Stories

It was 1992 and Michele and Peter McCarthy had just had their daughter, Hannah, the youngest of their five children. Despite having their hands full with their own family, they decided to start sponsoring a child through ChildFund Australia.

Hannah is now 22 years old and the family are supporting their second sponsored child, Siriporn from Thailand. Although they`ve been sponsoring Siriporn for the past nine years, Michele and Peter only recently decided to take the plunge and travel to Thailand to meet her.

“I wasn`t a very good sponsor, I didn`t appreciate what sponsorship was and I didn`t write very often,” admits Michele. This all began to change two years ago when Michele met a young African man at her church, who had been sponsored when he was a boy.

“He is now a doctor. I just found it so amazing to meet him, he was so grateful. He mentioned the value of having that relationship and how important it is to get letters from your sponsor and have that communication with them,” recalls Michele.

With this chance meeting encouraging her to connect further with her sponsored child, Michele and Peter decided that an upcoming holiday to Malaysia could be the perfect opportunity to pop over to Thailand and meet Siriporn, something Michele thought would simply be “a nice thing to do”.

“Then we went there and it was completely overwhelming!” she says. “For the first time it became really real.”

As Michele recalls her day with Siriporn, emotions start to flow when she thinks about the moment she saw her for the first time. “When we arrived at her school, Siriporn and her mum were waiting for us at the front gate. I just knew it was her straight away. It was like she had come out of her photo and into real life.

“I jumped out of the car and we just hugged and hugged and hugged. And she was smiling, all the photos I had seen of her and her mum they always looked very serious but she had such a big smile on her face and she just looked so beautiful.

“My head was spinning,” says Michele. “It was a bit like a dream. I had so many questions to ask her but I couldn`t remember any of them.”

After sharing a meal together, they all went back to Siriporn`s school where Michele and Peter met the school principal and some of the teachers. They also had the opportunity to go into Siriporn`s classroom and meet some of her classmates, who were very excited to meet them.

“After a while her dad came and met us, which was really wonderful,” says Michele, who learned that Siriporn`s father does not have regular work and hadn`t found work that day. “I don`t know how far away from the school they live but that was very humbling, he was a very quiet man and that really touched Peter`s heart that he was there.”

Michele and Peter are now back home in Australia and have settled back into work and daily life but they haven`t forgotten about their special day meeting Siriporn and her family.

“I was completely unprepared for the emotional part of the experience and I think that is the thing that I will always remember most,” says Michele. “Since I`ve come home, our friendship has changed, I`ve been writing and I`ve sent lots of the photos that we took from the day.

“I don`t know if it`s just me but I had always thought of sponsorship as a one-way thing,” she adds. “I was just giving money and it wasn`t a big deal, it`s not a lot of money and it`s not a big sacrifice. But to have that relationship and then to actually meet them in person is completely amazing because now I have this beautiful connection with this person. It`s more than just contributing to the program, it is about being involved in her life, with her family, her future and all the things that she does.

“Sponsorship has become completely different for me. My eyes have been opened.”

Rapid economic development in Thailand over the last few decades has lifted millions out of poverty and raised general living standards. Yet fast-paced change and globalization are not without their problems. Social and economic inequalities have widened.

In May 2010, Thailand made international news when anti-government demonstrators took to the streets of Bangkok and paralysed the city center for days. Although the causes of these events were wide ranging, one dimension is the disparity between the “haves” and “have-nots.”

Behind the booming malls, hotels and restaurants lies another Bangkok, one of deprivation, exclusion and vulnerability.

ChildFund Thailand work to help impoverished children and families living in Bangkok`s inner city. “People think that children in Bangkok don’t need help because the capital city is so much better off than other parts of the country. This is false,” says Marneewan, president of the Parent Board of the Bangkok Community Project, one of ChildFund’s local partners in Thailand. “Children in Bangkok experience different problems than children living in rural areas,” she says. “They have different needs.” Drug use, teenage pregnancy, lack of education and abysmal living conditions create huge problems for these children.

“Many families migrate from northern rural areas to the capital city in search of a better life and end up living in squalor,” says Marneewan. “They live in overcrowded slums, built between a polluted canal and a busy expressway.”

In this century, deprivation no longer can be thought of strictly in terms of lack of material goods. Long gone are the days when access to a telephone was an appropriate indicator of prosperity. In fact, the vast majority of disadvantaged children and youth in Bangkok use mobile phones and access social media websites.

Instead, deprivation refers to lack of opportunities to reach one’s full potential. In Bangkok, many children still face a worrying lack of opportunity. Marneewan explains: “Parents don’t have much education and don’t send their children to school. Many boys and girls use yaa baa (pills containing a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine). Like their parents, they face the prospect of low-skill work and poor wages. Children live in an environment that is not supportive of intellectual, emotional and social development.”

ChildFund’s Bangkok Community Project assists about 450 children and promotes community independence by helping families assess existing problems and develop solutions. Programs focus on nutrition, health and education as well as building capacity and sustainability in the community.

Children, like Riew, age 9, now have access to a quality education. Her sponsorship through ChildFund has provided school materials, partial tuition fees and transport to school. She also is able to attend English tutorial classes.

“Helping a needy child is also helping that child’s family, community and country,” notes Marneewan.

It’s the first step toward self-sufficiency and better opportunities for a healthy and productive life.