by Jay Milbrandt (JD/MBA '08),
The streets are dirty and muddy. It rains here everyday. You would probably never know the slum areas exist here in Chiang Mai–it's a resort town and the resort facade is strong. I step cautiously through the mud to keep my balance as I approach one of the homes. Some of the huts are bamboo with thatched roofs; some have patchwork tin walls. None are in good shape. Everything inside was what I might expect in this place–everything, that is, except my photo hanging on the wall. Definitely not what I expected to find!
Behind the scenes in Chiang Mai's shanty areas.
I wasn't sure what my reception would be when I returned to Chiang Mai–particularly on the street where I worked last year. However, it was a great homecoming. On Monday night, after returning from the border, I passed the stoop where we used to hold children's outreach. It was filled with Akha women and children. To my surprise, they remembered me. Some of the mothers ran up to say hello in their native tongue and shake my hand.
I continued down the street, hoping to see some of the children that I missed. Suddenly, about 10 feet in front of me was Amey–one of the kids I as closest to. I froze. Then she froze. Then, she came sprinting and jumped into my arms. It was a great moment. On Tuesday afternoon, Fern came to the Garden of Hope Drop-In-Center. I saw her walk up to the gate and I ran out. Her mouth dropped and she came running.
It was good to be remembered and greeted with such enthusiasm from the children. It makes all the effort to keep in touch with them very rewarding. It was even more rewarding to see how the kids had progressed. They spoke more English, their conversation skills improved, and were generally maturing very well.
A video clip about the children, which I made last year for the Garden of Hope.
The most poignant example came from visiting Ami at her school—there she was in uniform at one of the best Christian schools in Chiang Mai. It was hard to imagine a world in which she couldn’t have this education, but if we wouldn’t have intervened, that would have been the case. But, when I see Faifah’s situation, I know the consequences of inaction.
I wish that I would have been here a year or two earlier to intervene with Faifah, or find someone to advocate on her behalf in jail. If that could have been the case, I feel Faifah too could have been saved a lot of trouble. Thankfully, Ami has been spared. When I see her in her school uniform, I know that everything will be alright.
I don’t know if the other kids will be alright though—the Garden of Hope Drop-In-Center is a really good environment—it gets the kids off the street. Yet, there are still some key components missing. A lot of the problems that occur happen at home or late at night—abuse from deadbeat step-fathers is the case almost universally, teenage pregnancy is extremely common due to vulnerability from, and, of course vulnerability from adults, both foreign and nationals. A lot of the kids have been snatched right off the street and taken for a few days. My research has also turned up some foreign predators taking advantage of the children here. All of the children have been solicited, by the way.
I want to cast a vision of what I think needs to be done here. There is a large, unfulfilled need for a dorm to house these children. The children shouldn’t have to live in the “houses” in the slums. They shouldn’t have to live on the streets. They shouldn’t have to be in fear every night of what might happen to them at home or as they go about life. This need is based both on my observations, interviews, and discussions with my friends here who want to start such a facility. If anyone out there wants to take about 100 kids off the street, let me know. I'll take you to Thailand, you can meet the kids, and see why it's all worthwhile.