Nong Khai, Thailand — Notes from the Field includes reports from young people volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015. This is our fifth round of bloggers: Katie Delaney is a Good Shepherd Volunteer with the Fundación Madre Josefa (Mother Joseph Foundation) in Santiago, Chile, and Lauren Magee is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at Hands of Hope, an income-generating project that provides dignified employment for villagers living with HIV/AIDS in Nong Khai, Thailand.
For 12 years, Hands of Hope has served as an income-generating project for a community of individuals who often confront discrimination in the workforce because of their HIV/AIDS status.
The Good Shepherd Sisters saw a need for dignified work opportunities that provided a fair wage and fostered a supportive environment for anyone facing adversity. Hands of Hope began selling handmade cards in 2005 but has since expanded to produce a wide variety of home decorations, gifts and even jewelry out of sustainably made saa paper. The project is currently made up of 34 producers, 31 women and three men, who each have a unique role in the creation of our products.
Since its founding in 2005, Hands of Hope has employed more than 100 women, over 90 percent of whom are HIV-positive. Most of these women are the primary financial providers for their families and maintain their homes and farms while caring for their children. They have all been impacted by loss, as most have dealt with the death of their partners, parents or other family members because of HIV-related illnesses.
I often forget the burdens the producers carry with them because, on the surface, I see bright smiles every morning as they greet me and ask me if I have eaten breakfast. They find their unique ways to care for me as if I were their only concern in the world.
We begin every day with a meditation to clear our heads and a group prayer to bless anyone in our community who may be sick or struggling. Then we have an open forum led by our four peer-elected committee members to share any workplace news or concerns. For us, business is secondary to community. Supporting one another is essential to our success, and no one should have to carry a burden alone.
Through witnessing the lives of the producers, I have broadened my definition of strength. The strength I am familiar with comes in bursts of energy that seek to overcome an unfavorable circumstance. It's a short-lived exertion that ends with a personal gain and the luxury of having recovery time. But the producers' experiences don't allow for recovery time. They require a constant effort to prevail in the face of adversity.
Each producer has a story and a reason for joining the project. One of our producers sought out the sisters because she was a single mother who couldn't find employment and wanted to put her daughter through school. In addition to being HIV-positive, she had limited mobility in her legs, making it difficult for her to walk.
She has been working at Hands of Hope for almost 10 years now and receives a sponsorship through another Good Shepherd project to assist with her daughter's high school education fees. She has also dedicated herself to a daily exercise regimen that helps train the muscles in her legs. She has made great strides in the past few years and is now able to walk unassisted.
In her story and that of so many others, people came to the sisters with a sense of helplessness, feeling alone and worrying that they may not be able to take care of their family. They never gave up on life or on the dream of a better future, even if at times it seemed impossible. They committed themselves to surviving and achieving happiness for themselves and for their family. It takes a lot of strength to ask for and accept help, but it's the true selflessness of their actions I find most endearing.
The producers live their lives for others and have an unwavering dedication to their community. They don't realize they are exceptional, resilient, strong. In their work, they are empowered to take ownership and responsibility for designing as well as every step of the production process. They are encouraged to embrace life, to grow and to build upon their skills.
When everything is wobbling, Hands of Hope is secure ground to stand on. The producers find purpose in their work and enjoy sharing their culture, unique designs and craftsmanship with customers all over the world. One of the producers said that even though she may never travel to the international locations we sell to, she feels as though a piece of her is sent with every product.
The internal strength of our producers is most often seen in the way they carry others and continue to be resilient when encountering trauma. They are a powerhouse group of women who challenge the ideas of what it is to be a woman in Thai society.
The Good Shepherd Sisters serve as an excellent example of female leadership, and the traditional gender norms that are still present in Thai society seem to be forgotten in our community. Tasks that would usually be exclusive to one gender are extended to anyone who is willing and able to assist. Whether it's cooking, lifting the patients for their showers, or contributing on the farm, everyone is called to contribute in whatever way he or she can.
The patients heed this message as well and highlight their capabilities when helping their peers. Perhaps the best example of this is when they go on evening walks around our garden. Some patients are blind, some can't walk, and some need emotional support. Individually, a walk may be difficult or unfruitful, but together, they move with ease.
We may feel vulnerable when asking for help, but by admitting the areas in which we are weak, we validate the strength of others. There is a different side to strength, and I can now appreciate the steadfast dedication to giving yourself to others without expectation of a return. The reward is not in recognition of your feats, but by the success of others and the knowledge that they are better because of you.
"Using our hands to shape our futures."
—Good Shepherd Sisters Nong Khai
"Encouraged to live, empowered to create."
—Hands of Hope Nong Khai
[Lauren Magee is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at Hands of Hope, an income-generating project that provides dignified employment for villagers living with HIV/AIDS in Nong Khai, Thailand.]