THE HUMAN DEVELOPMENT CENTER

(Information for this article was compiled from material made available by the HDC)

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." - Lao-tzu.

The Human Development Center is an integral working unit of the Catholic Archdiocese of Bangkok, operating under the auspice of His Excellency Cardinal Michael Meechai Kitbunchu. Father Joseph H. Maier has been its director since 1973. It has always been the intention of the Center that their efforts, and the solutions for which they strive for, would be realized not only by the Catholic minority, but shared by all people living in Bangkok's slums. The vast majority of Thais, in urban slums as elsewhere, are Buddhist. With the exception of emergency situations, the HDC aims to provide guidance and leadership, rather than hand-to-mouth donations. Twenty-five years ago, the Center was simply a safe place of refuge in one slum. In the time since, some 500,000 poor have benefiited directly from the Center's work.

MERCY CENTER HDCs

Mercy Center has existed for five years. When it first opened it was designed as a shelter for young homeless boys. The main goal was to intercept street kids and redirect them before they fell prey to the lure of prostitution, drugs and commercial sex. HDC soon realized that while some boys and girls at risk can be identified, and successfully deterred from a life of commercial sex, the majority of street kids proceed undetected into the worlds of drugs and prostitution. Thus, they have had to adapt and change the Center's focus. Mercy Center has expanded its services, and now helps those caught at every stage of this self-destructive cycle.

Once primarily just a safe house for homeless boys and girls, Mercy Center now takes in anyone in need. Mercy Center moved from its original location (in a six-storey building on one of Bangkok's most congested streets) in 1994, to its present location in Klong Toey's Lock 6. Originally conceived as a "temporary solution," the new Mercy Center has become a fixture in the slums. Built entirely with the funds and hard work of Christiani & Nielson, one of Thailand's leading companies, and to whom the Mercy Center owes a huge debt of gratitude, the new building is a substantial improvement over the old one.

Thanks to the generosity of so many corporations and individuals, they have been able to turn the complex into two centers: Mercy Center for street kids and the Community Health Development Center, which is used primarily for the HIV or AIDS afflicted. There are thirty shelters for street kids in Bangkok, most of which care for between five and ten children. Of these thirty shelters, Mercy Center is rated second by the Thai Federation of Street Children. This rating is based on the overall services and opportunities provided by each shelter. Mercy Center is an ideal example of HDC's philosophy of "helping people to help themselves." The emphasis at Mercy Center has always been on empowerment; they cannot force anyone to change, but they can offer alternatives to drugs and commercial sex, and give kids the power to choose to change. Mercy Center has two separate, yet complementary, functions: first as a hospice, and second, the Center operates an Outreach program.

HOSPICE

Mercy Center's primary purpose has always been as a hospice, which functions as a kind of family for those who don't have one. Residents live in an atmosphere of mutual respect and concern. Mercy Center has enough beds to accommodate a "family" of 40, but the actual number of residents changes all the time, because street kids come and go - they must have their freedom. Each of the residents has a clean, comfortable and safe place to live, and each receives three nutritious meals a day, in addition to free care at the medical clinic. The rest of what a Mercy Center resident gets out of their program is really up to the individual.

HDC's team of social workers strives both to satisfy all of their residents emotional and spiritual needs, and to allow them to take advantage of Mercy Center's many opportunities. And what are these opportunities? We encourage the younger children to enroll in the local primary school, and they pay tuition, books and other expenses. For the older residents, the Center teaches them skills and helps them to find rewarding employment. They offer interest free small business loans to residents whose situation prohibits conventional employment. In the past, residents have bought push carts to sell fruit, videos to begin a video rental library, and a motorcycle to use as a taxi. Of course the greatest thing they offer a kid is simply the chance to be a kid - to skip rope, to play tag, to believe in Santa Claus... The available opportunities represent more than just career advancements. By offering them the chance to learn new skills or continue in their education, Mercy Center hopes to help its residents rebuild their sense of self-esteem and self-respect, qualities that are often lost after living for years on the streets.

SKIP: THE SLUM KINDERGARTEN IMPROVEMENT PROGRAM

In the early 1970's, when the HDC was first learning how to be useful, they saw that in a typical slum family, both the mother and father were required to work long hours, at low-paying jobs, just to make ends meet. In addition to this difficulty, the extended family that existed back in the village, which typically included a grandmother or an aunt who could tend to the babies, while older children went to school and parents worked in the field, did not exist in the slum. Thus, a familiar image in Klong Toey was that of a five year-old cradling an infant in his or her arms, and providing the best care that he or she could. Forced to grow up fast, none of the youngsters received anything resembling early childhood training. When they reached the age of nine or ten, they were put to work to help the family survive.

The sad irony was that many parents had left rural poverty for life in an urban slum so thattheir children would have the chance for a better life. However, at home in the village, thechildren probably achieved basic literacy in the local school, primitive or ill-supplied thoughit may have been. In the slums, on the other hand, it was difficult for their children toreceive any education whatsoever. Unquestionably, the SKIP program is the backbone of the HDC's efforts in the slums. Thus far,more than 55,000 children have been educated in SKIP's thirty-one pre-schools. The currentenrollment is about 4,000, taught by 110 teachers. The original goal, which today remains essentially unchanged, was to teach basic literacy andself-awareness to young boys and girls by teaching them each of the following: the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic; the history of their country and their heritage; proper nutrition and basic hygiene; and good manners and respect, both for themselves and others. But perhaps most of all, the HDC just lets them be kids so they were not forced to grow up overnight. The SKIP program allows them to have fun every day of their lives.

COST OF THE SKIP PROGRAM: "TEN-BAHT-A-DAY SCHOOLS"

HDC's school system is directed at the poorest of the poor, people who have virtually no other opportunities. The government does not have a budget for pre-schools; most such schools are operated privately and for profit. Fees for privately-run schools can be as high as 25,000 baht per year and tuition at the so-called "exclusive" schools is much higher. The simple fact is, without HDC's pre-schools, there is nowhere for young children to be all day but in the streets. HDC's first pre-school was known as the "One-Baht-a-Day School," and was for children from three to seven years of age. After a couple of years, the fee was raised to two baht, and it has continued to rise in accordance with both the costs of expanding services, and the ability of the parents to pay. Those that cannot afford this amount, pay what they can, while others pay nothing. No child who wants to go to school is turned away.

OUTREACH PROGRAM

For those kids they cannot convince to come to Mercy Center, they offer the Outreach Program. The disheartening truth is that for every child Mercy Center takes in there are thousands still living in the streets... thousands who will never believe in magic, who will never go to school, who will never skip rope. For these kids and for commercial sex workers, HDC sends out a team of social workers. Sometimes they just talk, sometimes they administer to emergency needs, and other times they offer some informal AIDS education. Street children are by far the hardest target group to reach in Mercy Center's Outreach Program. The first challenge is trying to have consistent contact with same kids. Street children do not stay in the same place for very long, making it fairly difficult for social workers to find the kids with whom they have already had contact. Nonetheless, whether it is the social worker's first or hundredth contact with a given child, the objectives are always the same: first, to attend to emergency needs, and second, to introduce the child to Mercy Center.

Working with street children is a very demanding, and often frustrating, job. It takes a long time to earn a child's trust. Time is not on the social worker's side; that is, the longer the child stays on the street, the more likely it is that he or she will turn to commercial sex or drugs for money. Commercial sex workers present a somewhat different challenge for HDC. Their social workers are neither moralistic nor condemning in their approach, which is geared towards explanations of what the Center offers. Often a Mercy Center resident, who formerly serviced sex, accompanies the social workers to bars. Despite this approach, it is never easy to convince commercial sex workers of the "good life" at Mercy Center. For this reason their social workers implore themto practice safe sex, if they intend to stay in the sex business.

THE GIRL'S HOME

Five years ago HDC described their Girl's Home as a "fledgling venture." Happily, they continue to provide a home for a number of girls at the Center. The objective of the Girls' Home is simple: keep young girls off the street, and provide them with a safe place to live. They also provide them with an education, and thus a chance. The girls come to them battered and bruised, and in desperate need of care and love. HDC does its best to give them both. All of their girls attend school full-time, and are provided with three meals a day. Each of the girls has specific tasks to perform around the house, to help ensure that the house runs smoothly. A housemother lives with the girls at the Center, and cares for them "around the clock." Quite simply their Girls' Home operates like a family.

COMMUNITY HEALTH DEVELOPMENT & ISLE OF PEACE

Situated in an adjoining building to Mercy Center, HDC opens its doors to all those who are sick. The majority of patients are HIV positive, and HDC provides them with a comfortable place to regain their strength. HDC has the only community AIDS center in Bangkok. When it first opened, HDC had a number of difficulties with the Klong Toey Lock 6 community. The people in the surrounding slums were not receptive to the idea of having an "AIDS Hospice" in their neighborhood. The community continued to deny that AIDS was a problem, and did not want the sick and dying in "their backyards." With the help of the Education Department, we have been able to ease the tension, and find a niche within the slum. HDC works with patients to rebuild their bodies, and whenever possible to involve their families in the recovery process. Most families still refuse to associate with their HIV-positive relatives, but a few have slowly begun to show some compassion, and to share in the suffering of their sick family members. The restoration of physical health is only part of what an HIV or AIDS patient requires.

Equally important is the mental and spiritual health of the AIDS patients. The emotional needs of the patients are often great: severe depression, drastically reduced self-esteem, and asense of hopelessness are all common. To meet the mental and emotional requirements of their patients, HDC has started a program called Isle of Peace. Twice a week, patients are encouraged, through meditation and prayer, to regain a positive outlook on life. No efforts are made at conversion, but the combination of meditation and prayer provide a calm and peaceful atmosphere. Through this program, patients come to realize that people care, and there is a life, a worthwhile life, after HIV infection and AIDS.

HOME FOR MOTHERS & BABIES WITH AIDS

Babies and their mothers who have AIDS, are in the most difficult and vulnerable position of all those afflicted in Thailand. If a man has HIV or AIDS, his wife will often care for him...but if a woman and her infant child are infected, men will typically abandon them. Not always, but usually. Support systems for these women and their children do not exist. Their is no protection for them as their illness progresses. HDC has a house that would be perfect for mothers and babies. The house is outside the slums, in a quiet area of Bangkok, and it could accommodate 20 babies and their moms. The house will provide them with love and affection that is so essential, but is absent from so many of those with HIV or AIDS. HDC is currently working on cleaning and outfitting this house, and it will soon be ready for use. How do they find the babies and moms who are in need? Those in need are often "hidden from view," because they are ashamed and scared to admit that they have AIDS. To overcome this problem, HDC has a Slum Visitation Team.

Sister Joan Evans has been walking through the slums and visiting the sick for the past three years. She goes with them to the government hospital for free medical care because the mothers and children she visits have no money. They often do not even have food. As well, most are too weak to go by themselves to the hospital. This program has allowed Sister Joan to identify the pressing need for an AIDS home, and through her work, she will have no trouble finding mothers and babies to fill it. If the HDC had more houses, they could fill them too.

COLGATE-PALMOLIVE

For many years, Colgate-Palmolive has been sending HDC its "rejects" for distribution to the poor in the slums and elsewhere in Thailand. Every month, many trucks filled with boxes upon boxes of toothpaste, shampoo, soap, baby powder, and other assorted products arrive at HDC's doorstep. Their staff sorts through the piles, packages the products in bags, and sends them to those in need. The dental care products are an important defense against tooth decay in the slums. The other products ensure proper hygiene, which helps fight infection and the spread of diseases. The HDC sends Colgate-Palmolive products as far away as Korat, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. The recipients include refugee camps, temples, mosques, and rural schools on a tight budget.

For further info contact Father Joe or the HDC at:

3757/15 Sukhumvit Rd Soi 40, Phra Khanong Bangkok, Thailand 10110

Tel: (66) 02 671 - 5313

Fax: (66) 02 671 - 7028

Websites http://www.mercycentre.org,

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