It was neither idealism nor ambition that prompted Sunanta “Nong” Kaewmuangpech to open a children’s shelter. It was simply a matter of one thing leading to another.
The result is a warm, welcoming refuge for children, including some who have been turned away elsewhere. Without the help of people like Ms. Kaewmuangpech, prospects for these children would be bleak indeed.
Seventeen years ago, at the age of 19, she came to this sprawling city on the Gulf of Thailand to complete a diploma in hotel management. But her heart was never in it. While she worked her way through a succession of jobs, her attention was focused more on helping the needy people she came across. And from older expatriates who have run out of money to infants abandoned at birth, there was no shortage of them.
Pattaya is a popular seaside resort, but it is better known as one of the world’s largest centers of sex tourism. In fact it was built on it: During the Vietnam War, a massive influx of US servicemen to a nearby air base turned Pattaya, a sleepy fishing village, into an R&R hub. Go-go bars and girls proliferated and have been there ever since.
Its promiscuous atmosphere has given rise to a slew of social problems. The city council has made genuine efforts to address them, which most local social workers acknowledge and applaud. But troubles are still abundant. Among them, child homelessness is possibly the most acute, certainly the biggest in terms of numbers. The consensus is that at any one time, more than 2,000 children have no home to go to.
“A lot of these children are not technically homeless,” notes Andrew Scadding, director of Thai Children’s Trust, a Britain-based charity, but “there’s nobody looking after them.
“Their parents are illegal migrants from Cambodia or Myanmar, working on building sites or at the most menial jobs for incredibly long hours,” he explains. “They don’t have time to look after the kids or the money to have them looked after, and they can’t get state education. So they’re left to fend for themselves.”
With government facilities few and far between, some of the slack is taken up by charities including Thai Children’s Trust, which successfully operates a range of children’s projects. Most initiatives are backed by the Roman Catholic Church or other institutions. Few of them started with no sponsors or resources whatsoever.
And yet, that is how Kaewmuangpech did it.
The first child she took under her wing was 12 years old. “When I saw him, he had no shoes and his clothes were filthy,” she says. “He asked me for money. I gave him some, and I wrote down my phone number and said, ‘Put this in your pocket. If you have any problem, go to a phone box and call me.’
“The very next day at 4 a.m., the police called and said they’d arrested an American pedophile having sex with him. They asked if I could come and take him.”
Once she had gained his trust, the boy took her to the main tourist street in Pattaya to meet his friends who congregated there. They were all homeless.
“I started going there every night,” she says. “I’d bring them things they needed – clothes, towels, blankets.”
A pivotal moment
Then, at the end of 2013, there was a rare cold snap. “The kids were sleeping on the street with just a dirty blanket, or not even that,” Kaewmuangpech says. “They had to hug each other to keep warm. I couldn’t stand to see it. I thought, I’ve got to do something.”
Previously, she had helped a 16-year-old runaway find a tiny one-room apartment, and she’d helped him with his rent. “I went to him and offered to pay it all if he’d let some of the kids stay with him. He said yes.”
She was able to cram four children into the room, no more. “The combined rent for his room and my place was 4,000 baht [about $113] a month, which was a lot,” she says. But then she heard about a bigger place to rent, for 6,000 baht a month. “It was perfect, so we took it and opened our first shelter.”
But that house, too, was outgrown within months. Kaewmuangpech found a larger one, and at this point, a “white knight” did appear: Paul Wijnbergen, a Dutch businessman with a holiday home in Pattaya.
“When I was introduced to Nong she said she had 7,000 baht but needed 5,000 more,” he says in an email. “I gave her it and visited the house the day after they moved in. There was no furniture, no beds, no TV, nothing but water and a little cheap food. It was heartbreaking. But still the children were happy, because they had a home.”
The following day, he says, “we went out and bought what they needed most urgently.” Over time, the generosity of Mr. Wijnbergen and his friends furnished the home with everything from appliances to computers and learning materials. The newly named Shelter Center Pattaya opened in April 2014.
It now has a fluctuating population of 20 to 27 children, looked after by Kaewmuangpech, two helpers, and occasional volunteers. Limited space is the only bar to admission; the center has freely accepted children, including some who are HIV-positive, whom others have declined.
In addition to shelter, food, and clothing, the youths receive a basic education, which Kaewmuangpech has plans to expand. They are also encouraged to do good through activities like beach cleanup days and taking gifts to children in the migrant slums who are even less fortunate.
One 5-year-old's story
Perhaps above all – and this is noted by everyone associated with it – the center turns its residents into happy, outgoing children. A prime example is 5-year-old Cee, whose story Kaewmuangpech relates. As an infant, he was shot in the face by gangsters while his father was holding him. His father died in the shooting. His mother looked after him until last year, when she found a new boyfriend who wasn’t keen on Cee. He was duly thrown onto the street, where he lived until Kaewmuangpech took him in.
“At first he wouldn’t even show his face,” she says. “He’d hide under the table, in the garden, anywhere.” But then, “after two weeks, he started laughing and playing.”
Jay Martin, one of the volunteers, adds: “He’s a little rascal now. Whenever there’s something going on, some fun or some activity, Cee’s always right there at the front.”
The considerable costs of Cee’s reconstructive surgery – and all the center’s other expenses – are paid for by ad hoc donations. Restaurants, other businesses, and even the local Hells Angels chapter have held fundraising events to support it. “We have enough to get to the end of this year,” says the eternally positive Kaewmuangpech.
But the hand-to-mouth nature of the funding concerns some of the center’s benefactors. Barry Kirsch, a successful film and recording producer in the United Arab Emirates, says: “We hold regular fundraising events in Dubai and actively look for causes to donate to. We’re very happy to help Nong, but we’d like to work towards getting things on a more stable footing. The thing with Nong, she’s ruled completely by her heart. She’s certainly no hard-bitten businesswoman.”
That reservation aside, Mr. Kirsch is unstinting in his praise of Kaewmuangpech. And his admiration seems to be shared by all who come in contact with her.
“She takes no salary for herself,” Wijnbergen says. “She doesn’t have her own room; she shares it with the very smallest children. She doesn’t even have a cupboard for her clothes. She spends every cent she gets on the children. Nong is a real hero.”
How to take action
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Song Saa Foundation is inspired by a passion for Cambodia and initiates projects to improve the communities and natural environment of regional islands. Take action: Take a training course in tropical marine ecology.
Uganda Village Project facilitates community health and well-being in rural Uganda through education and other measures. Take action: Buy two mosquito nets to help protect children from malaria.