Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Education and Children's Homes

I have been thinking for a while about where to write this story and how to tell it. Should I put it on our Jojo's Sanctuary website? Should I sent it in a newsletter? My personal one or Jojo's? Finally, I decided that since it's about my personal experience and perspective, perhaps writing it on my own blog would be the best way to go about it. Be prepared, I'm kinda gonna get on my soapbox here...

It should come as no surprise that since almost every member of my family works in education, that this is something close to my heart as well. It's one of the reasons that I listed it at the top of things I wanted to address when we first started planning for Jojo's Sanctuary, and why we offer scholarships for tuition and uniforms to students who are stateless. Education is also the number one reason kids get put into orphanages by their families: because they don't have the finances to pay for the school fees or uniforms and they want their children to get an education. In the past few months, there is a new area of education I have become more passionate about.

I recently went to visit the home village of our tribal college student I know and saw the children's home where she grew up. The story she told me about her quest for an education made me both sad and angry. There are so many children's homes throughout Northern Thailand who present as a real foundation, but in actuality are just run by one person taking the money from a well-meaning western donor and just giving the bare minimum to the children they are meant to care for. A real foundation has to have a board of directors and a budget and accountability, but plenty of people open up a place for kids, have only one person who communicates between the donor and the recipient and no recourse to report if things are not being done well.

In this village, there are about 25 children in the home, most of them distantly related to one another, and all cared for by just 3 guardians, who are also distantly related to most of them and really love the kids like their family. Well, because they are family, so that's no surprise. The kids are supposed to be doing online school now during COVID, but they have no computers. The guardians told the director of the organization, who lives in the city, that they needed computers, but he just gave them a used laptop donated by the US sponsor. Without a Thai keyboard or Thai language installed, this is basically useless to them, and it's difficult to help 25 kids do homework with one 5 year old laptop to begin with. This is just one example of how this particular director is not using the donor's funds to meet the actual needs of the kids. In the mountain villages, rice is plentiful but other things are not. This place provides three meals a day for 25 kids on a budget of $65 a month, not because that's what it costs to feed them, but because that is how much they receive from the director, so they make it work.

When the student I know was growing up there, the Thai director (who lived in the city, not in the village) assured all the families that their university would be paid for by the "foundation." The village only has school until 9th grade and after that the students have to take a bus into the nearest town, about an hour and a half each direction.  But this girl was lucky, she had actually attended a school that had classes every day. Many schools up in the mountains have one teacher that visits more than 5 villages a week, each for just a day. Most of those schools only go up to the 6th grade. So, at this point, when your child has completed all the school available but parents want more for them, what are the options? Option one is to marry them off at age 12. Not legal, but cheaper than the other options. Option 2 is to take a bus to the nearest town that has the next level of education and continue paying for school, which gets more expensive with each level. Option 3 is to find a children's home or orphanage who will take the kids and provide them with education, housing and food. (No wonder more than 80% of kids in orphanages worldwide have living family when they have such limited options.)

Transitioning to a larger school is not easy, though, especially if you have been used to going to class just once a day. Most kids from the mountains who take the bus drop out or fail out the first year because it's such a different learning system from what they have known. Those who can stick it out and graduate may get to go on to university.

In this student's case, and those of some of her friends from the home, they thought they would have university paid for by the foundation. But when it came time to apply, the Thai director, who visited them once a year when the major donor came from the US, decided based on his own whims that they were "unruly" kids and told them they didn't get to decide what to study, he would only pay if they studied what he told them to.

Imagine their further surprise when they finished 2 years of university, brought him the invoice for year 3 and he told them "sorry, we don't have any more money for you. You will just have to go to seminary because it's free." (Not that seminary is a bad thing, but if you have spent 2 years trying to get a nursing degree and you suddenly have to start over at seminary, just because it's free tuition, that is definitely a blow.) However, other students were able to get the full four years paid for. (My response to this was "I'd like to see the house he lives in." Sure enough, this guy lives in a fancy 5 story house and his kids are studying overseas. Gee, I wonder where their tuition went?) 

You might say, "So? Just get loans for the rest of school." A great idea, but in order to get loans you need 2 things: Thai citizenship and to apply while you are a senior in high school. They don't do loans halfway through your college career and they don't do loans to kids born in the mountains without a birth certificate. OK, so what about taking a leave of absence and working and then coming back to finish? Great idea. Only problem is, to take a leave of absence, you have to pay for that semester's tuition before you can do the leave of absence paperwork. So, if you are a kid in this situation, you have to either study something you didn't want to study initially or just drop out and try to find a job with just a high school diploma.

Now, we know our intern and her friends and because of our partnership with Faithful Heart Foundation, they are able to get scholarships to allow them to finish their education. Belatedly, but better late than never! Our intern wants to study law so she can be an advocate for other kids in her village who don't have options because of their citizenship status. Her friend wants to get a degree in accounting because she wants to open her own business.   Our intern said "no one has ever tried to help us like this. When I was in high school, I didn't have anyone to give me advice about how to apply for school or how to get loans. I just had to listen to the director and do what he told me. I had no choices."

This brings me to our new idea. There are all these kids growing up in the mountains who are smart and capable and have a desire to learn and study, and there are foundations down in the city where the universities are who have scholarships to give these kids. What is missing is someone on the ground to connect the dots. A dream I have is to find a way to go from village to village, speaking with students who are about to start their last year of school about what options are available to them, what classes they need to take to get into their career choice, where to apply. For example, in order to study nursing in college, you have to have studied the science and math track in high school, but many students don't know that they would need to take an additional test at the high school entrance exam to get into the science classes.

Working through college is something we take for granted in the west, but I can tell you from experience with Sophie's school that this is rarely a viable option here. It's a communal culture, so younger students are expected to do activities put on by the university every weekend and every week. Older students are expected to mentor younger students and meet with them regularly and put on the activities. Younger students are also expected to do things for their older mentors. Sophie worked at a coffee shop, but her schedule was so erratic, she only ended up working about 4 hours a week and she made just enough money to pay for her gas to get to and from work, so there really wasn't any point in working at all.

Education here is so inexpensive compared to the west, for just $1300USD you could pay for an entire semester of housing, food, books and tuition. There is also a new law that says if you were born in Thailand and graduate university you can get Thai citizenship. This is another reason I really feel passionate about supporting access to higher education.

Another issue we find a lot is families sending their children to the city to live in children's homes at the age of 6 or 7 because so many homes won't take older children because they are difficult to control. So, as a result, children grow up separated from their families and without the relationships that are the bedrock of healthy mental development. This is also a bad cycle because when families start sending their children away, the government stops paying for schools in the mountains. They need an enrollment of 70 students to pay for a full time teacher. When enrollment drops, the school goes away and then any remaining kids are basically forced into children's homes to get educated.

One idea we have is to start a program going into villages and discuss with families what their needs are and why they feel they must sent children to the city. If we can get upstream and prevent kids from being sent out from their homes by providing a few dollars a month to pay for food, then kids won't end up in orphanages or worse, living alone in the city at the age of 15 or 16 because they want to go to school and have no options in the mountains.

If children's homes started doing these evaluations as well, and shifted their focus from taking children out of their homes to providing continued education for them once they completed their education in their family villages, the social fabric of the country would be more intact and more people would be able to successfully complete their education. Yes it takes time, and yes it takes work, and it's harder to get a photo op with cute little kids when they are living in a normal family than when they are all packed into an orphanage, but it's certainly better for the mental health and long term social contribution! And imagine how awesome it would be if every orphanage with a huge cement wall supported all those kids to live in their families and then turned their place into a community center where ALL the kids in the area could have access to computers, homework help, parenting classes, literacy classes, family workshops. What a difference that would make.

There's a lot to be done, but it's good to have dreams for the future. I'd love to see the day where the day to day stuff of the office is all delegated and I can go out a couple times a week to villages and do guidance counseling with students or meet with families with little kids. Of course all of this costs money, so we have to take it just a step at a time.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Long Thaime No Write

So, it turns out that this is my 100th blog post. Too bad it's been nearly three years since I last had a chance to write. In January of 2017, my life suddenly got very complicated very quickly and trying to balance working full time at two NGOs while fundraising for one of them that was a startup took way more of my time than I thought it would. So, I'll give you some quick updates:

- January 2017: Launched Jojo's Sanctuary with my Thai partners Butsaba, Jay and Orawan (our website is
- Received a grant for $10,000 from Vital Voices in the US which helped us get started in building a suite of trainings for at risk youth about Trafficking Prevention. We wrote a proposal to provide 6 trainings in a year and at the end of 2017 we had done 30! We were so under budget we were able to sponsor some school uniforms for lower income students, donate to the hospital bills for a girl with cancer and provide back to school packs for about 20 students.
- March 2017: Went to the US for fundraising, which went pretty well for a first time out!
- Orawan decided she needed to focus on her family and helping her parents run their business instead of joining our startup, so she remained on our advisory board but didn't work with us on a day to day basis.
- Had a great sendoff from HUG Project with the students doing the traditional string tying ceremony and saying blessings of farewell to me. The thing that made me cry the most was the two pre-teen boys who said "I'm not ashamed to say I love you and give you a hug!" So sweet because physical affection is very much NOT culturally Thai.
- April 2017: Started working with Care for Children developing plans for how to best approach working with the government to provide foster care for emergency cases and how to get licensed as foster parents.
- June 2017: Took in Billy as a foster child. You may remember, he was living on the streets and we tried to get him into GED classes but it was just too difficult for him to adjust. Got him enrolled in a new school a bit further away from the city.
- August 2017: Celebrated Billy's 15th birthday.
- The rest of the year saw us attending a bunch of trainings and fleshing out how we wanted to run our family strengthening program.
-October 2017: attended a training about Keeping Families Together, a program that works with churches to run family strengthening programs. They basically confirmed all our plans so we decided to go ahead and run with it. We called our project "Building Family Dreams."
- December 2017: celebrated Christmas with HUG Project.
- January 2018: Started prepping in earnest for our Building Family Dreams launch and started working on 7 citizenship cases.
- March 2018: Launched Building Family Dreams with 8 families.
- April 2018: Went back to the US for more fundraising. Slightly less successful this time, sadly, but still enough to keep us going month to month.
-June 2018: celebrated one year of fostering Billy with no running away from home and not a single missed day of school!
- August 2018: celebrated Billy's 16th birthday!
- Launched our economic empowerment portion of Building Family Dreams, buying sewing machines, lawn mowers, pigs, chickens and cows for the members so they could start their own microbusinesses.
- December 2018: Had a huge Christmas party at the botanic gardens with games, gifts, a buffet dinner, Christmas carols and a sermon from the village pastor. One of the best Christmas parties I have been to!
- Celebrated Christmas Day with Sophie and Billy at my friend Jume's house with her kids and foster kids and my friend Helen from HUG Project. We all had such a great time and ate the most eclectic Christmas dinner I have ever seen. We had potatoes au gratin, apple pie, watermelon, fried rice, omelettes, stir fried veggies, spicy tom yum soup and KFC fried chicken. Everyone was stuffed and satisfied.
- February 2019: Got citizenship for 3 kids and 1 mom all in the same visit! Talked a village chief out of extorting thousands of dollars out of them to sign the papers in exchange for paying for his gas, food and missed day of wages (about $45).
- April 2019: Billy got arrested for drunk driving on his motorbike on Palm Sunday which also happened to be the biggest Thai festival of the year. I was NOT impressed, to say the least.
- May 2019: Back to the US again for more fundraising! I felt pretty good about this trip and got to meet and speak with so many new people and places. It was very exciting and I also got to attend my friend Wednesday's wedding and pseduo meet her baby boy (she was 9 months pregnant, so it was more like watching him do somersaults in her stomach).
- June 2019: Visited my friend Bethany and my godchildren in Washington DC for a week before popping over for a surprise and short visit to my parents in Washington State. Highlights were spending time with the godchildren I hadn't seen in 7 years and visiting the Museum of African American History and Culture. YOU MUST GO.
- August 2019: graduation camp for Building Family Dreams. What a ride it was! This village still needs a lot of support, so we aren't just abandoning them, but we are planning to help them provide this program to another Lahu village in 2020 while we put most of our effort into working with families through the Chiang Mai Boy's Orphanage. They have 8 families of boys who have gone home to their bio families after growing up in the orphanage so they need a lot of relationship building skills, which we are excited to provide.

Whew, there you have it, three years in a nutshell. I will be trying to update this more frequently between writing blog posts on our website, writing newsletters and potentially working on a writing a book. It's quite the ride, this life in Thailand!
For more photos, please check out

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Secondary Trauma

This is kind of a schizophrenic entry. A lot has happened in a short amount of time and it's difficult to keep up with writing about.

When working with vulnerable kids who live in chronic trauma, there is no option but to experience secondary trauma as a result of trying to help them through these things that are so awful to us, but so normal to them. Most of the time, my efforts fail because I only have a peripheral influence in the kids' lives and their families, no matter how broken and terrible they are, have more of an influence and can make the kids make decisions against their best interest. Last time I went to a counseling debrief, my counselor was like "You've been talking for 10 minutes and *I* need a counseling session. You need to come more often than once a quarter." I will try to go monthly so I can process all the weight of this collective trauma. Sometimes I feel like it's may be worse for me than them because they only carry the weight of their lives, while I carry the weight of all their lives. Also, I can see the multiple paths their lives may go with the wisdom of age, but they are kids and they can only see the immediate future, maybe only 24 hours into the future. It's so much harder to see them make bad choices that will effect their entire lives when I have also seen the outcome of other kids' bad decisions. If they have not seen the same outcome, they just don't even make the connection and it's impossible to convince them of the possibility of something bad or worse happening to them.

OK, this week has wrecked me. First, on Saturday, I met up with Yvonne, Gabby and Willow. Yvonne’s mom took off with her new boyfriend so now she is staying with her older brothers and their pregnant girlfriends. Willow’s mom has totally left her to her own devices, yells at her all the time and refuses to pay for her school, food, etc. My sweet little Willow already has 2 tattoos at age 15, and is dressing like a little hoochie. I want to get this kid into a home, mine or Baan San Rak, as soon as possible to keep her off the streets and safe. I love that kid so much it hurts and to see her going down this road toward something bad rips my heart to shreds. Gabby is 4 months pregnant already, so I’m going to see if she wants to go live at Compass 31. And then there’s Billy, bouncing around from place to place, his aunts not providing him shelter, just occasional money and I want him to get into ZOE if he can. My heart just breaks for these kids who have already fallen through the cracks of society and have nobody to fight for them. After they left Taw Saeng, they were off the radar of those guys. Nobody follows up with them, nobody makes sure they are safe, nobody listens to them and tries to help them. They all just want to gloss over their problems and say “mai ben rai.” I hate that it all falls on me alone. I hate falling into the “white savior” trap. But what other option is there? Ning and Faa are in Chiang Rai, Ahna is in the states, Field is in Lamphun, Inna, Rob and Judy are in Canada. That only leaves me who cares about these kids having a future that doesn’t involve jail or prostitution.
At least we got their applications for GSN (aka GED) filled out yesterday. I’m gonna continue working on that with them and get them going on classes so they can at minimum finish high school. Poor Willow, she said “I just want a family that will send me to school. I just want to have family who will give me a home and feed me. Why won’t my mom do that? I’m just a kid. Why do I have to take care of myself already?”While we were at the center, I was telling them about counseling and Willow said "Can I do counseling? I think about killing myself all the time."
Tonight, I saw Somchai, Nellie’s brother who I helped get a scholarship to go to Achewa high school. I am so proud of him, he has really fought hard to get where he is at. He finished GSN for 9th grade, and even though it was really difficult for him to get through first term, he’s sticking with it in regular school. He really values the scholarship and has dreams for his life. At first, he just wanted to get food to go, but I convinced him to sit and talk to me, and it ended up being over an hour in the end. I am so glad, because he really opened up about his struggles with school, with having his family not understand him, not understand that he has homework to do, and how hard he is trying to just get passing grades. He always had like  3.7 before when he was just doing standardized tests, but now with homework, his grades are dropping because more is expected of him. The poor kid, he even said that when his mom yells at him, she won’t listen to him and it makes him cry. This 18 year old boy is telling me that he cries when his mom yells at him. He is such a sensitive soul.
He is doing such good things though and is such a strong Christian. He started a cell group on campus with some of his Christian friends and they meet every Friday to pray and worship together. He’s teaching himself guitar so he can go play and sing at night bazaar to make money for his future. He has such ambition and such drive. It blows my mind. He is the first person in his family to study this far and he is facing such battles. I have to say, in his place, I would probably give up. I don’t know if I could stand up to all the pressures he is under from society and his family. I prayed with him and he said he felt better. He said he never talks to anyone at home, he’s so uncomfortable and nobody understands him, he just saved it up to tell me. I told him I’m going to really make an effort to see him once a month and check in with him and that if he ever needs to talk, he can call me whenever. I really pray that he can persevere and finish high school and go on to college too. I want to see him succeed in life and make his way out of this cycle of poverty. If anyone can do it, it’s Somchai.
October 19, 2016
Dude, why do these kids parents have to suck SO FRICKING MUCH? Willow told me tonight that her mom told her to drop out of school and work so she could send her money and she can live in a dorm room on her own and do Goh Soh Noh. I can’t bear to see this sweet kid get the crap kicked out of her by life at the age of 15. I wish I had any power whatsoever. I would pick her up right now and never let her talk to her mother again. What a terrible person. I am so scared for this kid that she will get abused and trafficked. I hate feeling the weight of all these kids’ lives on my shoulders. Why is there no one to help them? It’s impossible for me to do it on my own. I have no power, I can’t do anything for them. Everything I try just fails. It’s all so hopeless and shitty. Her life is over at age 15. Her aunt will force her to work at her massage parlor all day and how long until she’s going to have to start doing “favors” for clients? What do we do? What do I do? Prayer is not enough. Action needs to be taken or else what the hell are we here for?

When the kids were at the office and we were working on their paperwork for Goh Soh Noh, Billy was like “Why are you working so hard to get us into school?” And I said it was because he’s like my kid and I love them and want them to have a good future. The whole reason I came to work at Taw Saeng was because I loved their vision for keeping kids in school and helping them have a good future. Now that they are not in Taw Saeng and I’m all that’s left of the staff that really cares about them, it’s up to me to make that vision reality. He was like “Oh, I thought it was because it was your job.” I said, well now that you are coming to counseling and stuff, it’s become my job but I didn’t start doing this because it’s my job, I started because I care about you and want the best for you.
Then, when I was driving him home, he asked me why I wasn’t around for a while but then when his dad died, I started tracking him down more. I said it was because I knew he had dropped out of school and out of Taw Saeng and I knew nobody was watching out for him, and that I didn’t want o see him end up like so many other boys in his situation. I have seen kids living on the streets and stealing to eat and doing drugs and end up in juvie. I didn’t want to see him go to juvie because I know he can have a good future. He said that when his dad died, he wanted to kill himself because he thought nobody cared about him anymore and he didn’t know who would take care of him now. I said that he has me and Joy and Mimi now and that I was working on getting him into ZOE so he would have a real family to stay with who would have him in real school and really love him and take care of him. He actually didn’t even remember me being at his dad’s funeral, not even when I showed him pictures. Weird, Ahngun didn’t remember that either about the whole time with her mom, at the hospital, at the funeral, at Wa’s house. She was in such shock she doesn’t remember any of it. Bird is probably in the same boat. Shock is a powerful thing.  
Did a home visit with Jume for Willow. She now just wants to work and do GSN, and doesn't want to live at Baan San Rak cause she is worried about taking care of her grandpa and brother. I'm still crazy worried and stressed about her. 
Billy may go to another children's home. High likelihood after I did a home visit with the staff on Friday. They have to get final approval from their higher ups, but hopefully that will happen in the next couple of weeks. 
Yvonne has decided she will work at the coffee shop where she got a job and she will work til the end of the year and then move to live with her grandma in another province.
Gabby wants to go to school, but doesn’t want to go to Compass 31, she wants to live with her boyfriend’s family. So, I’ll stay in touch with her for the time being and see if I can at least get her to commit to school.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Chrysalis Camp: Transitioning from Child to Adult

October 10-12, 2016

When I was in college, I went on a retreat that my friend Beth invited me to called Chrysalis. It was during the time that my friend Kathryn was in the hospital with cancer and it had been the hardest year of my life to that point. Chrysalis was such a turning point for me and helped me feel surrounded by supportive people and grow a lot closer to God during that time. The thing I remember most about that was getting all these little personal gifts throughout the weekend and having no idea where they had come from. There was one time I got a box of Rugrats cookies with a note written on them that said “Hey there, Heather!” That was what my friend Beth used to call me, “hey there.” We used to watch Rugrats together in college (come on, you totally watched cartoons in college) so I was really excited to get this stupid little present and I couldn’t figure out where this stuff was coming from because Beth was working at a camp in another state at the time. At the end of the weekend, there was a reveal of who our secret sponsors had been and we also got a stack of letters from people close to us, like our parents, friends, pastors, that wrote about the ways they had seen God working in our lives and what their hopes were for our futures. It was such an amazing time and I wanted to recreate that for our teen girls so they would really feel loved and valued.
However, the focus of Chrysalis is really God-centric and most of our girls are Buddhist, so we had to alter it significantly. Starting back in June, I wrote up a proposal for what the camp would look like and Joy and Mimi jumped right into planning with me. We decided to have the theme be Transitioning from Child to Adult and invited members of the Thai community to teach on different subjects.  On the Friday before the camp, 3 of the girls had to drop out for various reasons, which almost sent me into a tailspin since we had poured so much work into this camp. Luckily, Mimi and Joy know me so well, they talked me off the ledge and reminded me of some other girls we could invite last minute. We raced around getting their gifts bags ready and were ready to go by 5pm Friday night.
On Monday, the 10th, we headed up to camp Mork Fa, about an hour outside the city. We had gotten our friend Jume to come help with the food because she is a really good cook and we were so excited to get to spend some time with her, so she and Mimi went shopping for food on the way up. As soon as we got there, the girls were so excited to play in the stream running in front of our cabins. The area is way up in the mountains and has 4 large cabins that sleep 15 people each. We were the only ones there during that time so it was nice and quiet. Across the stream are two covered sitting areas and a kitchen. There’s also a huge green field and a campfire site and nearby waterfall and bat cave.
The first day we started off with lunch and then gave out welcome bags to all the girls. They each got a journal, a pen, a reusable water bottle and some snacks. At this point, I was kicking myself because I realized there was so much I had forgotten to bring with us because of our rushing around on Friday. I hadn’t had time to double check everything and make sure we had all our paperwork. Thank goodness for Mike who was at the office and could take photos of our group lists and schedule and stuff and text it to us!
After lunch, we had some getting to know you games devised by Donut. We were so excited to have Donut come with us! We literally could not have pulled the retreat off without her. She has been volunteering for months with us at our after school program, Molding Stars (Baan Duang Dao in Thai) and I really wanted her to come with us, but she had a full time job at our foundation office and I didn’t think they would let her go. But, I talked to the Office Manager and she talked to Donut’s supervisor and finally they gave her permission to go! Then, of course, as soon as I got back she had gotten into seminary and was leaving for Bangkok on Oct 13 which was a total shock, so then I was really upset, but she was like “Don’t be sad! No way I’m missing camp!” So thank goodness for her, cause the kids LOVED her games and she was a huge asset for our discussion groups too.
Once we all learned each other’s names, we did a great art activity planned by Joy and Mimi. We used our arm to draw a tree and then decorated around it with all sorts of little artsy things that Joy brought with us. On each leaf, we were meant to write a skill or personality trait that we have like “reliable, responsible, inclusive, musical, good listener, etc.” It was cool to see each kid run in such different directions when their creativity was given free reign. They all are so detail oriented that most of them didn’t have time to finish in the time allotted.
After art, we had Mimi’s pastor, Pastor Tawat, come speak to the Christian kids about how to know God’s will for our lives and we had Chan, one of our volunteers, share the Gospel with the Buddhist kids. They both got a bit lost in the weeds and went a bit long, but I think it was still a good thing to have. After this, the girls got time to spend writing in their journals and answering discussion questions we gave them. Then, they got free time before dinner, which was delicious, of course! After dinner, the worship team from the COC church came up to lead worship with amps and drums and everything. It was fun, even though they sang new songs that most of us didn’t know.  Throughout the day, the girls had been getting little gifts on their beds while they were out of their cabin. It was the cutest thing to see them get so excited about these things and wonder aloud who had been giving them. They kept coming to me and thanking me and I was always like “Why are you thanking me? I didn’t get it for you!” hahaha
That evening, we had small discussion groups of 3-4 girls with 2-3 staff and talked about what love is, how does God show love to us, what makes us feel loved and how we show love to others. It was a really good discussion time for our group, and I think the other groups had a good experience as well.
We did some rearranging of our schedule the next day after realizing we had not built time in for going to the waterfall and swimming.  We thought that the waterfall was closer than it actually was to the cabins.
On Tuesday, we had an early breakfast, then some of the kids and I went on a hike up to see the bat cave, guided by the forest ranger. Then we hiked down to the waterfall where we were going to swim later in the day. They loved it and we easily could have stayed there all day. But, we had Win and Chu come teach about how to navigate growing up, what new responsibilities they will have and how to balance that with their relationships with friends and parents. Win works as our Prevention Director and his wife Chu is a social work and they are really close friends of mine. I am the godmother (by accident, long story) to their baby Cheewa, who is SUPER cute and now 3 months old! So, I got to hold him for a while during their session.
After the session, we had games time which was basically water balloon games. It was fun and funny to see them trying to avoid getting wet and then just going for it. We capped it off with a makeshift slip ‘n slide made of tarps with soap and water for slipperiness. That was awesome; I haven’t played on a slip and slide in decades and I forgot how fun it was! After we exhausted ourselves doing that, we all ate some delicious lunch and trooped out to the waterfall to swim in the neck deep water at the base of the 100 foot waterfall. It’s pretty epic! We played for an hour and then headed back for showers and for our last teaching session, led by Mimi!
Mimi had taken some convincing to agree to teach this session, which was about how to move on from painful things in our past. She was so amazing, those kids hung on her every word. I was so proud of her for being so vulnerable and sharing her story with these kids who she barely knows. Later, when we asked the kids for their favorite parts of camp, almost every kid said that Mimi’s testimony was the highlight of the weekend for them.
After her session, we did more art with Joy, this time making origami heart envelopes where we put inside words describing things that we hold in our heart and talked about good things we hold and bad things we hold and need to let go of. The girls really liked this activity as well. After this, we broke up into our groups again and discussed the session of the day with the discussion questions we had written ahead of time. This was a great time of the girls opening up about stuff they face and have faced, a lot of it things they said they had never shared before. I really credit Mimi’s openness with opening the floodgates for this for the girls and showing them that this was a safe place for them to share and be heard and supported. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of kids who when asked "What was the thing that stuck with you most from this session?" their response was something about how God had helped Mimi or Chan through a really difficult time. This is from Buddhist kids too, and the thing that resonates with them is God's love and protection.
That night we had a huge campfire and roasted hot dogs and made s’mores. This was a first for basically everyone but me since, apparently, this is a distinctly American activity. Usually, Thai people eat ramen noodles around a campfire. SO WEIRD. Hahaha Everyone was skeptical that this would work, but thankfully Mike, Colby, Kayty and Nicole were there to back me up on this weird activity. The kids LOVED it, and the guys had sharpened a bunch of sticks to use for roasting. It was really fun. After we ate, we had some songs by the campfire and then we each wrote down things on paper that we have been holding onto that we wanted to let go of. When we first discussed this in our small group, I told the girls to spend some time thinking about things that they wanted to write down, and one girl said “I don’t need to think about it, I know what I want to write.” It was great! So, we all did that together and threw our papers in the fire and watched them turn into ash. It was very symbolic.
In the midst of all this, as I was making a s’more for a kid, Joy tells me to turn around and suddenly, there’s a cake and candles and people singing happy birthday. It was pretty surprising since my birthday was the following day, but it was cool that everyone was there and Mike said a really nice prayer for me too. We saved the cake for the following day since we were all hopped up on marshmallows, haha.
That night it was so funny because some of the girls were in the cabin and had gotten another little gift. One of the girls was like “who is this stuff from?” And I said “I don’t know, that’s not one of my responsibilities.” She was like “I still think it’s you.” And the other girls said “What!? How can it be Heather? She’s with us ALL the time!” Luckily, I had a secret weapon of Bella, Helen and Nicole to sneak in when the girls were otherwise occupied so they never figured it out since we all took turns doing the distribution.
Our final day, we had a great breakfast and packed up our stuff. Donut and I led worship that morning before we had a final art activity which was writing words of encouragement for one another and for ourselves. Each kid got two butterflies to decorate and write a note of encouragement for another girl and one to keep for themselves. Finally, we had lunch and gave them their goodbye bags. Each bag had a copy of Jesus Calling devotional book in Thai, a bracelet with a butterfly charm, a final big goodbye gift from their sponsor and letters from important people in their lives. They loved it so much. There were lots of tears and hugs and it was really cool to see. Finally, we drove them up to the sheep farm at the top of the hill and let them take photos with the lambs and art gallery and café up there while we packed up the bags. All in all, it was a great retreat and I think it had a huge impact on the girls’ lives as far as self-worth and self-confidence goes. Now they know that they have a support system in us of people they can trust with their stories and we will always support them through the difficult times in their lives.  
On our final day, Mimi told the girls that if they are ever in a bad situation, they can always turn to God and ask for his help. The following week when we did a debrief with some of the girls, one of them said “I have something to share! Mimi told us to pray if we were in trouble and God would help us. Last week, I was driving and there were all these checkpoints, but I left my ID card at home (she’s Burmese so she has to have a card that proves she is here legally) so I was really scared. I remembered what Mimi told us so I started praying and they didn’t even stop me! They stopped every other people to check their papers but they didn’t stop me! And it happened twice!” That was so awesome that she is already seeing God at work in her life. I hope this sort of trend continues.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Vital Voices USA

October 18, 2016
So, it’s been months since I updated the blog, since I wrote anything at all other than emails. Long emails mostly but not writing for myself. So much has happened and I forgot my ipad at work today so I thought it was the perfect opportunity to write. It’s so cathartic and in the beginning, I wrote every day to process. Eventually, it becomes normal life though and it’s hard to find the joy in the everyday, even though it would be interesting to other people. Plus, there’s just no time. There’s never enough time to finish my to do lists and when I get home I’m just so exhausted I just want to veg out.
This has been a crazy few months though, it warrants a blog post or two. In September, I got to go to this amazing conference called Vital Voices. Boom went two years ago and Mimi went last year. I loved it so much more than I ever expected to. I met some of the coolest and smartest people on the planet and had some of the deepest and most intellectually stimulating conversations of the past 6 years. I also saw a Broadway show and met a famous designer, so it wasn’t all cerebral. People keep asking me what I learned in the States that I can use here, but really all the stuff that I learned that was useful came from the other participants. I already know the laws of the US and it’s not super helpful living in a country where they are years behind those kinds of laws. However, most of the other countries represented were kind of on the same level of governmental beaurocracy as Thailand, so it was interesting to see how they are tackling some of the issues we have.
This team of ours had 22 women from 17 countries. For me the best part was being with people who were close to my age and the same sort of life situation as I am in. That is a huge void in my life in Thailand. Also people who really intellectually challenge me. In ministry, people are so wrapped up in their daily lives and their ministry, there’s just no head space left for brainy conversations. It was so nice to be with people who had the bandwidth to keep talking about all this stuff for hours. And also geek out over books and tv shows. Nobody here cares about that stuff but Mimi. 555 Let me see if I can remember all our countries and names off the top of my head.
Australia: Andrea who is crazy brill and is a lawyer and an advocate and a refugee kid and getting her PhD and wrote laws for Australia and is way smarter than me and has accomplished ten times as much, even though she is younger than me. Yes. I know. I wasted my 20s being friends with movie stars and traveling the world rather than changing it. Move along.
Turkey: Ezgi who is the sweetest and most hilarious! Best line “Eez booooring.” (but you must roll the R). She works with ECPAT Turkey and has worked on a lot of their great successful campaigns and is doing a lot of policy work to improve the lives of children and refugees. She’s amazing (yeah, you’re gonna hear – well, read – that word a lot)
Sri Lanka: Naduni, my little bus buddy. We ended up sitting together a lot and geeking out over books and movies and working with little kids. She is only 22 and getting her law degree and she also works for ECPAT Sri Lanka and has the cutest accent. We got really close during the trip and lots of tears were shed during our goodbye. I was like “STOP CRYING! You’re going to make me cry!” and she was like “I can’t! I have no one in my life at home to talk to like you.” So of course then I was bawling too.
South Africa: Diane and Tirasai
Di is from Jo-burg and Tirasai is from Cape Town. Tirasai is hilarious. Her best line of the whole trip was “Don’t fight the monkeys!” when talking about stupid tourists who get their stuff stolen by monkeys and then try to fight the monkeys to get it back. She works doing training for adults in how to treat children and educating about children’s rights. She has two kids and her daughter is also hilarious and such a badass at age 6. She knows her rights and exercises them, to her mother’s distress. Tirasai turned 30 on this trip so we celebrated her birthday in NYC! Well, we planned to, but she fell asleep first, so some of the rest of us celebrated for her.
Diane and I clicked from day one and haven’t stopped talking since. Modern technology is amazing, isn’t it? She works for the National Freedom Network, connecting different people and organizations and fighting for rights of trafficked people. She literally represents the people of South Africa in all these super cool government meetings and gets to speak truth to power on a daily basis. I would be so freaked out to do that. She’s such a rock star. Also, her kid is named after Lara Croft (sort of.)
Sierra Leone: Rhoda works at a shelter for trafficking victims and does a lot of great work with them. She was constantly solving problems the whole time we were in the states. She taught me a lot about the civil war and child soldiers in Sierra Leone and about the Ebola crisis that recently happened. She’s lived through so much more national tragedy than anyone from white bread suburban America can even comprehend and her faith is still strong and she keeps fighting for those too tired to fight for themselves.
Kenya: Phyllis works for this amazing organization called HAART and is on their programming staff (I think that’s right). She brought some amazing resources to share with us and we are going to be using the framework for the trainings about trafficking we plan to do with Jojo’s Sanctuary in the next year.
Serbia: Jelena is awesome. She basically runs Atina, which is a series of shelters for domestic abuse and trafficking victims. Also, she was one of the brainiacs behind the creation of Serbia’s first bagel shop, which employs a lot of the women from their shelters. She also taught me a lot about what it’s like to grow up in the middle of a civil war. I think Americans have a lot to learn from people who grew up in war about what is really important in life and what is worth fighting for. She is so Balkan and straightforward and has the best dry sense of humor. I swear, I have a quote a day from her. She is hopefully coming to visit me in February!!!!! I cannot wait.
England: Baljeet. Dude. This woman. She is such a cool human being. She is a lawyer and started the first NGO for refugees and migrant rights in England and she GETS. THINGS. DONE. She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and she’s so funny too. I think that is one thing we all have in common and something everyone who works in this sort of intense situation needs is a good sense of humor and the ability to laugh even in the face of insurmountable obstacles.
Chile: Carolina: potentially the smartest person I’ve ever met. I wish I could download her brain into mine. I never stopped learning from her. Every word that came out of her mouth was genius. She started a theater troupe with her friends after uni, then worked for the Ministry of interior and created a plan for their country to fight trafficking, then went to study her master’s in England, did a fellowship in DC, started Chile’s first Anti-Trafficking NGO and currently works with the ministry of finance. Oh, did I mention she’s also a lawyer? She’s a year older than me. Yeah, I know. I’m a failure and wasted my 20s. Get in line.
Brazil: Artha works with Rede Nami who do amazing work in the favelas of Rio using graffiti to spread awareness about violence against women. They work in neighborhoods, schools, etc. We got to do an awesome graffiti workshop and spray paint the crap out a wall in a park on the lower east side. (maybe?)
Thailand: me and Pik You already know about me, Pik is our Victim Advocate and represents the family of the victim when they go to court for trafficking or abuse cases. She’s amazing, even if she did complain constantly about the 5 star restaurants and 3 course meals we were forced to eat daily. hahaha
Phillippines: Marie Grace is a Supreme Court Justice in the Philippines. She specializes in child abuse cases so she was excited to learn a lot and we learned a lot from her about the court system there. She went with Pik and I to see Waitress on Broadway.
US: Alisa and Margeaux Alisa works with Organization of Prostituion Survivors in Seattle and is changing the world, yo. She connects all the different aspects of society to shift the focus from the sellers of sex to the buyers. Because of her org, they arrested 250 johns in 2 days. Amazing. Last year was the first year ever for a major metropolitan city to not try a single juvenile for prostitution. Such a win. According to Human Trafficking law, the purchase of sex from an underage person automatically constitutes trafficking, so why should the kids who are being victimized be punished? She’s also been integral in setting up a school for john’s that is so good, some of them choose to go multiple times. It’s one of the first of its kind in the US and is changing lives. Please give them money to keep improving Seattle!
Margeaux is a victim advocate and travels the country doing speaking engagements and sharing her story and how people can get involved in stopping trafficking in the US. She’s super cool and is from Kentucky. I didn’t get to hang out with her as much as I would have liked.
India: Vandana and Priyanka Vandana is a doctor working to change the way doctors treat victims of abuse and trafficking and she runs all these amazing programs across their whole part of Northern India. She’s so awesome and shared so much of her knowledge. She also took care of me when I was sick. J Priyanka was the youngest, at 19, and she founded an all girls magic troupe with the help of Magic Without Borders. They go into school and hospitals and she even did a fun little magic show for us, using more English than we thought she knew! She’s a sweet kid.
Nepal: Neelam works with Free the Slaves in Nepal and had lots of stuff to share about the way they work with people there and different trends they see there. I didn’t get a chance to talk to her at length til one of the last nights, but I learned a lot from what she shared throughout the trip.
Singapore: Peck used to work with an organization that works with migrants and fights for migrant rights and trafficking victims. She was so funny and to the point about everything.
Burma: Ying co-founded SWAN the Shan Women’s Action Network that does a lot of work with Burmese refugees, both in Chiang Mai and along the border of Thailand and Burma.
Cambodia: Sola was the sweetest! She grew up in the wake of the genocide in Cambodia and knew she wanted to devote her life to improving the lives of her fellow countrypeople. She’s only 27 but she has done so much work already with her organization Hope for Justice to start to change the direction of her country.

Our first stop was DC, where we landed on Sept 11, 15 years after the towers fell and 3000 miles from where I was on that day. It was so surreal coming in and seeing the Pentagon and where they had repaired it. It blows my mind that kids are learning to drive who did not exist when that happened.  We were in the same van to the hotel as Sola (Cambodia), Ezgi (Turkey) and Ying (Burma). We chatted a bunch and I was pointing out all these different monuments like a cheesy tour guide.
When we got to the hotel, Pik full on passed out, but I went to meet Alia, who used to work for Vital Voices but got another job and abandoned us before we arrived. Traitor. ;) We walked over to this art festival thing happening and ate some comfort food (grilled cheese!) and then took the metro to the American National Portrait Gallery, which was really cool to see. They have rotating exhibits so even if I had been there before (which I suppose I may have) it would be new stuff now. Since Alia’s family is from Jordan, which has AMAZING food, and she offered to make dinner for me, I demanded Jordanian food and she did not disappoint. By the time we ate it was like 9pm and I was passing out in my food. Hahaha. It was really great to catch up with her and see her cool new house. 
The next morning was day one and most people were still jet lagged from their trips, but not me! I laugh in the face of jet lag. Ha Ha Ha. It was nice to see Cindy again, who is the director of Vital Voices and basically the reason I got to come, and also meet some new people. First off, I met Margeaux from Kentucky and her super sweet guide dog, Junebug, and Alisa from Seattle (what’s up, Washington?!) and Jelena from Serbia. Honestly, there were probably a couple other people too, but I’ve forgotten who else, and let’s be honest, they probably don’t remember meeting me at that exact point either.
Nobody really cares about the minutae of what we learned, so I’ll hit the highlights. We went to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children which I have always been interested in, so that was super cool to see it and hear from their team. Sadly, we were so late because the crazy ass bus driver kept doing these insane U-Turns in the middle of the road in areas where you CANNOT do U-turns! The best of this day was Jelena sitting by me on the bus saying “What is he doing? This is forbidden!” I was like ‘YEP it certainly is.”
Other highlights include visiting Google DC for a panel discussion and dinner (and wine. They had Malbec!), visting the State Department where we had to have special badges and an escort to the room, and a tour I organized for 12 of us who had never been to DC. It was perfect actually, I asked the guy at the concierge about night tours, since were getting a night off after our last meeting ended at 4:30. He said the tour bus goes at night but it’s $42 a person, but the hotel used a van service with a 15 pass van and the guy would do a personal tour for us for only $75 an hour, with a 3 hour minimum. It ended up being $22 a person including tip. It was fun running around the city and making up stories about these monuments like I was a real tour guide. That was a real bonding experience for us. My favorite parts of it were the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial and the Roosevelt memorial because I had never visited those before. People were really impressed with the quotes carved in stone everywhere. They were like “wow, you guys have really good speakers in this country.” Hahaha I was like, “sure, but they all have their flaws. They all cheated on their wives, Jefferson had slaves, etc etc. A good speech doesn’t mean they were perfect.” But, then none of us are, I suppose.
Then we were off to NYC! As we crossed from Jersey to Manhattan, the driver cranked up “Welcome to New York” by Taylor Swift and then “Empire State of Mind” and the whole bus was dancing. It was pretty funny to witness. We raced to check in and change before going to Diane Von Furstenberg studios (to which Baljeet hilariously asked “uh….who is Diane Von Furstenberg?” She’s a clothing designer and model, for those who don’t know). I thought her office and the meeting was pretty cool. Some of us, I won’t name names (coughSAcough) were less than impressed. She swept into the room and immediately asked “Water? Where’s the wine for our guests?” And suddently there was really expensive wine in addition to the Evian and Pellegrino. Now, that’s power! We had a really interesting discussion about what can be done to help in our various parts of the world. It was the first (and I think, only) time that the person we were visiting asked for our input rather than just telling us what they did at their org. Plus, we got gift bags and signed copies of her book! Yay books! She had some really lovely words to say to Alisa and Margeaux and wrote them each a whole page letter in their books. She personalized all the other copies for us too, and took photos with each of us, which was pretty cool, I think.
Other highlights of NYC. DUDE. We stayed at the Midtown Manhattan Hilton. In my entire life I never dreamed that I would be able to stay in the heart of the theater district, across the street from the Radio City Music Hall and 3 blocks from Central Park. It was incredible! Thank you Hilton for sponsoring this program and giving us all the best nights’ sleep we had in forever. The city is so vibrant and thrumming with life. I could have walked all over it, and did.
On Saturday, we saw AHNA!!! And Aaron and baby Egan too, who was learning to walk, but I REALLY missed Ahna. I have not seen her in person since she moved away to get married, and monthly skype calls are just not the same. It was so awesome to spend the whole day with them, and Di came along too because she had nothing else to do, so I forced her. We went to the Strand bookstore, which is the coolest on the East Coast, and then walked all the way to the Staten Island Ferry, stopping off at a random fountain in a park and also at the 9/11 Memorial area on the way. It was so crazy to be there just a few days after the anniversary. It was very sobering. Aaron took lots of pictures and Egan practiced a lot of walking. We took the ferry to Staten Island and back because it’s free! Also it passes the Statue of Liberty with no waiting in lines. Win win. We ended up at Central Park and walked around the park a bit and finally had to say goodbye at 6. Then I went back to my room and showered to go to BROADWAY! I had gotten Pik and I tickets to see Waitress and it was magical. We had center orchestra seats and they were worth every penny. Even though I was sad that I missed Jessie Mueller (Tony Winner) in the starring role, it was made up for by seeing Jenna Ushkowitz (Tina, my favorite character from Glee) in it as Dawn. I loved the show, the songs, the dialogue, how they kept so many of the perfect lines from the movie and turned some of the perfect lines into songs. It was amazing. I never feel more alive than when I go see live theater. It’s like a drug for me. I could mainline it. Even the two bombs that went off 2 miles from our hotel while we were at the theater could not dampen my high. They caught the guy the next day, it was fine.
The next morning, we had off as well, so Diane and I rented Citibikes and rode around Central Park. Both of us were so much more out of shape than we realized. I thought she was gonna pass out. We took the bus back. We were planning to get some more sleep before we were going to meet the bus later but just as I crawled into bed I got a text from Gigi, who works for Vital Voices (well, until she left to work for Hillary Clinton!) I had basically ordered her to come see us in the city since she had a layover on her way back from India. She was like “Well, I’m in Newark but I can’t manage these bags on my own, so I’m just gonna fly home.” I was like “NOPE. Unacceptable. I am literally getting on a subway to come meet you this very instant.” So, I did. It was stressful, I will admit because I did the wrong thing and got a ticket for the wrong train that left too late, so basically I got there and then we had to run with her bags back to the train back to the city. Even with all that, and running up to change into nicer clothes to wear for the photos we were getting taken, I was STILL not the last person to get on the bus. HA! All those years of musical theater quick changes still coming in handy!
We did the graffiti party that day and had a blast painting this wall with a women’s empowerment slogan. It was pretty cool, even though I’m not very good at it. Then, a bunch of us skipped dinner and went to Hillsong church in Times Square! It’s in the theater above The Lion King. Di and I were going to go to Lion King after the service, but on Sundays they play at 6:30 and not 8 so we were just getting out of service when the show was starting. Sad times. But, it all worked out cause we all went to have dinner at Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Shack and it was delicious, even though I ate ribs and not shrimp cause I live in a country with an ocean around it. There were 7 of us that went: Jelena, Andrea, Diane, Phyllis, Rhoda, Vandana, and I. We all split up and did some shopping later and Di and I went to the M&M store which was delicious.
Next morning, we were off to Dallas! Never been before, but it was pretty cool. We had a lot of good barbecue, but not enough mac and cheese, in my opinion. The food at the hotel was amazing. Chicken tortilla soup! My absolute favorite! We visited a couple domestic violence shelters and learned some fundraising strategies and also the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center, which is what our center is modeled after. It was also amazing, and so interesting to talk to the people who work with Multi Disciplinary Teams there and find out that my procedures that I just made up after talking to a couple of psychologists was actually exactly what they do. That was reassuring. We also did some shopping at the thrift store that is the social enterprise of Genesis Shelter. We all made out like bandits. It was good for us but not our wallets!
Our last night was full of laughter and wine. There was always lots of wine. Except that night we had margaritas as big as my head. We dipped our feet in the rooftop pool and talked until the wee hours of night. Then Naduni and I still got up at 7 am to send people off and say some final goodbyes. There were lots of tears. LOTS. Of tears.
Finally, Pik and I got an Uber and went to Jenny and Trey’s house. Jenny is one of my oldest friends (as in I have known her for a long time, not as in she is older than me) and she moved to Dallas a few years ago so I haven’t seen her in a while. It was perfect that we ended in Dallas so I could hang out with her and meet her husband and his family. We also did a lot of shopping to get all the stuff I had to bring back for camp! We even squeezed in a movie: Snowden with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. One day, we did a road trip to Austin and saw the Capitol Building and visited Sydney and Kevin Ling, some of my friends from Africa/Australia who now live in Texas. Crazy world travelers!
We spent the night with Allison and her family and it was so awesome to hang out with Sully and Lucky and Hudson and catch up with Allison and Chad. The only one missing was Sophie, who was in LA. Sully now plays both guitar and saxophone and Lucky is learning bass guitar and trombone. Hudson does clarinet, but he didn’t want to play for me. The other two showed off their mad skills and it was awesome. Sully has this fantastic singing voice too. It’s so cool to see them have developed from little people with cute baby personalities into full grown humans. I also love that I seem to have instilled the love of reading in them during their formative years.
As we were leaving Austin, I stopped to see Jill and Steve, who have tripled their offspring count since I saw them last. It was great to catch up with them and hear about their lives and church and kids and catch them up on all I’ve been doing.
Well, that’s the extremely truncated version of my trip to the US. Hopefully you are still awake by the end of it. Stay tuned later this month for entries about camp, Joy’s unwanted surprise party and more about Jojo’s Sanctuary, which already has a website and ways to donate. (You can find us here:

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Education Success Story

Nearly six years ago, when I first moved to Thailand, I met a boy named Somchai. He was 12 at the time and was the older brother of one of my kindergarten students that I taught at an after school program. He was living in a Christian children's home since his family was too poor to take care of all their children. I didn't know him well, but over the years, I would chat with him when he came home for school breaks. He studied alternative school at the children's home, meaning he would only have class a couple times a week and would do standardized tests at the end of each semester. When he finished his 9th grade exams, he came home, but he wanted to study more. I was determined that this kid would finish high school.
When he came home and decided to work for a year to wait for his friend to finish her 9th grade exams so they could study together, I was sure it would never happen. But, I kept after him, visited him at work and home and reminded him when the summer break came that we needed to get him a scholarship so he could study. He did all the work himself, finding the school he wanted to attend, finding out when the entrance tests were and letting me know when the parent teacher meeting was, when to pay fees and get uniforms. I met with him last week to check in and see how his first term had gone.
He was in a rush, and wanted to just grab some McDonalds to go so he could get back to studying for his test, but I persuaded him to sit and chat for a few minutes. An hour went by as he told all about his struggles and successes. He said at first it was so difficult to keep up since he had no experience attending regular school and suddenly he had all these classes and homework and tests. He took the initiative to talk to each of his teachers and explain that he really wanted to do well but needed a little extra help in some subjects to keep up. All his teachers but one have been giving him extra tutoring, extra time to do assignments and just generally encouraging him. He said that the friend he waited for to start school dropped out after just two weeks, but he was determined to keep going no matter what. He really values his education and knows that this scholarship is a big opportunity for him.
He has had a lot of struggles with his family since starting school. He is the first person in his family to study past 6th grade. His mom never went to school, his older brother and sister just passed 6th grade and stopped, so the fact that he is on track to finish high school and has dreams of college is a huge deal. It's hard for him because his mom doesn't understand that he has so much homework and tutoring he needs to do with his friends. She thinks he just runs around all the time with his buddies and doesn't contribute to the house. He says when he tries to explain, she just scolds him and it really hurts him. He told me "I have all these dreams that God has put in my heart, and when I try to talk to my family about them, they just laugh and say it will never happen. So I just keep to myself and do my work and share with you." I encouraged him that he is not alone, he has a lot of people supporting him, me, the people who gave him this scholarship, his teachers, and God.
The best part of this story is that before he started at school, he prayed about starting a cell group or Bible study that would be a school club. When he started, he made a new friend who had the same idea, so they went to the main office together to present their idea. The school said they had never had a campus cell group before, but they could certainly do it. They just need 40 members to make it official. Right now, they have 11 members and they meet on Fridays after school in the courtyard to worship, pray and read the Bible together. It's so cool to see how God is using this 18 year old boy to impact his community and that even though he has so many struggles, he is not giving up and not turning his back on God. I look forward to attending his graduation in a couple years, and pray that he can continue on to study university as well.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Fall Retreat

This year, we will have our first ever fall retreat for the teen girls whose lives we have been a part of for several months or years. Since this is our first time doing a retreat, we are starting small and just focusing on teen girls ages 15-18. We (Joy, Mimi and I) are super excited for this chance to give the girls a place that is out of the city, up in nature and hopefully let them have an encounter with God.

Our theme will be focused on Planning for our Future, with sessions about God's will for our lives, how to transition from teen to adult, and letting go of past hurts to move forward in life stronger and unburdened. Since not all the girls know Jesus, we will not go over the top on the spiritual angle, but will also give them some time to ask questions about our faith and what it means to be a follower of Christ.

Throughout the retreat, the girls will be receiving special surprises from an unknown sponsor, culminating in a big box of letters and gifts from people who are important in their lives (parents, teachers, friends, etc). If you have ever had the chance to go on a Chrysalis, we are trying to evoke that kind of experience for these girls. 

This retreat will be at a beautiful setting near a waterfall and will include songs, games, journaling time, learning time, feeding sheep and of course, s'mores! The cost for 3 days and 2 nights will be about $100 per student, so $800 altogether. We currently have $230 already given, so if you would like to contribute to this special event, just click the Paypal Donate button on the right of the screen!