By Beatrice Rosen
Six Los Angeles residents accompanied Pastor Doug Lee on an 11-day mission trip to Thailand with the intention of effecting change in the lives of impoverished children. However, upon return, the individuals found themselves more personally changed than ever anticipated.
Since opening the doors of Culver City’s Catalyst Evangelical Covenant Church in 2006, Lee said he has wanted to establish a continuing relationship with and commitment to an international organization where members could visit on mission trips. In 2010, the Westchester resident finally found that organization: Taw Saeng.
While Lee and his congregation have not yet set up a permanent location in Culver City, they currently meet on Sunday mornings at Kentwood Elementary School in Westchester.
Located in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Taw Saeng is a children’s ministry project of The Garden of Hope that protects at-risk children from abuse and exploitation. The national staff and international volunteers reach out to displaced and disadvantaged children on the streets, several of whom have been exploited sexually, and take them to the organization’s single-wide facility to be fed healthy meals, get help with homework, taught social survival skills and play in a safe environment.
According to the International Labor Organization’s 2012 estimate, 26 percent of victims who are forced into labor, including trafficking survivors, are under the age of 18, and 1.3 million children are being trafficked each year. The U.S. Department of State’s “Trafficking in Persons Report 2012” particularly references Thailand as a source, destination and transit country for men, women and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking.
The Taw Saeng center currently serves approximately 35 of these vulnerable children in a key “red-light district” of the slums during weekday afternoons and evenings, and Lee was eager to “come and provide personnel, bodies and support to the four full-time staff members with the students.”
Lee took the first group of Catalyst members to Taw Saeng in November 2010, including film and television script supervisor Heather Askew, who had travelled overseas on several mission trips before. Howbeit, this particular trip came with unforeseen repercussions.
“When I came to Thailand, I fell in love with the kids and could not get them out of my head when I went back to the U.S.,” Askew says. She recalled that when she brought up the subject of becoming a missionary to random acquaintances, people wrote checks right then and there for fundraising. “That’s when I knew it was God’s plan for me to go, because I wasn’t even trying, yet money started pouring in,” she said.
Now, Askew serves as a full-time missionary on the Taw Saeng staff, where she gets to see the kids grow and learn new things and is able to “affect their lives and futures in a real way.” This includes adopting 17-year-old Sophie, an orphan whose parents recently died.
Askew will continue working at Taw Saeng for the next four years while Sophie finishes high school and starts college, but beyond that she can’t say for sure. Yet she expressed doubt that she will ever choose to move back to the U.S.
“I would constantly be comparing how much people spend on stupid stuff to how much of a difference that money would make in the slum communities here and what a difference it would make in our ministry budget,” Askew said.
In a simple context, Askew explains that if every one of her Facebook friends donated $3 a month to Taw Saeng, an amount less than an average daily cup of Starbucks coffee, the organization would not only have its operating expenses and salaries for Thai staff covered, but also be able to expand its programming to help more children.
Therefore Lee views “taking trips like this as a way we bring true stories home. The people that go on these trips are conduits for the stories, make others aware about how significantly $3 can impact the life of an individual, and then inspire them to do something about that awareness.”
Askew may have kept her story in Thailand, but she shares it overseas through Taw Saeng’s website, fundraising efforts and blogging. Westchester resident Keith Uehlein, on the other hand, constantly tells friends and family that he wishes “everyone I knew could experience what I did and saw in Thailand.”
Uehlein went on Catalyst’s second trip to Taw Saeng in April, fueled by Lee’s “deep desire to return to Thailand to support Heather, see the kids that I met two years ago, continue to involve our church in international missions and share the opportunity with others.”
Uehlein, described by Lee as “kind of gnarly looking and covered in tattoos” but “essentially a big kid with a huge heart,” initially went on the trip expecting to have limited time with the children because he was on the building team; he never expected to develop an adoration for Kaohom.
It was yet another dense, humid afternoon, with temperatures nearing 100 degrees, when Uehlein split from the team working on a flooded house to install hot water systems at Taw Saeng.
“The relationship evolved, I would say for me, the first time I saw her smile,” recalls Uehlein, who is not a father but loves kids. “Bringing a smile to a child’s face is the greatest gift in my eyes, and this little angel stole my heart and never gave it back.”
According to Uehlein, Kaohom is one of the luckier kids in Thailand with an involved and caring mother who works at the Taw Saeng school.
“I didn’t bound with her out of pity for her circumstance, we bounded out of pure love,” he said.
Merely two days after returning to the U.S., Uehlein had a tattoo of her full Thai name, meaning “My Little Princess Jaripan Punyawudh,” permanently inked down his right forearm. He plans on returning to Thailand every year to visit Kaohom, but for now the two communicate through Facebook each day.
Like Askew, Uehlein has also thought of adoption.
“If her mother thought she would have a better life in America, I would spend my last dime for the adoption of her,” he says. Yet the distant separation between him and his “Little Princess” in no way blurs his overarching trip reflections: “It’s called the land of a thousand smiles and it’s been the greatest experience of my life to find out why.”
In unfortunate dissimilarity to Uehlein’s tattoo, the biennial trips to Taw Saeng lack permanence. Lee’s hope of returning to Taw Saeng in 2015 remains only a hope for now – the decision rests in the hands of the Catalyst congregation.
“It’s not an issue of other things taking precedence, it’s just more of the nature of how our church makes decisions,” Lee says. “If there was anything to hinder the process it’s interest… if people continue to have a passion for this ministry, then we go.”
Lee doesn’t see any reason why Catalyst wouldn’t continue to be committed to going on the mission trips, but the conversation hasn’t happened yet because every year has a new budget and therefore decisions must be made on a yearly basis.
As much as Lee would like to start planning and fundraising for a future trip, the memories from the past two will have to sustain him for now. This includes taking the kids out to the moat – Chiang Mai city is a moated city – for the Songkran Festival, a week of chaotic water fights and nonstop partying to kick off the New Year and official start to summer.
“It doesn’t matter if you are going to work, school or just roaming the street, everyone is fair game,” Lee recalls. “Everyone has a bucket or super-soaker in their hands, and is literally blasting each other in these massive water fights.”
By taking the kids into the city for a day to participate in the festival, Lee believes “it’s moments like this when reality gets suspended and these kids just get to be kids and have a water fight.”
Although Lee and his team members were only in Thailand for 11 days, he says they gave the children of Taw Saeng opportunities to forget about the challenges they face, and memories that are going to get them through the more challenging times to come.
However, a feeling of ongoing responsibility to continue helping these children seems to constantly manifest itself in the thoughts of each team member. For Askew, the feeling was powerful enough to send her packing back to Chiang Mai for good. For Uehlein, the feeling was powerful enough to send him straight to the tattoo parlor and daily visits to the post office and facebook.com. The other members also continue to give by telling their stories to anyone who will listen, inspiring people to donate to Taw Saeng or even sponsor a child.
Yet the children of Taw Saeng, without even knowing it, gave Lee and his team members an even greater gift: the opportunity for self-discovery.
“Part of our own transformation, our own life change, our own perspective and growth as human beings I think happens when we put ourselves in the context of service,” Lee says. “We discover something about ourselves that perhaps can’t be discovered or found any other way than by putting your heart and soul out there for the needs of others.”
The future of the relationship between Culver City’s Catalyst Evangelical Church and Taw Saeng remains blurry, but no matter the mileage of separation, members say there is always something that can be done to help.
“It’s easy to be paralyzed by the broadness of poverty and challenges like this,” Lee acknowledges. “But to say that I can make a commitment to a small organization that’s affecting the lives of a specific number of people, then that’s something I can do.”
Indeed, Lee and his congregation have done just that.