their international correspondence. Nothing. I felt feverish and very very fatigued. Fr Joe hosted another dinner at his house on Tuesday night for two Australians – one of the biggest donors to the centre.
We knew they were coming and I wanted to meet them but I could simply not stand up straight for more than 20min! Lucy and George made my apologies and I continued sleeping and popping panadols in the hope that I could stop whatever was wrong with me. I was now very worried since my flight was at 6:45pm the next day and based on how I felt Tuesday, I was in no condition to travel. When Wednesday morning came around I felt slightly better. The fever had subsided, the head was OK but I still felt tired. I was well enough to join Fr Joe and Sister Joan for breakfast.
What a great honour to meet Sister Joan. She is also a Catholic nun originally from Perth who has been living in the slums assisting Fr Joe with the locals for 23 years. She is 80 years young and may I say that she comes across as a woman of late 60s. She is responsible for creating a weekly "milk run" across the slums to ensure that all children get their much needed milk. Milk is very expensive in the slums and people line up to greet her. Sister Joan now lives in the same shack that Fr Joe spent 40yrs in. I look forward to seeing Sister Joan again. I spent the rest of the morning answering a few emails outside the office downstairs and visited with Tan and Nut and some of the kids that passed by including my mum’s daughter, Phao. By noon I decided that I was well enough to travel since staying in Bangkok would involve a whole heap of trouble to change flights, initiate a travel insurance claim etc. Just easier to brave the 12hrs home. So I could be in the best possible condition for the long trip home I decided to sleep until 2pm and pack at the last minute. I asked Ratana to book a 3pm cab to take me to the old Bangkok airport – Don Mueng International.
It was a good two hours sleep and by 2:30pm I was downstairs, bags and all, farewelling Fr Joe and the staff. Much to my objection, Ratana had organised a Mercy van to take me to the airport and Lucy, George and even Fai were coming along to ensure there were no problems getting checked in. Despite this sudden, mystery illness, my stay at Mercy was terrific and the time spent with the kids and Fr Joe and staff, a real bonus. It was sad to watch them in the rear window as we pulled away and it was not long until we were on the freeway making our way across town towards the old airport. It took