Life Changing Experience by Kate

I worked at Sarnelli House from June 2002 - October 2003 as a volunteer nurse. It was a life changing experience. On my arrival I had no knowledge of the language and very little awareness of the Thai culture. I was faced with 30-orphaned children ranging from 2 to 12 years with HIV and some with AIDS. During my time at Sarnelli House together with the local Thai workers and Fr Mike Shea we were able to establish a program where the children who required HAART (Highly Active Anti Retroviral Therapy) were assessed and commenced on their medications. We collaborated with the local hospital who at that point had not been treating children with HIV, and trained the local staff to continue the basic symptom management of opportunistic infections and by the end of my stay to follow up with their medications and ongoing care at the local hospital.

For the period of my time at Sarnelli House there were many obstacles and barriers to providing the children with the appropriate treatment for HIV as recommended by the World Health Organisation. These included my inability to speak Thai, an initial lack of knowledge of the management of TB, HIV and all things paediatric, the cost of medicines, and the attitudes and beliefs about HIV from the local community. Despite these, the children at Sarnelli House continue to receive the best treatment for their HIV that is available, due to among many things the dedication of the local staff working there, the generosity of donations to continue the care for these children and the love the children share and show for each other and those caring for them.


Being seen by the children as someone who can come down to their level to play or be loved, and whose mastery of the Thai language is laughable and definitely worthy of teasing and correction, diminishes the adult concept of being able to discipline or correct behaviour in children. My sense of being in control of my world, of knowing my worth and my place was quickly squashed. I was at the bottom of the rung in the eyes of the children!! I learnt humility quickly and it was a valuable lesson, one of the most important I have ever learnt. I think I even leant on wisdom's door and was shown through the crack a glimpse of a gift that is immeasurable and precious especially when living so closely in community with those we might at first not choose to live with.

In a personal sense, challenges like attempting to understand the Thai culture, being accepted by the Thai people, and trying to serve in a way that isn't enforced charity or false arrogance are things I am still reflecting on and struggling with. However the greatest satisfaction for me in my time at Sarnelli House is receiving and being able to return such an abundance of unconditional love from the children. They were my reason for being there - to accompany them some of the way on their journey of life and to love them. These children who had faced such hardships in life including the loss of parents and families, often the loss of identity and of individuality that is a part of living in an institution no matter how well run. The pain of illness, the incomprehension of needles, doctors and hospitals and the acceptance and trust with which they faced day to day living. They made all the frustrations and the loneliness worthwhile. They were my inspiration and a constant source of joy. Their innocence and sense of wonder in the ordinariness of life, their humour and playfulness, their curiosity and their resilience put into perspective for me what life is all about. If these children could face life with the impossible hand that had been dealt them, and face it with such a sense of acceptance and an incredible responsiveness to the least show of affection and love, what right had I not to do the same?


There were of course times when those kids drove me to distraction, it is pretty tiring to have to double 20 kids on a bicycle around the dirt roads of the village in the middle of the hot season. It is pretty annoying having your sandals constantly hidden, and the endurance of some 2 year olds to demand attention and to stick like glue to your hand is at times ridiculous. Trying to get a bunch of 6 year old boys who have just been woken up at 5.30am to take a handful of tablets and foul tasting medicine without vomiting it up or spitting it down the toilet involves a severe case of coercion and vigilance, all attempted with a vocabulary of about a 3 year old Thai and the emergence of long buried non verbal skills. Attempting to pick up and carry 4-5 toddlers at once, is a difficult juggling act at the best of times, trying to be equitable and divide up the sharing of love and attention to a bunch of kids, when there are one or two who pierce your heart with their neediness is a continual struggle. Finding some quiet time amongst Thai music played at an alarming level, dogs barking, kids screaming, laughing, fighting and the comings and goings of the ubiquitous Honda motorbikes and their Thai riders who are somehow all related to everyone else was just part of everyday life. Being faced with listless children with temperatures above 40 degrees C, with children who couldn't stop coughing, with skin conditions that wouldn't go away, and wanting to hold them all in my arms and take the fear and sickness away gave me some understanding of what it is like to be a mother.

I have returned to Sarnelli House twice since I left in October 2003. The local staff continues to surprise me and make me feel so proud of them. They have taken on the medical care of the children in a way that is professional and dedicated. They are managing with the local hospital to provide for the children, they are self-sustaining and a great reflection of the trust and responsibility that Fr Mike has given them to care for these children who only have them.

The children grow and develop without me and their letting go of relationships and forging of new ones is an indication of their continual growth and renewal. They continue to astonish me, and each time I leave, I leave with a heavy heart knowing I am less and less a part of their lives, while they continue to be a large and ever present part of mine. They are embedded now in my heart and in who I am and for that I thank them and pay tribute to their courage and to those that continue to care for them.


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