Teaching Thai orphans not to fear strangers

Teaching Thai orphans not to fear strangers

At Pakkred Babies Home outside Bangkok, volunteers are invited to cuddle and play with the babies in an effort to ease them into adoption
Pakkred Babies Home
Volunteers can play with a baby once and never return, or sign up for weeks, months or years and form a deep emotional attachment to an infant.

Foreigners can feed, bathe, dress and cuddle abandoned Thai infants for free at the Pakkred Babies Home, where a 20-year-long behavioral experiment is convincing children not to be "afraid" of Americans, Europeans and other strangers.

At the facility, male and female foreign "volunteers" from all over the world -- including teenagers -- are invited to hold a baby and play with them any day of the week, as many times as they like. 

"We always welcome them, because the more the children get exposed to foreigners, the better it is, particularly when they are going to be adopted, so they won't be afraid of a strange face," said Wilma Ratanaruka, the Pakkred Babies Home Volunteer Group Coordinator, in an interview at the clean and airy institution.

"No volunteers have been rejected," adds Wilma, 67, who has been at the government-run orphanage since 1989, and interviews most volunteers before they are allowed access to the infants.

Thais are also encouraged to visit and take care of the babies, though the volunteers are "mostly foreigners," she says.

Pakkred Babies HomeNo volunteers have been rejected," says Wilma Ratanaruka who has been at the government-run orphanage since 1989.'Some are left behind, and their mothers never come back'

The Babies Home's relaxed expanse of two-story buildings currently shelters about 200 kids. Most are orphans and may eventually be adopted by foreigners -- usually Americans, Brits and other Europeans – or sometimes Thais. Abortion is a crime in this Buddhist-majority country, unless the mother's health is in danger or she was raped. As a result, some unwanted babies arrive soon after birth.

"They can come in at a week old," said Wilma, an energetic Dutch woman who became a Thai citizen after marrying a Thai executive. "Children that have no background, they're found somewhere in a little bin, or God knows what other places. 

"Some are brought here by the mother, who can't look after the baby. In some cases they will ask, 'Can I leave my baby here until it is two years old, when hopefully my position is better and I can look after my child in the future?' They can do that," she says, using the Pakkred Babies Home as a temporary halfway-house during hard times.

"Some are left behind, and their mothers never come back. They never claim. They even sometimes give a false address, so we can't even try to locate where they are."

Volunteers can also play with a baby once and never return. Others sign up for weeks, months or years, depending on their own schedule, and form a deep emotional attachment to an infant. Most volunteers, especially repeat visitors, are British or American.

"Mostly women, because they have the time, because it has to be during the day in the early morning, for most of them. There might be some who come on their own in the afternoon.  Or they come on their own on weekends," Wilma said. "Hopefully they commit on a long term. That would be better for the children."

Female volunteers cannot breastfeed the babies, however, because "they are all given bottled milk, from the beginning."

Pakkred Babies Home"Unfortunately Pascha has an illness called thalassaemia, which is quite prevalent among Asian babies, and she has regular blood transfusions," Jenni McDonald says.Getting over a fear of foreigners

This unusual behavior modification experiment began after staff realized that Thai infants often appeared fearful of strangers, including their new non-Thai parents who adopted them. The abandoned children had rarely interacted with an adult, and virtually never with someone of a different race.

"What I have observed is that so many of the children that went to the new family -- and we saw for the first time their meeting -- it didn't go very well. They were afraid, because they never had a volunteer, either male or female, and they didn't know what was going on, didn't know what was happening. And it was very sad.

"So the more volunteers we had, the more children could interact with volunteers, and the better it was for them, particularly when they are going to be adopted. They don't feel afraid anymore. They come up to you now."

Political climate impacts volunteer levels

The Babies Home currently has about 80 volunteers, and are hoping more people will walk in and scoop up a Thai child for a couple of hours a day.

"Right now, it's a bad year, because of the red shirts most likely," said Wilma, referring to red-clad pro-democracy protesters who staged an insurrection in Bangkok during April and May and which was subsequently crushed by the army.

Pakkred Babies Home"She doesn't talk yet, she just grunts," Jenni McDonald says. "We can give them a bath. She doesn't like it, so I don't bother."As a result of the violence and barricaded streets, many foreigners fled this Southeast Asian country, including volunteers. Jenni McDonald, an unemployed middle-aged woman from Scotland, said in an interview that for the past 18 months she has been playing with Pascha, who is now two years old.

"She doesn't talk yet, she just grunts," Jenni said. "We can give them a bath. She doesn't like it, so I don't bother." Jenni usually arrives twice a week and "we play...we put jewelry on, I bring her small sparkly things."

She also gives little Pascha "a lot of attention, a lot of stroking and cuddling. It's an enjoyable one-to-one with the child. I enjoy being with the children. I don't want to adopt them," Jenni said. "This child actually has a mother and father who are married."

Some babies are diseased. If contagious, they are transferred away, to protect other infants and staff. Disabled children are also housed elsewhere. Children who reach four or five years old are sent to another institution, where they can begin school.

"Unfortunately Pascha has an illness called thalassaemia, which is quite prevalent among Asian babies, and she has regular blood transfusions," Jennie says. Thalassaemia is a hereditary blood disease involving problems with hemoglobin synthesis, and is widespread in Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean.

Asked what percentage of the children might be HIV positive, which can be disproportionately high among abandoned babies in Thailand, Wilma replies: "I don't think very much here, I haven't heard that much.  And we don't really have what we would consider an isolation ward. Years ago, probably yes, we had some HIV, and they were generally isolated."

Pakkred Babies HomeThe Babies Home's relaxed expanse of two-story buildings currently shelters about 200 kids.

Gareth Winter, 41, is from England and teaches English in Bangkok. He married a Thai, and has been volunteering for the past year. He was assigned to care for a boy named Tanaphat, now two years old. 

"There are not many male volunteers," Gareth says in an interview while holding the boy, who he affectionately calls "my little friend."

"There are lots of female volunteers, and lots of female [staff] workers, so the children don't get to see a man. When they do get matched and have a family, then they're happy with the mother, but the father they kind of reject, because they've never seen a man."

Gareth is delighted with the way the experiment has affected him.

"It's very rewarding, and I can't wait to have my own children. It's like life practice. It's hard work, but it's only for an hour or two. They need all your attention. I suppose parents know this, but I'm not a parent, so it is all new for me. He's a growing boy. He's not the same boy I picked up a year ago. He's developed, you know? They get teeth. He walks now. He's a happy little boy."

A Thai flight attendant, Teppasit "Neung" Panggariya, 42, says he began volunteering last October to interact with Somsak, a boy now 20 months old.

"I try to help improve him, help him," Teppasit says. "He doesn't have parents. His mother and father left him after he was born, one or two days later. I'm single, and volunteer because no one comes to help him, or take care him. It makes me calm down, and become patient, to take care of the kid. I think, I not only give to him, but he also gives to me. See him smile?" 

An adoption can take five years or longer to finalize, which means would-be parents usually must apply to adopt a child who is not even born yet, Wilma says. As a result, unfortunately a volunteer who cradles and bonds with a child cannot adopt "their baby."

For more information on the Pakred Babies Home, visit the group's Facebook page

"He's a growing boy," says Gareth Winter. "He's not the same boy I picked up a year ago. He's developed, you know? They get teeth. He walks now. He's a happy little boy."

The Babies Home currently has about 80 volunteers, and are hoping more people will walk in and scoop up a Thai child for a couple hours a day.Thais are also encouraged to visit and take care of the babies, and some do, including these volunteers who appear on identification cards issued by the Pakkred Babies Home.Male and female foreign "volunteers" from every country -- including teenagers -- are invited to hold a baby and play with them any day of the week, as many times as they like.

Richard S. Ehrlich is from San Francisco, California. He has reported news for international media from Asia since 1978, based in Hong Kong, New Delhi and now Bangkok.

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