How to Save a Life

by Jay Milbrandt (JD/MBA ’08),

I used to be envious of doctors. It seemed they could provide immediate, practical assistance. On my previous stay in Thailand, I visited a shanty-house: one room occupied by four migrant hilltribe families. A young child, no older than two, was carried out by his mother. On the top of his head was boil. “We don’t know what this is,” she, “but we can’t do anything about it because we can’t afford to see a doctor.” I wished I could do something. What good was my law degree here? There was no lawsuit to file or contract to sign (it’s tough to sign a contract when you’re illiterate and you have no signature to give). Little did I know I would find a way to apply my law degree in a very practical way that—like a doctor—could save a life.

I need to start at the beginning—as a reluctant volunteer. It was first few days of my internship and I came to Thailand to do business development work on some social business projects. But, these projects hadn’t been discussed at all. Instead, we had outreach training. Outreach consists of going out into the bars to build relationships with the prostituted women. “This isn’t what I came here to do,” I told my colleague Christina Sambor. “Maybe God has other plans for you,” she replied. I could feel the foreshadowing.

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Playing with four-year-old Amey. She is the next child we will be working on citizenship for.

Reluctantly, I went to outreach. I told myself I would try it once, then quietly bow out the next night. The outreach team split into two groups—one went to the bars, the other met up with the street kids. I decided to meet the street kids. That night, on the stoop in front of a convenience store, I met Ami and many of children. The outreach leader introduced Ami to me and she ran up to give me a hug. I was surprised.

My surprise soon turned into sadness. The kids came and went from the stoop all night long. They were stopping to play on their breaks from work—selling flowers in the bars in the red light district. These cute little girls would walk into the brothels holding a bouquet of flowers, hoping the men might buy them for the women they were “courting.” Making just a couple dollars that evening was a good night. The kids were the primary income source for the family. Their mothers and fathers were undocumented hilltribe members or Burmese migrants, so they could not seek out legitimate work. The mothers and fathers were also illiterate and typically did not speak Thai, making the hurdle of a basic education very high.

At the time, I was just back from my trip to Bangladesh, so I was very intrigued with economics behind what I was observing. More than that, it just wasn’t right that the kids would have to sell flowers all night. The kids should have the right to play. They shouldn’t have to work in this despicable part of town. I sat on the stoop with the bars and brothels across the street. I didn’t have to ask what the natural progression was once they were too old to sell flowers. Men were already soliciting these young kids—it seemed only a matter of time before they would become victims of this street.

In an ironic turn of events, outreach nights became my favorite nights of the week. I started getting to know the kids very well, and even their mothers. One of my favorite moments was seeing four-year-old Amey walk around the corner across the street. I jumped up and yelled, “Amey!” She froze, look at her mom following 10 feet behind her, then took off racing through the bar on the corner. She ran in a circle with her pigtails bouncing, tossed the flowers to her mom, and came running for me.

It was hard to leave knowing their likely fate. I couldn’t bear the thought of returning in five years to find them working in the bars. I vowed to keep in contact with the kids as best I could. When I returned to the U.S., I started writing them letters. I didn’t expect to hear anything in return—were they or their parents even familiar with the mail system? But, I wanted to try anyway, so I started mailing letters to the outreach coordinator to distribute.

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Playing with four-year-old Amey. She is the next child we will be working on citizenship for..

One day, Ami wrote back. She drew a picture and folded it over her photo. I was moved. I couldn’t believe she took the initiative to respond. I continued to communicate with Ami and about six of the children by writing letters. I also inquired into Ami’s education and whether it was possible to get her off the street. It just so happened that her mother couldn’t find the money to send her to school the next year and was worried about what to do. Through the outreach coordinator, I relayed a message to Ami’s mother. I asked first what her dream was for Ami. Her mother replied that she hoped Ami could go to college, maybe study in the U.S. if she wanted to, and that she would use her life to help other people. I told her that I knew she could not afford to send Ami to school and that I wanted to help. However, we had to work together. I hoped Ami could go to college too and I would try to make sure she had the money to do so, but her mother needed to make sure Ami didn’t sell flowers, that she made good choices, and that she stayed in school. Ami’s mom agreed and was very thankful.

For nine months we waited until the school years started again. Most schools wouldn’t take a girl without ID. We finally found a good Christian school in Chiang Mai that understood the situation and would take her without immediate ID. The school was one of the best in Chiang Mai and sent many of its students to college. A year’s tuition only cost $500, even with uniforms.

After she started school, we began working on Ami’s birth certificate and Thai ID. Through a rather lengthy process of filing legal papers, she obtained her ID this summer. Her mother has also been doing a great job with Ami. She found a Christian dormitory for Ami to stay in so that she did not have to live in tract housing. It’s a place where Ami can thrive in a healthy environment and have her education encouraged.

I like to think that we saved a life. I know that Ami won’t end up across the street now and I pray that the doors to college open up. It’s amazing how one simple piece of paper can do so much. Now, we have other mothers coming to ask how we can help with their child’s birth certificates and how they can get put into a better school. I founded the non-profit, Rokami (inspired by Ami, Rok is the Thai word for love) to continue doing this work. We are going to keep taking children on a case-by-case basis and hopefully saving a lot of kids from the dark alternative.

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