I guess it's now three or four years in a row that one wish has topped my Christmas present want-list: The World Peace. After that comes the wool socks and chocolate. Wishing for it can only get you that far, it all gets really a lot more complicated when you actually have to start doing something for it. Start changing the world.
It is easy to think of making a difference. We westerners are used to getting whatever happens pop to our minds. And with all sorts of big plans for difference-making I arrived in Thailand on my travels. I was packed with enthusiasm and internal flame for changing the world. Chiang Mai in northern Thailand would be the place to put my desires and education in Emergency Care Nursing to good use. I searched all over the internet to find different possibilities for volunteering, finally finding one that did not require months instead of the weeks I had to spare. It was and is a grassroots based charity called Rejoice.
Joyful reality of Rejoice
Nursery at Chiang Dao
What Rejoice does varies all the way from helping struggling individuals to get by to supporting nurseries with food and other necessities such as teddy bears. Their main operation however is a mobile clinic that circles around the countryside of Chiang Mai province, providing basic care for hundreds of people most of whom are affected by HIV.
Rejoice was founded in year 1998 by two British former nurses Gareth and Steve who had become successful businessmen after leaving their nursing careers. Ever since 1998 Rejoice has been fully operational with founding AIDS hospices in Bangkok and later moving the operations to Chiang Mai. Gareth left the cause on 2008 and Steve kept the wheels running until 2010 when he suffered a heart failure and sadly passed away. Rejoice was on the verge of shutting down without Gareth and Steve's experience and presence but with the help of new donors especially SDL Ltd, a language technology company based in the UK, and the hard work of the current employees they kept on going.
Gee and Arm on the background
Today Rejoice's main operations are run by Gee, a Thai native who has been working with Rejoice for twelve years, mastering the job that Rejoice does. Gee is really a unique talent in the way he confronts the people that Rejoice helps. He can create a caring, listening and supporting atmosphere in a heartbeat and without any formal training he's able to recognize the disease or any other problem at hand by the very next heartbeat. Steve and Gareth truly passed on all the information they had and can be proud of in how good hands Rejoice has landed since their departure. Arm is Gee's right hand and the two make up one of the most efficient pair I have probably ever seen taking care of people. Arm used to be one of the youngsters that Rejoice helped years ago and he has since became an invaluable asset for Rejoice, doing the very same work that helped him to get by. Wi is an ethnic Shan and his knowledge of the rural Chiang Mai and the Tai Yai language spoken in many parts ofthe countryside helps Rejoice to gain ground in places where even native Thais have a hardship to reach.
The supporting staff is built from various local and foreign volunteers. The local volunteers are the eyes and ears of Rejoice, giving them a unique advantage of finding those who for some reason or another can not get the help they need. Back in Chiang Mai there's Aree and Lloyd from whose home Rejoice operates with even their children living in the house giving help in translating letters from the sponsors to Thai-speaking recipients and vice versa. Alan has been living years in Chiang Mai and volunteers in various office-based operations such as communications and accounting.
Teddy bears for all!
With these pieces of the puzzle put together I found myself packing the car with Arm and off we went! First stop of the day was in a nursery on the outskirts of Chiang Dao. Government supports the nursery with a 10 baht allowance per child, that is just under 0,25 euros. You can't imagine how little that amount is. All the proof I needed that our visit and support was very much welcomed indeed, was to see the joy in the children's faces when Gee started handing out apples to everyone. Discreetly we had already delivered the rice sacks, eggs and other groceries that the staff would turn in to a hearty meal for weeks to come. The biggest excitement for the children (and us!) came when Arm pulled a brown cardboard box out of the car trunk and Gee started to hand out nothing else than cute teddy bears of all shades of blue! There were navy, indigo, sky blue teddy bears going to the awaiting grasp of smiling and joyful children. The Teddy bears were donated by ‘The Buddies Society of Ipoh’, an HIV-Aids charity based in Malaysia and the fruit and provisions Friends of Rejoice Singapore (FRS) a very proactive group based in Singapore.
Happiness comes from very little things
Our journey continued to the other side of Chiang Dao where Rejoice had only recently learned of a 4-year-old Shan boy called Pitoon who is living with his mother. They are both HIV-positive and right from the get-go we could see the dire need of help that this small family needs. Father had died a few years ago and a new husband for the mother had recently abandoned the family. They got their income from mothers basket weaving where she gets 40 baths (one euro) for every 100 baskets she makes. And these were not small baskets, yet she manages to get around 80-100 baths a day. A kilo of rice costs around 25 baht, just to make sure you don't get fooled by the "large" numbers.
The boy and his mother live in extreme poverty and have no ID papers on top of being Shan migrants which guarantees no (official) help at all for their HIV or any other health problems. Luckily there is still some justice in the world and the mother gets help from the local hospital "off the radar". Which makes her a lot more luckier than the hundreds or thousands like her in Northern Thailand.
Pintoo is a shy boy who goes to a nursery school nearby thanks to the sponsoring he gets through Rejoice. He had some of his toys lying around the front yard of the shack they live in: A plastic tiger that had been cut in half, a wheel that has remained as the only intact piece from what once was a toy car and his newest toy, a condom. Yes, a condom. His mother is somewhat cognitively disabled and most definitely had very best of intention to give her son at least something to play with. We talked about this later and all agreed that a new proper toy should be on the top of the needs for the upcoming visits to Pintoo's home that would now become part of the weekly routine for Rejoice.
Pintoo and Alan
We continued our trip to yet another part of Chiang Dao where we did the core "business" of Rejoice, the mobile clinic reception for the ill, poor and often HIV-positive habitants. What Rejoice does is not sexy, cool, special or whatever you might think of. It is very, very basic. Even more basic you could imagine. And that is why it is so important, important beyond your imagination. The fact is that Rejoice doesn't have the resources to do anything massive and Thailand has a public health care system that actually works, at least on the Asian standards. The problem is that when the people have a small problem, a persisting cough, skin rash, fungus or other infections - they simply do not have the time to spend a whole day in the hospital, or money to pay for the medicine and transportation miles away because they have to gather their income every day. This potentially leads these minor problems becoming massive problems. Thankfully Gee and his team are there to interfere and if needed they more than recommend, sometimes giving a lift for the person to go to the hospital to see a doctor.
Gee at work, handing out much needed medicines
Thai natives with HIV infection are in a good position since they receive a doctors appointment every two months. But still they rely heavily to charities like Rejoice, for being more vulnerable to infections. HIV in Thailand spread like wildfire since the first cases in 1984, with over a million infections since and over 500 000 deaths according to the numbers of year 2008. Thailand has Asia's highest per cent of infections with 1.3% of total population.
In this first clinic of the day we met a HIV-positive 7-year-old girl Napar who got HIV from her mother. Her father died of AIDS some years ago and she now lives with her mother, aunt and grandfather. She goes to school once again thanks to the sponsoring received through Rejoice. Her dark black hair was cut to a buzz cut due lice and she came to the clinic with her aunt and grandfather to get treatment for a scalp rash. Upon seeing a tall white farang such as myself she was very shy and did a good job escaping my camera despite all the encouragement given by smiles and verbally from her caretakers. Finally I got a photo of her, grasping the medicines that Gee gave her. All the shyness turned to joy for her and the other locals when me and Alan started doing the traditional Thai new year, Songkran purification with water that ended up soaking our clothes with flower scented water.
We continued our journey to Phrao with two more clinic appointments and sealed the day with a cup of coffee from a street vendor. All in all it was a good days work, lasting from 8 am to 6 pm before we were back in Chiang Mai.
I Wanted to change the world...
My job during this one day journey to the delightful Chiang Mai countryside was mainly to sit, smile and take photographs. I didn't take me long to realize that I had very little opportunities to take part in the actual work that Gee and Arm had worked for years and mastered it to an art. I don't even want to get started about the language barrier which obviously was huge. That led me here, writing this. I came to a realization that I want to share with you. The best way for us westerners to help people around the world is to give them either of the two things we have a lot to spare: time or money.
Coming in for just a week, or two or three won't make it far even if you knew the language. Even if you would possess skills and education that are directly linked to the charity's field of work. You need months to get to know the culture, the system and most important of all the people and gain their trust.
Money is easy to give. Paypal, credit cards, money transfer, you name it. Problem is finding a charity that puts the money to good use. For the benefit of the people. A good indicator for a charity like this can be found from what Rejoice does. A real grassroots charity run by locals, that employs locals, empowerment is done by locals and thus they gain the trust of the people they work so hard (and with so little!) for.
We westerners really need to drop the thinking that we can save the world. We can't, but we can give all the necessary tools, all the money needed for it and a lots of education for those who will someday change the world to a better place for everyone. After all that is done, maybe someday in the future there will be a day when all humanity comes together and saves the world. Together. As one. Imagine!
For more information:
Rejoice charity web page with a lot of information of their work and ways to donate.
Half the Sky - a book that will make you want to make a difference and join in the fight for the biggest human rights issue of the 21st century - Turning the oppression of women into opportunity.
For finding a charity suited for your needs go to one of these web sites and start changing the world by yourself or with some friends, making it even more fun and resulting in a good feeling for you and your peers.
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