House of Hope
The orphanage was founded by Fr Mike Shea, a Redemptorist priest from Wisconsin, USA who has been ministering to the poor of Thailand’s northeast for 50 years.
Through his love and compassion he has responded to the needs of those dying from HIV/AIDS. They are the people who had been ostracised from their villages and who had no one to leave their children with after their death from the deadly disease. So, against the odds, Fr Mike built Sarnelli House, which is located 20 km from the nearest town. The orphanage caters for children from birth to the age of 19. Loyal staff care for the children, run the farm and do the administration work, assisted by Fr Shea and Fr Joe Ole, a young Thai Redemptorist.
My place in this amazing organisation came about by accident. As a nurse I was working in a busy Sydney hospital when I took a year off to volunteer in Africa. I wanted to serve and to do whatever was needed of me. Then in my late 30s and still single, it was like I was called upon to provide some of my skills to others, in gratitude for my very fortunate and happy life. I never did make it to Africa but in 2002 I ended up in Thailand at Sarnelli House, at a time when the HIV-infected children had yet to receive any lifesaving treatment.
In the first week of my arrival two children died from AIDS. Even though I had no grasp of the Thai language and very little paediatric experience, somehow the 25 children at Sarnelli House began their anti-retroviral medicine. They were admitted to hospital and had blood tests, and along the way they developed TB and other ‘opportunistic’ infections. The children bravely swallowed up to 10 tablets twice a day, they vomited and lost weight. Despite these horrors they survived and are still alive today. They are now going to school or working, which is a real testament to the love and care that Sarnelli House provides.
There are 140 children living at Sarnelli House, and just under half live with HIV. There is accommodation for 19 infants and toddlers and some of their stories, to say the least, are despairing. Sadly, some were given up at birth, as the mother did not want a child with HIV, while there are babies of teenage mothers who were supported to keep their child as an alternative to abortion, but whose families did not want the shame of an unmarried teenage mother in the family.
There is also a boy aged 4 who arrived at the orphanage after being tied to a tree by his wrist every day, as his sick grandmother could not take care of him and there is a girl, 2, who suffered a broken leg after being beaten by her mother. Despite these confronting stories, a visit to the ‘house of hope’ today sees smiling happy and very active toddlers and fat, complacent babies. They have been given a new life and a second chance and they respond in kind with laughter and joy.
Thailand has dramatically improved its early detection and treatment of HIV and has significantly reduced the ‘mother to child’ transmission rate. Mothers now rarely give birth to babies with HIV. So, the main reason for accepting children to Sarnelli House has changed over time. More girls, who need a safe place to live after giving evidence in court of sexual assault and rape, usually by a family or village member, are now being referred.
These girls need to feel secure and be accepted again. They attend school and develop close friendships with the other girls at Sarnelli House who they live with and who are also supportive. There is very little access to counsellors or social workers for the girls, but they become part of the big Sarnelli House family and are much loved like the other children.
Sarnelli House does not receive any Thai government support. The expense of raising and educating this number of children comes from private donations from within Thailand and overseas. To see such generosity at work and to have had that amount of generosity all these years is remarkable. Hopefully it will continue in the years ahead. We are currently supporting 26 of our young adults to attend vocational schools and universities.
I have been living and working at Sarnelli House for nine years (as of 2016). It has been fulfilling, frustrating, lonely and exciting. To live in a different culture, try and learn a new language, to love so many children and have that love reciprocated, and to work with so many dedicated and loyal people has been a great adventure. I have had the opportunity to develop my faith more fully in the lonely times and the happy times, and to see love at work all around me.
Last year my adventure took another turn as I married a lovely Irishman. The children, along with Fr Shea and Fr Ole, all celebrated with us at Sarnelli House. My husband Brian, who also loves the children, is sharing the journey with me.
Together we hope to work and live here for some years to come.