35 years ago, Rita Holm Gustafsson and her husband flew from their hometown in Sweden to Bangkok. They’d never been to Thailand before, but they weren’t here for a vacation. They’d come to adopt a child.
Today, Rita’s adopted daughter lives in Northern Sweden with her husband, seven children and four dogs. But Rita herself lives in Thailand.
“When I decided to adopt a child, it didn’t matter to me where she or he came from,” Rita told me. “But when I came here, I was touched by the situation of Thailand’s children.”
As such, Rita’s first trip to Thailand was not her last. She continued to visit the country, volunteering at Viengping Children’s Home where her prior experience as a nursing trainer and work with HIV-positive patients came in handy.
“The supervisor at Viengping told me that there were a number of HIV-negative children whose parents had died of AIDS,” said Rita. “They didn’t qualify for some of the other aid programmes since they were HIV-negative, but they still needed help and support so they could continue going to school.”
And so Rita and her husband decided to move to Chiang Mai full-time and start The Kids Ark Foundation, a registered non-profit with no religious or political affiliations dedicated to providing children throughout Northern Thailand with the three basic rights they deserve: the right to education, the right to health, and the right to grow up in a safe environment.
Sadly, Rita’s husband passed away a few years ago, but she has continued to work full-time to keep The Kids Ark Foundation alive, along with several paid staff and a very dedicated volunteer named Chinarat ‘Fon’ Nakhasathien.
“One of our main goals is to keep the children in their own homes, in their own villages, with their own families,” said Fon. “This is the best place they can be.”
Kids Ark maintains several afterschool programmes and day care centres located in the villages they serve, as well as a variety of workshops and groups around Northern Thailand, specialising in everything from reproductive health to hygiene to handicrafts (which they sell at their Old City store in Chiang Mai to support various women’s groups). They also supplement school lunches, uniforms, warm clothes and blankets for children in need. Overall, with support from sponsors and donors, including those that came to a recent fundraising dinner and auction at The House @ Ginger Kafe that netted over 782,000 baht, Kids Ark is able to help approximately 500 children at a time.
One of the main beneficiaries is their House of Hope programme, which provides disadvantaged Thai and ethnic minority children with a safe, clean and supportive place they can go after school. Homework help and a variety of extracurricular activities are provided to help the children develop hobbies and life skills, such as reading, music, computer basics, sewing, art and personal hygiene. A free dinner is served every day as well as transportation home if needed. Today, a total of three houses are currently up and running, two in San Sai and one in Ban Pakwee.
After our interview, I was able to visit one of the San Sai houses, which is located directly next door to the local school. There, I found about 20 students of varying ages who were quite clearly in a place where they felt comfortable. Some were gathered around a table working on their homework, others were taking part in a craft project. A tour of the facility, covered in brightly painted children’s artwork, revealed a playground, a sewing room, a computer lab, a small library and a music room.
The dedicated supervisors, Air and Ying, explained that many of the children had been participating in the programme for years. A tall boy named Toon, now hovering on the edge of adolescence, proudly showed me a photo of himself, six years younger, hanging on the wall. It was taken when he first arrived at House of Hope.
“The kids develop a strong attachment to this place,” Air told me with a smile as he prepared their dinner, two large trays of curried vegetables with rice. “It’s a big part of their lives…and my life too.”
To learn more about Kids Ark Foundation and to makea direct donation, visitwww.kidsarkfoundation.org.
You can also visit their fair trade shop at 28/21 Soi 1 Singharat Road, Chiang Mai.