Ananda Marga runs numerous children’s homes around the world, like the Lotus Children’s Center in Mongolia, the Narayan Seva Children’s Home in Bali…
…and Baan Unrak in Thailand:
Baan Unrak (“Home of Joy”) children’s home gives more than 100 children and several abandoned mothers a home and hope for a better future.
In 1986, Didi Ananda Devamala came to Thailand to work on an agricultural and environmental project. She initially opened a small study center for children in a slum and three years later went to Sangkhlaburi, Kanchanaburi province in western Thailand, to start her agricultural project.
Sangkhlaburi (22 kilometers from Three Pagodas Pass, at the border between Thailand and Burma) is in a remote area where tourism is flourishing but also where local people are ravaged by poverty and disease. In 1988, the government built a dam to bring electricity to Bangkok which caused the flooding of much land. The local community faced relocation and mass losses of livelihood.
An influx of refugees and immigrants, fleeing war and slavery in Burma, has added to the region’s economic problems, including high unemployment. The border is quite porous and therefore easy for people to cross. After arriving, most of the migrants cannot leave the border area because of their illegal status.
Most of the refugees in the Sangkhlaburi area are from the Mon and Karen states, which are targeted by terror campaigns instigated by the Burmese military. According to the UNHCR, half the displaced people are children, and 15 percent are under five years old.
People are unable to care for their children and abandon them for a variety of reasons. Most of the time, one of the parents is sick or has died early. Because of their illegal status, migrants are more vulnerable to poverty, disease and cultural changes. As a result, families are easily destroyed. Sometimes men decide to seek work in Bangkok and never come back, or come back with a disease such as HIV. This often leaves the women to care for their children alone.
Moreover, migrant women are easily recruited for forced-labor or into the sex industry. These women are unable to care for their children. Because of their financial or work circumstances, and/or because of the stigma of single motherhood, they abandon their children at a hospital or at a home like Baan Unrak. The extreme poverty of the area also means the local and hill tribe communities bring their children too. They often bring children to the home not because they don’t love them, but because they have completely lost hope.
Baan Unrak Children’s Home
Soon after Didi arrived in the area, an abandoned wife asked her to help take care of her child. Both mother and baby suffered from severe malnutrition and other illnesses. So she thought she could provide some temporary help.
People heard that Didi could look after abandoned children. The villagers saw how she was helping the children and trusted her. A Karen peasant’s wife died, leaving six children. Her husband could not look after the children because he had to work. Didi took in the youngest girl, who was six months old, and her four elder sisters.
The number of children staying at the house increased day by day, and Baan Unrak became an orphanage. Today there are over 110 children. The project is managed by Didi Devamala and Didi Anuraga (Baan Unrak school), by local staff and by volunteers from around the world. Baan Unrak also employs housemothers who provide love and care to all the children, especially the infants.
Between 2004 and 2006 the number of children increased dramatically. The home became crowded and it was decided to buy some land and build a bigger children’s home. In June 2006, the children moved into the new building. Now the project is able to properly take care of all the children.
During the last ten years, Baan Unrak children’s home has become a community development project, developing various small-scale projects such as an education center and income-generating activities to make the home more self-sustaining. These benefit both the children and the community, and establish another link between them. The project uses local and available resources and promotes environmental concern among the children and the community. A farm provides organic vegetables and fruits as well as spices and herbal medicines.
Children learn yoga and meditation, which teaches them concentration and helps to ensure their psychological and physical well-being. Group meditation sessions are held mornings and evenings in the home. It provides moments of peace. At these times the house is silent.
Baan Unrak School
For several years we tried to send Baan Unrak’s children to Thai government schools. They faced many barriers such as language (most of the children do not speak Thai when they arrive at Baan Unrak) or a difficult personal history. Moreover, the government schools were overcrowded and provided the children with a poor quality education.
To further our mission, in 2004 we opened a school for Baan Unrak’s children. In addition to providing education, the goal is to build an environment where students can develop all aspects of their minds and become active learners.
The education is based on the ideals of Neohumanism. This focus, combined with small class sizes, allows the teachers to provide individual attention to all students, especially those with special needs. Every few months, we provide teacher training in Neohumanist methods and in understanding the problems of parentless children.
Many volunteers from around the world come to teach English. The children need to be fluent in Thai and English to ensure their future integration into society. We try to give each child an opportunity to continue his/her study at the high-level school, in Bangkok or in Kanchanaburi. Baan Unrak school includes a nursery and kindergarten. This provides care for the youngest children and gives their mothers, who come to us in emotional distress, an opportunity to rest.
Abandoned Mother Support
Baan Unrak school also welcomes children from the surrounding area. Children of migrants or hill tribe people often face difficulties integrating into the government schools, as they are often unregistered. Baan Unrak school provides education to over 180 children, more than 100 coming from the local community.
Poverty and the influx of refugees have caused many problems in the area. As a result, families break apart. Husbands abandon their wives. Women become single mothers. It is very difficult for a woman to survive alone, and almost impossible if she has a small child. In general, nobody gives jobs to mothers with small children or pregnant women. Single mothers are viewed as a social burden.
While taking care of abandoned children is important, we think that it is also necessary to address the mother’s needs. Mothers who have to give away their children are usually depressed. They believe that their future and their children’s futures are hopeless. We decided to help them cope with their difficulties.
Baan Unrak provides abandoned mothers with rice, milk and temporary shelter. While providing for their basic needs, we encourage them to care for their own children and help them build better relationships with their children. Sometimes we let them stay with us until they are stronger. Mothers who intended to give their children away slowly change their minds while staying at Baan Unrak.
The goal is also to help them become self-sufficient, as they will not remain here all their lives. We provide them with opportunities to learn new skills and to become active participants in the project.
1. Health programs
Diseases such as malaria, typhoid and dysentery, and health problems related to poor sanitation, are scourges of the Sangkhlaburi area. Sangkhlaburi’s hospital is not adequate. Villagers from the forest often die before they can reach the hospital. Health centers in the forest often cannot help them.
Migrants and hill tribe people don’t have access to health facilities because they are unregistered. Most of the time they will not be accepted by hospitals, and those that are often do not have enough money to buy medicine.
To provide the community with medical care, a mobile medical unit was established in 2003 at Baan Unrak. We focus our work on HIV patients. We provide emotional support by visiting them regularly and giving them monthly therapy.
2. Relief programs
Baan Unrak has organized relief programs in the surrounding villages and refugee camps, distributing food and clothing. Baan Unrak teenagers manage most of the programs.
Children have to be involved in community activities as a part of their education. We believe that helping others in need always helps oneself. These kinds of activities give them dignity and confidence, raising their self-esteem without increasing selfishness.
3. Helping and sharing the lives of elders
In 2006, we started a project in partnership with Generation Journey, a UK-based organization. Our children visit old people around the community and provide them with care and attention. We are also developing a project where children will interview old people about their roots and their personal histories. Our aim is to preserve the knowledge of the elder community through writing a book.
Training Center and Income-Generating Activities
1. A weaving center provides employment for women
A sewing and weaving center started in 1995 to provide employment and empowerment for local women. The center produces scarves, textiles and ready-to-wear clothing.
The weaving center also provides training to those mothers who are interested in learning new skills. After being trained, some work outside and some continue to work for the center. Currently, 12 women produce traditional fabrics with local hill tribe designs and sew them into scarves, blankets, bags and clothing. Baan Unrak children are involved in finishing the products and sewing simple items such as purses.
This project was also designed to generate income for the whole project. For the moment, the center produces and sells enough to sustain itself. Over time, as the quality of the products has risen, we have gotten more opportunities to export them to Western countries. Some products meet the high standards of fair-trade organization Commercio Alternativo, and are sold by them in Italy.
We also opened a small shop in Sangkhlaburi to sell our handicrafts to visitors and to the community.
2. Bakery and the internet cafe
After more than ten years, there was an urgent need to develop other activities which could partially sustain the whole project. Children were also growing up and needed to learn technical skills to ensure their integration into society.
In 2003, we opened a bakery and an internet cafe. Tourists as well as local people are welcome to enjoy pure vegetarian products and access the Web.
In the bakery, children learn how to cook different kinds of food. Mothers are also taught how to cook properly for their children. Some of the older children also work in the internet café, where they can practice their English with the tourists and also learn computer skills.
Baan Unrak has designed this project based on principles of sustainable development. This is also a way to experiment with various activities, such as producing herbal medicine for our sick children, composting, making bricks, recycling garbage, planting seeds, growing organic spices, and producing tofu and gluten.
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