Sarnelli House: A Redemptorist ministry to reach out to the wounded in Thailand

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(Nongkhai, Thailand) If you have ever been to visit the Redemptorists in Thailand you may be familiar with the Fr. Ray Foundation in Pattaya or the Mercy Center founded by Fr Joe Maier in Bangkok’s slums. These are some of the social works that the Redemptorists have created for the poor and most abandoned in Thai society for many years. In the past, we had done other social works too, for example working with refugees in camps in the 1970s, with the lepers in the Khonkean area, and many other small projects even with individual families for their health and the education of their children. I think the Redemptorist missionaries always keep the spirit of St. Alphonsus alive, by reaching out, reading the sign of the times and responding to the needs of the poor and most abandoned. Another good example of this is Sarnelli House. This ministry keeps the Charism of St Alphonsus alive. Sarnelli House was founded to respond to the urgent need of the time in serving and caring for HIV/AIDS families.

In the 1990s, the epidemic of HIV/Aids started spreading in Thailand. Many rural people who went to work in the main cities returned home because of their contraction of HIV. Most of them were young and middle-aged people. The husbands transferred the virus to their wives, some of whom gave birth to HIV infected children. No treatment existed at the time. Their fate was to die. Some villagers learned of their infection and were afraid of them. No one knew how to help them, even hospital staff. The first person with HIV that Fr Michael Shea, an American Redemptorist missionary who came to Thailand in 1966, met was a man who had TB and later found out he had AIDS. He came to ask for help from Fr. Michael in 1998. This was our first step in helping people with HIV in Nongkhai, a far province on the Thai border with Laos.

The response to HIV infected people at that time, the late 1990s, was terrible. People drove them out from the villages. No medicine existed. They thought that if the parents had AIDS the children would have AIDS too. To let them die in peace, Fr Michael told them that he would take care of their children. Fr Michael only had a small team. the novices and a few local people who went around, visited the sick, giving them food, basic medicine and other needs. Not long after, nine children were given to Fr Michael for him to take care of. Fr Michael tried to find any kind of help he could to give these children what they needed. Finally, in 1999, he raised enough funds to buy an old house in Viengkhuk for them. Local people and the government officials got to know his work and asked if he could help more children and HIV families. It seemed impossible to say no. And nor was it in his nature, as a Redemptorist. Many who had seen the work showed their support both locally and, most importantly, from overseas. The first house was built in a remote village called Donwai in 2000. It is also the area that we have a parish church. We named this house Sarnelli House as a dedication to Blessed Gennaro Sarnelli, a co-founder of the Redemptorists, who worked for the prostitutes and poor people in Naples, Italy.

The first generation of children came in very bad physical condition and some of them were close to death. The staff cared for them tirelessly. We have very good-hearted staff. That is a real blessing. The sick children began to improve with good care and an understanding and loving environment. We really did our best during those years. There was lots of different medicine and countless trips to hospitals. Tragically, some of our children died because of the lack of ARV medicine at that time. There are both HIV and non-HIV children at our centre. Not all children from HIV families contracted HIV but they became orphaned or homeless. After 19 years, 97 children with HIV passed through our doors. The first ten years saw 81 of them, and the second decade 16. We have lost about six children, who died because of sickness. We have saved many lives and hope the children can get strong and learn how to take care of themselves and live their lives with healthily, happily and with dignity.

Our work does not cover only HIV adults and children. We also help every kind of needy child: the orphaned, the homeless, the poor, the sick, unwanted pregnancies and the abused. Almost 400 children have lived at Sarnelli House. The Government Welfare Department and the Hospital always ask us to help some underprivileged children. We are willing to help whoever we can. And we hope that these children can find a better life and gain an education so that they can continue their lives in a more meaningful way. The work with in-house children is a big challenge: how to feed them, teach them life skills, etc. We learned how to live with them along the way. We are happy with and proud of them when they have successes, and, of course, sad when they go astray. It really makes us like a big family.

Sarnelli House also has an Outreach Program. This program is to extend our help to a wider community. We have a team which visits families who are poor or sick, especially those living affected by HIV. We bring them some basic needs to lessen the burden in the families. Some of their children are supported with scholarship funds and a formula milk program for the babies. We run a Friday clinic, which is another good way to reach out to the people. We are blessed to have an Australian nurse who has volunteered for more than 10 years. Her skill and knowledge have helped a lot of people tremendously. This clinic serves as a centre for newly diagnosed people living with HIV. We monitor and help them with their initial problems and support them whenever they need it. The introduction of free medicine for HIV people in Thailand is a big relief. In the past, we had to find a lot of money to buy ARV medicine. Now, we help them to access the medication and the proper treatment. The big concern with HIV in Thailand now is the stigma that people have with people living HIV. Education and understanding are still needed.

I look back at the past 20 years of this ministry. It is a blessing and work of God. Fr Michael Shea has dedicated his whole life to serving the poor and abandoned in Thailand and shares St Alphonsus’ spirit through this work. We have encountered many problems but God has been good to us. I pray that God will continue to look after our ministry for the children and poor people. Let the Redemptorists be God’s instruments and respond to the need of the time so that we can keep our Redemptorist charism alive. Thank you for reading this article and for your interest. God bless you all!

Joseph Puwanai Tantikun, CSsR

More information please visit www.sarnelliorphanage.org

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