This week I was putting together a photo book of photographs we took in Sarnelli House orphanage last October.  Sarnelli House is an orphanage in northeast Thailand, where our friends Kate and Brian have worked for a number of years.  I have written about Sarnelli House before see here and here,  and you can see their own web site at this link.  I won’t repeat what I said previously except to say it is really great to see the work being done and to meet the children in particular the two girls we sponsor.

I recently became aware of comments by J.K. Rowling, the famous author and founder of the Lumos Charitable Foundation, who speaks against Orphanages, seer their website here.  The basic premise is that children belong in families and not orphanages.  They believe that children belong in loving families being brought up by their parents or other family members where the parents are not around anymore.  In truth I can’t disagree with this.  They believe that children can’t get the love and comfort they need and that the orphanage environment harms their development, can involve abuse of different varieties and can ultimately lead them to lives of crime, prostitution and worse.   This is probably true for some or maybe even many orphanages.

However, I am pleased to have found that this is not the case at Sarnelli House.  They look after around 150 children spread over 6 houses in a few villages.  Of course these children have many challenges in their lives, and of course they would be better at home with two loving parents, but simply this is not the case. 

In the late 1990’s Fr Shea worked with victims of the AIDS epidemic in Thailand.  Typical of the reaction to the AIDS epidemic around the world, many victims were banished from their villages, friends and even their families, forced to leave their homes and live in hovels.  Fr. Shea and the Redemptorists brought them food, medicine and compassion.  Eventually the parents died and left children, most of whom also had AIDS, and as no one wanted them they were left to fend for themselves.  In response to this catastrophe Fr Shea founded Sarnelli House. Much more detail can be found on the Sarnelli House website. 

The children receive an education and in fact some of the older children are encouraged to do 3rd level education and are supported through this by the orphanage.  Where children have families, they are healthy and have access to required medication and the environment is safe to do so they are supported to return home, if not full time then for parts of the year, so that they can be re-introduced to families.  However, in some cases a number of families are so poor but have a child willing to learn and work they will ask the orphanage to take the children to feed, clothe and educate them in order to give the child a better life then they can give them.  A purely loving and selfless act to give their child a better life.  In other cases the children are abused at home even by their own families and they need to be taken away for their safety.

Sarnelli House also has an extensive nurse led outreach programme to support children and families in the local villages that need support (food, clothes and medicine) to survive or have an improved life.  This provides help and support to families without having to take children into the orphanage and helps the family as a whole and not just the child.

They also have self-sufficiency programmes to be able to supply their own food. The use their land for paddy fields to crow and process their own rice, raise pigs, chickens, ducks, and have their own fish ponds, and gardens for vegetables and fruit.  Where they have surpluses they can sell to support the Sarnelli House.  In addition this gives some of the children skills and experience that they can use in later life, and indeed gives some of them employment.  

On the day we arrived the orphanage was having a sports day, where the staff and volunteers were entertaining the children and it was fantastic to see the children have so much fun.   It was inspiring to see the children so healthy, happy and enjoying themselves.  I’m not so naïve as to think that their lives are perfect.  I’m sure they have their own demons and have challenging lives, but compared to how their lives could have been Sarnelli House is truly a sanctuary where they receive love and support to reach their potential and be nurtured as they grow into adults.