Venture With Impact has joined forces with Jojo’s Sanctuary to bring professional volunteers to support this Thai nonprofit organization. Responsible travel writer, Lola Méndez of Miss Filatelista, spoke with Jojo’s Sanctuary co-founder and co-director Heather Askew to learn about the initiatives of the grassroots charity. The photos here were provided by VWI volunteer Karina Henry who worked on a project with Jojo’s Sanctuary in April.

Jojo’s Sanctuary works to educate, protect, and empower vulnerable children, families, and communities in Northern Thailand. To educate, they offer a trafficking prevention program for both children and caretakers. To protect, they work with the Thai Social Welfare Department to build a safe and sustainable national family-based foster care system for children in crisis. To empower they assist undocumented families in obtaining Thai citizenship for their children. They also run a family strengthening program called Building Family Dreams for at-risk or low-income families.

Heather Askew in foreground at Family Dreams outing

Heather Askew in foreground at Family Dreams outing

What motivated you to create Jojo’s Sanctuary with your co-founders Jay, Butsaba, and Orawan in 2016?

In 2016, I had just learned of the death of Jojo, a young boy who was the nephew of some friends of mine. He died as a result of child abuse while staying with a family member and it was devastating for my friends and everyone who knew him. A couple weeks after his death, I had lunch with my Thai colleague, Orawan, and she suggested starting a program for families in the area where she lived in Doi Saket. As co-workers at an after school program years before, we had done a lot of trainings with kids and worked with their families, but Orawan said nothing like that existed in her area, about 40 minutes outside the city center, yet the same problems of teen pregnancy, abuse, and exploitation existed there as they did in the city.

When we had worked with Butsaba at the after school program, we had several children who lived in single parent homes and more than once, the single parent was arrested for petty crime, and the children came to our program not knowing what to do or where to go. It was then that I discovered that Thailand has orphanages but not a family-based foster care system, and that there was virtually no place for children in this situation to go because most orphanages or private children’s homes didn’t want to take a child in that situation because it was too short term. At the time (this was about 2013) we recognized the need for short term foster care, but didn’t think we were equipped to create it. Orawan suggested at that lunch that we had all had enough experience in the intervening years to now create it ourselves.

How many foster care homes does Jojo’s Sanctuary work with?

We are in the beginning stages of transitioning from orphanages to family-based foster care. At the moment, Chiang Mai is basically acting as a pilot project for foster care that will ideally become nationwide in the coming years. We work with Care for Children and the Chiang Mai Social Welfare Department to provide training to current and prospective foster parents and current foster children. I (Heather) am a foster parent to a teen boy, and Butsaba and Jay were the first family to be registered specifically as foster parents for children in need of short term (up to one year) care. They were approved as foster parents in January 2018 and have not had any placements as yet. There are now around 40 families providing foster care in Chiang Mai city. In 2017, we provided our six subject trafficking prevention program to close to 150 students in five rural villages in Chiang Mai Province.

Why doesn’t the national government operate foster programs for children whose parents have been incarcerated in Thailand?

Historically, the tradition was for community members to take in orphaned children or children whose parents were incarcerated. Then, lots of westerners started coming to Thailand, largely but not exclusively missionaries, and started creating children’s homes to provide poor, neglected, orphaned or abandoned children an education and, what they considered, a more stable environment in which to live. Of course, years of research has shown that the long-term psychological impact of children being raised in institutions, no matter how clean or beautiful, is more damaging than them growing up in their own communities with people of their own culture.

So, in response to this new information, the Thai government has been working with the NGO Care for Children to create an infrastructure for transitioning from orphanages to family-based care for these children, whether they be in need of long-term or short-term (while parents are incarcerated) care. The current system has children of incarcerated parents stay at a shelter, but due to lack of staffing and funding, this means that the children are just at the shelter all day every day until their parents are released. Sometimes, the parents think the kids are better off in the orphanage, so even after their release, they will leave their children in the orphanage. Of course, our goal is to see a national foster care system that places children in families and that supports families after incarceration, but it takes years to create, fund and operate such a system.

The worst case scenario is that which we found years ago, which is those kids who are undocumented and when their parents are arrested, no one asks the parents whether they have underage children who need care, so kids are highly vulnerable to trafficking or other forms of exploitation in those situations. At the time of working at the after school program, I would say without us having a pre-existing relationship with those kids, they very likely would have disappeared and we would never know what had happened to them.

How does caring for a community’s children make a positive impact on society?

When children are able to grow up in their home community, they feel more secure in their identity, the community has hope as they see their children growing up and have the ability to instill their own values into their children. When children feel loved and valued by their community, they grow into adults who want to love and value others, which will improve society in the long run.

What makes you passionate about helping at-risk children?

I’ve worked with kids in some capacity since I was 12, so I’ve always had an affinity for it. I guess my deep-seated sense of injustice might have something to do with being a Libra, but mostly because I grew up reading God’s call to fight injustice and protect widows and orphans, so I’ve always taken that directive very seriously. Most of the kids I have worked with don’t have many people they can count on, and I know the importance of having people in your life to be supportive

What is included in the Days for Girls kits that Jojo’s Sanctuary distributes in remote villages?

The Days for Girls kits were designed by the Days for Girls foundation in the US and they are put together by Bea Baumann, who is on our advisory board and lives in Hua Hin, Thailand. They include two shields that snap into underwear, 8 reusable pads, 2 pairs of girls’ underwear, a small hotel size soap, 2 gallon size ziploc bags and a chart to track the girls’ cycles. All of it is packaged in a specific manner and put in a brightly colored bag to keep it all together. All the pieces are made of brightly colored cloth and are waterproof. Doing the educational workshops about reproductive health opens up conversations between mothers and daughters about aspects of menstruation and reproduction that have been mostly taboo in the past. We are planning to continue partnering with Days for Girls to translate their boys/men's workshop as well, because we think it’s important for boys and men to understand the importance of this topic and reduce the stigma of menstruation and also begin to take responsibility for their own actions in procreation and their treatment of girls and women. We are excited about this continued partnership and hope we are able to reach people from many different tribes and cultures in Thailand in the coming years.

What have you learned through your work creating and implementing the Building Family Dreams project?

Well, we only launched this program in March, so I can’t say much about what we have learned. I would say our two biggest successes to date are that all the fathers of the families we invited to join the program have been active participants (this is a prerequisite for participation and we were assured by the village leadership that it would be a tough sell). Also, the fact that two of the families in our program have brought their children home from nearby orphanages to live with them full time and two other families have decided against sending their children to orphanages to receive education. Our future goals include 1) assisting the families with economic empowerment initiatives to better their lives and create financial stability for each family (this is something I am currently fundraising in the US to finance) and 2) that we would be able to provide this program to families who have been reunited after voluntary or involuntary separation to make sure they can have healthy, stable family relationships and a better situation for their children going forward.

What tactics have you found to be useful when teaching children about safety on the internet, and about inappropriate touching?

We use a variety of tactics to teach kids, knowing that different children learn in different ways. What works for one child may not resonate for another child, so we try to reiterate key points through various means. We have a different powerpoint presentation for each workshop that we do. We also intersperse the sitting and listening aspect with a few different games to make them think and underscore their existing knowledge. We also incorporate videos into the presentation about various topics such as cyber bullying, sexting and online exploitation and trafficking. The internet is an ever changing creature, so we are continually updating this particular workshop to stay up to date with the latest trends in social media that children participate in.

For safe/unsafe touch, we destigmatize the correct terminology of body parts and encourage kids to use correct terms when asking questions about their own bodies or health. When we do this with adults, we encourage parents and caretakers to teach their children the proper use of words so that if a child does encounter a situation where they are being inappropriately touched, they will feel open to tell a parent or caretaker and not feel ashamed about using taboo words. We have a variety of different interactive activities that can be used with this workshop, depending on the age. The fantastic NGO called KNH (Kinder Not Hilfe) has done a series of trainings with NGOs in Chiang Mai and shared many strategies that we have found very useful and that kids engage with well.

How does the work of Jojo’s Sanctuary align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

All these are projected, as many of them directly relate to Building Family Dreams, which is only in month 3 of existing.

1) No poverty: by including economic empowerment in our BFD program, we hope to create sustainable work for the families that will lift them out of poverty.

2) Zero hunger: By educating families about the importance of proper nutrition and helping them improve their family’s economic situation, we hope that the children in the BFD families will never know hunger

3) Good Health and Well-Being: By focusing on nutrition and healthy family relationships, we hope to see these families grow stronger and break the destructive cycles of poverty, divorce, hunger, etc that tend to plague marginalized communities. If the family has a strong core, and addresses problems together, they will be healthier and have an improved sense of well-being.

4) Quality Education: by providing scholarships for uniforms for children who are going into middle school, helping parents find tutoring programs for their kids and offering scholarships to those continuing beyond 9th grade (the national minimum requirement), kids from low income families will have the chance to achieve higher education and more opportunities will open up for them.

5) Gender Equality: We emphasize in all our programs that girls are just as valuable as boys, and encourage parents to send all children to school until they complete high school.

6) Clean Water and Sanitation: the group we are working with at the moment doesn’t have an issue in this area.

7) Affordable and clean Energy: N/A

8) Decent Work and Economic Growth: Since most of the families in our current program make a living as day laborers, we hope that with the advent of our economic empowerment program, they will be able to supplement this income with their own entrepreneurial initiatives and that their projects will grow to the point that they can sustain their families without needing to be day laborers.

9) Industry, Innovation, Infrastructure: working with the Social Welfare Department and other NGOs to create a solid infrastructure for children in crisis will ideally reap nationwide benefits for not only children currently in large children’s homes but for future generations who will have the chance to grow up in families rather than institutions.

10) /16 Reduced Inequalities/Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions: We work with families to assist them in obtaining Thai citizenship for their children.

This is almost always a long, complicated, and confusing process taking months if not years, and most families would lose hope if they were to do it on their own. Once they are granted citizenship, they are no longer stigmatized with the label of “statelessness” and are eligible for all rights in society.

11-15 are not applicable for us

17) Partnerships for the Goals: We partner with a variety of NGOs as well as the Thai government to achieve these goals for the people and country of Thailand.

How can a traveler identify a child that may be at-risk of sex trafficking? What, if anything, should they do?

Any child who is out begging is at risk. Any child begging after dark is even higher risk. There is almost never a time when you see a child selling trinkets or begging on the street who is truly alone. They are being exploited by someone, even if you can’t see it. Also keep in mind that most prostitutes were trafficked as children into the business so they aren’t actually doing it of their own free will. In Thailand, if you see a child at risk, you can either call the child risk hotline at 1300 or the Tourist Police and report any details. If possible, try to get a photo of the child so social workers can more easily identify them and provide help.