Reporter PAUL DOBBYN tells the story of three women – two from Caboolture and Woodford, north of Brisbane, and one from Thailand – whose friendship has grown because of their care for orphans
IN 2006 Caboolture real estate agent Katherine Whitehouse went to Thailand looking to buy some cheap uniforms for her business … and came back with 30 orphans.
Actually, the children weren’t physically with her but their presence was real enough.
At Chiang Mai city, about 700km north of Bangkok, she’d met an extraordinarily dedicated young woman who would change her life.
Nina (Sudarin Niphaphorn) was desperately trying to find a way to keep open an orphanage, run on a voluntary basis by her family.
“When I saw those little children at risk of going back to lives of danger and despair I couldn’t not do something,” Katherine said.
The danger was very real.
These children had come from villages to the city’s north, not far from the troubled borders of Myanmar and Laos.
They were facing lives addicted to drugs, ruined by diseases like AIDS, and many would most likely be forced into crime or prostitution to fund their families’ addictions.
And time was against Nina. A residence had been built for the children and now payments were due.
Katherine, from St Mary’s parish at Woodford, north of Brisbane, thought she could help.
On her return to Australia she spoke to fellow parishioner and Caboolture Centacare service manager Beryl Schneider about the orphans’ predicament.
Katherine had an idea that they could find a local market for uniforms being made in Thailand by a factory under the umbrella of the Light Team which also ran the orphanage.
And so was born the Uniforms 4 Kids project now run from Caboolture.
Later would come other fundraising ideas such as cookbooks with Thai recipes, cooking classes and the making of uniforms by indigenous people.
Beryl had been only looking for cheap uniforms to begin with which was how she’d met Katherine. But she was immediately caught up in the project.
She also saw ways in which the project could be integrated with Centacare’s work even to helping prepare Australian jobseekers for the workforce.
“The project appealed as coming from the heart,” Beryl said.
“Centacare’s slogan is ‘Faith in Action’ and this project was certainly that.”
When The Catholic Leader caught up with these women they were being visited by Nina.
She was in Australia to, among other things, take orders for uniforms back to her factory in Thailand.
This very determined, focused and dynamic young woman epitomised the philosophy of the Light Team.
Visitors to the group’s site www.thelightteam.org will quickly see the inspiring slogan “Every problem is solvable”.
Nina said the group had been started by her brother-in-law, a member of the Hmong people. Nipon Chaocharoenporn had himself been an orphan who was helped in his education by the Baptist Church.
Nipon became a national radio announcer promoting the cause of the Hmong people and is now president of the Light Team and director of the House of Light (Baang Song Sa Wang).
Nina’s approach to her task is very pragmatic.
“In 2006 we started our first children’s home. We ran out of cash and it failed,” she said.
“We can’t allow this to happen again.
“This time we have purchased just over an acre (0.4ha) of land and signed a six-month contract to purchase it for $50,000.
“The bank won’t give us money to purchase the land unless we can find half of (the purchase price).
“Our time ran out and the old woman who owned the land said we had to go, but the village elders said ‘no’ – we should get more time.”
So now Nina’s working on building up the uniform-making business. She also has plans to apprentice girls as seamstresses and boys as tailors.
Katherine said the building of the self-esteem of the abandoned Hmong children by simply having a uniform to wear to school had been another fortuitous spin-off from the Light Team’s work.
“These little children are so proud to have their uniforms,” she said with a small smile.
“The most important thing for these kids is to look like the other kids when they go to school.”
Naturally it’s a challenge to keep the House of Light for its 30 children running.
By Australian standards the costs may not seem huge. Each child requires about 132 baht or $6 a month to cover their food, school and medical expenses.
However, Chiang Mai is a very poor community – and there’s also the problem of that loan for the land on which the children’s home stands.
Then there’s the uniform workshop which employs 15 men and women, some of whom have to bring children so they need feeding and looking after as well.
Back in Caboolture, Katherine and Beryl have been using all their ingenuity and business savvy to make sure the lights stay on in the House of Light.
The pair work well together – Katherine as owner of her real estate agency and Beryl with her understanding of the labour market and the ways to develop and inspire future employees.
Beryl said two Caboolture women had gained traineeships as part of their re-entry into the workforce to help administer the project.
“They are learning skills like book keeping, office administration and marketing skills and typesetting for the new cookbook and community service to others,” Beryl said.
“And of course they are very motivated by thoughts of the children their work is helping.”
Katherine said the project had been taking “baby steps”.
“But the wheels have now been set in motion – we now need outlets to sell products and people to help us sell them,” she said.
A recent ecumenical fundraising event at St Mary’s in Woodford raised $2500. A local resident also offered to match every donation of $1000 with a similar amount of his own.
So last month Nina was back on that mission she won’t let fail – no doubt driven by the thoughts of the lost little children of her people, the Hmongs.
She’d taken a number of orders for uniforms and was planning a fundraising Thai cooking class including lunch in a Woodford cafï¿½.
Before she finished her conversation with The Catholic Leader, Nina had something special she wanted to share.
In a way it summed up the special relationship between the three women.
Beryl, in consultation with Katherine, had put her motivational skills to work and supplied Nina with an affirmation to keep her mission on track.
Nina pulled a card bearing the affirmation from her wallet.
It read: “I am a famous fashion designer with my own Nina label. I am travelling to find new markets so that I can support the children’s house.” Today Nina does market under her own label.
To be a part of this fundraising project contact trainee Karen Joiner on (07) 5498 9154.