Earlier this winter my two daughters and I found ourselves standing behind a rusty metal gate at the bottom of a steep dirt drive. After 3 days of travelling by planes, taxis, buses and finally motorbikes, we had finally arrived at Baan Unrak Children’s home in Sangklaburi Thailand. We had set off on this adventure around the world knowing that we wanted to go be of service, but had very little idea what we were going to find or what that was going to look like.
Baan Unrak was unimpressive at first glance. It was neat and tidy and rather quiet. A flock of geese honked at us as they strolled by. There were a few children down at the gate who were eager to greet us. One of them offered to help us find Didi. Didi Devamala is the founder of Baan Unrak. She has built the orphanage from the ground up and is the heart and soul of the place. We would rarely see her without a child on her shoulder or hip. On our walk up the hill I found myself suddenly filled with doubt. Would we fit in here? Would we actually be able to find ways to be of service? How would we overcome the language barrier? Have I just made the most gigantic mistake ever? Why do I always just jump? Can I turn around and run now? Fortunately the answer to the last question was no. The journey home to Vermont was too great. As we had nowhere to run, the only way out was through.
I sat before Didi that first time feeling so filled with inadequacy. Here was a woman who had single-handedly created a children’s home that houses and cares for 150 kids. Here I was, a silly western mother who had travelled half way around the world in the hopes of doing a few moments of good. I was the only one passing judgement. She welcomed us with open arms. She fed us, invited us to kiirtan and meditation with all the children and then had us tucked into our volunteer house for a much needed good night’s rest.
The next two weeks passed all too quickly. With the help of Didi and a wonderful crew of volunteers we quickly found our niche. We did art projects with the youngest of the children in the mornings. We worked on the farm making dirt, planting beans and picking cashews and jackfruit. We gave massages to both sick and healthy babies. We helped referee bicycle time and drove the kids to go swimming on the weekend. We even tried our hand at teaching English and worked with the children to make a sign board to take to market.
But really the projects we worked on were the least of it. It turns out that Baan Unrak is a truly amazing place. The power of our time there came, not from any one thing that we “did” but from simply being there and being with the children. It was so easy to see while we were there that what we were was enough. All we really needed to do was offer what we had. All we really needed to do was love. At Baan Unrak everything always seems to fall into place. Whatever is offered, whatever is present is exactly what is needed. The children there seem to inherently trust in this and in Didi. They come from varied and often traumatic backgrounds but the power of this place heals them. These children have so many smiles and so few tears. They gobble up the love and attention that is offered, not in a needy or hungry way, but in a way that says that they knew you would come and are glad you are here and also that they will be fine when you go.
Baan Unrak takes in children who have been hurt, and neglected, many of them coming from extremely traumatic circumstances, and gives them a safe and loving space. It takes hungry children and feeds them nutritious food. It takes children who had no hopes of a future and sends them off to school. But I think most of all Baan Unrak gives everyone there a sense of belonging. Didi shows these children every day in a thousand ways that she loves them and trusts in who they are. These children know their worth. They have an inherent grace and strength that will touch and transform anyone and everyone they meet.
In our time there we were privileged to come to know one little 12 month old girl who had first come to the orphanage five months before. At the time Ishvarii arrived she was very very sick. She ended up in the hospital in Bangkok in a coma and on a ventilator for months. When we met her she had been back at Baan Unrak for about 2 months. This little girl who had been at death’s door a few months ago was now the queen of the orphanage. She could not yet walk and no one knew if she ever would. She was showing developmental delays and no one knew how much, if any of that would resolve. She will likely face serious challenges for the rest of her life. But she had found a home. Her new family had rallied around her and donors from all over the world stepped up to get this child the treatment she needed to survive. You could see in watching Ishvarii get passed from child to child and in watching her ride around held close on Didi’s shoulder as she went about her day how lucky she was to be here and how lucky they were to have her. We watched Ishvarii transform in our two weeks there. When we arrived she would cry immediately as soon as whoever was holding her stopped walking. She needed to be in constant motion. She also couldn’t stand to have her hands or feet touched and would cry every time they tried to feed her. The last day we spent with her at Baan Unrak we were able to spend a few minutes sitting quietly with her while she smiled and without even noticing stood supported on her own feet. The Magic of Baan Unrak was working on her. She was unfolding. When we caught up with her again two weeks later in Bangkok at the end of our trip she enjoyed a few bites of food without crying and a couple of weeks ago Didi sent an email saying that she had begun taking steps. Ishvarii’s story to me exemplifies the power and the beauty of Baan Unrak. This little girl who surely would have died had she not ended up here is now thriving, inspiring smiles and opening hearts wherever she goes.
Baan Unrak transforms not only the children it houses, but also the volunteers who come to serve. I watched my own children unfold here. I watched tenderness and caring grow in them that I had never known was there. I watched confidence and trust fill in the spaces where doubt and fear had been. I wrote to a friend soon after I arrived that I had never felt so at home or so free of fear. My heart has never felt as it did in my time at Baan Unrak. I came with so much ego and left with so much peace. We had hoped to travel to Thailand and create positive change. We had no idea that that change would be occurring within our own hearts. Didi and the children and volunteers of Baan Unrak welcomed us wholeheartedly into their tribe. They made us feel we were one of their own. They shared their love and their grace and showed us who we were and told us that that was enough. They sent us off stronger and freer and we will carry that with us wherever we go. It was a thoroughly amazing adventure that has transformed each one of us individually as well as formed a bond between us that I am sure will last a life time. Their door is always open and they are in constant need of both funding and long term volunteers. They can change your life, and you can help be a part of changing theirs as well.
Jennifer Watkins is a nurse and mother of two, living in Central Vermont. For more information on the Baan Unrak Community, including the Children’s Home, School, Women’s Weaving Center and Animal Sanctuary, visit www.baanunrak.org or on Facebook.