One of the reasons I set up this website was to be able to share with you the things I do. Things that often don’t quite fit into what you would think my Rev. Bill Crews Foundation usually does.
For nearly 20 years I have been visiting Thailand to support the work of ChildLine Thailand and its CEO Ilya Smirnoff. ChildLine Thailand has two big projects; The Hub, which is a drop-in centre for homeless street children and The Call Centre where troubled kids from all over Thailand reach out for help.
Last week I was there for a board meeting, but the trip became much more meaningful than I’d planned.
Back in Bangkok
Every time I arrive in Bangkok, I feel that same sense of excitement just to be there. It’s an incredibly busy place. Lots of movement, light and shade.
This time though, it was different. I hadn’t been there for well over two years and The Hub had moved. The spacious building that I loved had been taken back by the owners, forcing us to look for a new location.
The simple entry to the new Hub in Bangkok.
The new place was small. In fact, it’s just the size of a Thai coffee shop. It’s right on the street amongst all the other Thai shops, but young people can still walk in. There’s a little counter with food, drinks and stuff. There are always a gaggle of energetic staff around. Lots of smiles and laughter, so it’s welcoming!
Sitting with Ilya on the soft sofa just inside the open door, I felt complete. It was a lovely feeling.
Outside, at the back, on the ground floor were a couple of tables and chairs for the kids who dropped by to eat; the food was being cooked in a big metal wok heated by gas jets.
A staff member cooking food at The Hub, Bangkok.
It’s pretty basic stuff. The food smelt terrific and it was made with lots of love. The kids, as kids do, came in, ate and went.
The underbelly of Bangkok
Behind all of that there is a darker picture. Abuse, child trafficking and God knows what else that leads kids to live a life on the streets.
However, the kids feel safe with us. Often they have showers or wash their clothes at The Hub. Sometimes they come just to hang out. Some kids are pregnant and there’s always HIV. We have case workers and all sorts of education programs to help.
In spite of the challenges they face, there’s a family atmosphere and I laugh as Ilya takes on one of the workers who is studying self defence! It ends up in a tangle of legs arms and fun times.
The Hub is near Bangkok’s main railway station, which makes it easy for the kids to get to us. They, in their desperation, jump the trains to head to the big city for a new life.
Many of them leave an indelible impression on me. Like Beer who I wrote about in my book. Beer died of HIV and I pray for him every day. Also there’s Liep. He’s a bit older and once I bought him a T-shirt from London and he wore it always. In fact, I don’t think he ever washed it! When I would arrive at The Hub he would come running and throw himself at me with the biggest hug you could imagine. This time though, he wasn’t there. No one knew where Liep was.
However, with our help many of the kids do end up back with loved ones. That’s what The Hub aims to do.
A place where angels sit
Our Call Center is where incredible things can happen. In this room we have about eight cubicles, each with a desk, a computer and a chair. Counsellors sit back to back answering calls from kids in the outside world. They contact us via phone and social media. I feel like the team are soaking in electronic cries for help.
Me and the Call Centre counsellors at The Hub in Bangkok.
The kids contact our Call Centre from all over Thailand and increasingly all over the world; and in English; not necessarily in Thai. Kids reaching out electronically for a bit of love, compassion and acceptance.
The thank you’s can be incredibly touching. A Facebook emoji, a photographic smile or a photo of a drawing they’ve done out of gratitude. I’ve got one which is a drawing of a child with a ghostly figure hugging her. “That’s how I feel about you”, she said. “You are my comforter”.
One young girl Facebooked in to say how lonely she felt. “No one seems to know or care how I’m feeling”, she wrote. The counsellor responded and it must have been in the right way. “I’m crying now”, the girl messaged with a smiley face.
The Counsellor burst into tears and needed a break. Its tough, hard, painful, lonely work, but it can be rewarding too.
However, I’m sad to say that the other day one of the kids suicided. Despite the best efforts of the Call Centre team we just couldn’t help enough; the young girl felt too many people had betrayed her. It’s not an uncommon story. There was another kid who slashed her wrists too.
Yesterday I experienced the fallout. One of the counsellors told me: “I cried for two days”. I sat with them. The other staff were there too. I spoke about how kind and loving they all are. I called them angels. They are!
My story here is about one centre in Thailand, but it could be anywhere in the world. Wherever people are dispossessed, abused, broken or rejected there are angels ready to help. In their own way they speak the silent, international language of love.