More than two years ago, a bright-eyed, slender 9-year-old girl named Malee* was offered refuge at Keep Girls Safe (KGS), a shelter in Chiang Rai, Thailand, that partners with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA).
“Her mom didn’t want her, and local villagers couldn’t keep her,” said Sunita, KGS project coordinator.
Since 2004, KGS has served as a temporary means of protection for girls ages 8 to 18 who have been abused, orphaned, or abandoned, or are at risk for human trafficking.
During their stay, the girls are assigned household chores, given fun projects to work on, and encouraged to attend school. Malee keeps busy sweeping floors, washing dishes, and gardening. She also goes to school and especially enjoys the Japanese club.
A Difficult Life
Before coming to KGS, Malee’s life was difficult and unsettling. Her mother had no money and no home in which to live. To ensure her daughter’s survival, she resorted to prostitution until she eventually moved in with a boyfriend.
“When Malee and her mother moved in with the man, he was disgusted by Malee and demanded she be kicked out,” said Titi, a KGS social worker. “The mother would leave Malee outside, even in the rain. Malee had developed a habit of wetting the bed and was beaten for something she had no control over.”
When Malee’s mother became pregnant, she asked an older couple in a local village to take care of Malee. She promised to send them money, but she was never heard from again. The older couple had seven children and didn’t have enough food to feed Malee, so she often resorted to digging for food in trash cans, stealing food from temple sacrifices, and begging.
During this time, Malee became friends with a boy whose father was an alcoholic and drug addict. “The more time she spent with the boy, the more bad habits she picked up,” Titi said. “She often looked dirty and smelled, and after living with four families in a few short months, no one wanted to keep her.”
A Place at “Keep Girls Safe”
Realizing Malee’s misfortune, the village leaders pleaded with KGS to take her in. KGS gave her a home, but initially she was very unhappy to be there. “When Malee first arrived, she hit the staff and other girls, wouldn’t take baths, refused to clean her room, and kept dead bugs in her drawers until they rotted and smelled,” Sunita recalled.
KGS staff worked tirelessly to understand Malee and show her love. “After months of counseling, doing chores at the shelter, attending school, and going to church, Malee has improved,” Titi said. The once disheveled girl whom no one wanted now sings, draws, and reads. She also practices playing the violin.
Today, Malee is well behaved, has grown attached to KGS, and looks up to her school teachers. Missing from her life, however, is her mother. “While many of the other girls receive visits from their family, Malee remains alone,” Titi said. “Her mother has never visited or called.”
The people at the shelter, the school, and the local Adventist church make sure that Malee receives a good education, care, and love. “For all the girls at KGS, the destructive cycle they are caught in changes for the better because their new environment is safe, and their upbringing is wholesome,” Sunita remarked.
Partnership With ADRA
ADRA Thailand is training caregivers at KGS to help meet the physiological needs of girls such as Malee. Additionally, plans are under development for KGS to establish educational scholarships so that more at-risk youth can receive an education.
“Like Malee, many children are exposed to disrupted and unsafe households, putting them at risk of being trafficked, which is a growing concern in the country,” Sunita said. “ADRA Thailand is considering anti-trafficking training sessions at girls’ clubs and community youth activities to address human trafficking, but funds are needed to help keep KGS operating.”
Much work needs to be done, but for now KGS continues to provide a safe environment for vulnerable children and has proven to be a strong shoulder for girls like Malee to lean on. “I thank my project coordinator and social worker,” Malee acknowledged. “They are like my favorite song,” she says before humming the tune to “You Raise Me Up.”
* Name has been changed.