Twenty-eight-year-old Malee sits with ankles crossed behind her on the teal tiled floor of her home in southern Thailand. Tears stream down her face as she speaks, while her youngest daughter sits in her lap, reaching up with a tissue to wipe away each of her mom’s tears as they fall.
“You have always been very caring and sincere, asking about our life and our children,” Malee says to her social worker, Mick, who sits on the floor with Malee and her family. “Others look at us as something unimportant, but we always feel very important when we are with you.”
Malee and her husband, Vit, first met Mick seven years ago after being referred to Holt Sahathai Foundation (HSF) — an organization that Holt first partnered with over 40 years ago when we began serving vulnerable children and families in Thailand. Today, with the support of Holt sponsors and donors, HSF provides a broad range of services, from vocational training to training foster families to caring for women and young couples who are experiencing an unplanned pregnancy and empowering them with the counsel and resources they need to plan for the future.
Then and Now
This was how HSF staff first met Malee and Vit. They weren’t yet married and it was Malee’s junior year at a local university when she could no longer keep her pregnancy a secret.
“Once my belly was bigger and bigger, my roommate told me that we cannot wait,” Malee says through tears. “So when I was seven months pregnant, we went to see the social worker.”
It’s surreal to sit here on the floor as Malee and Vit tell their story, because as they do, their two beautiful daughters sit with them, snuggled up in their laps. Their home — the last in a row of bottom-floor apartments — is simple, but neat and clean. The four of them share one bed that completely fills the space in their one small bedroom. Stuffed animals are perfectly lined up on the top edge of their couch. Malee is a physical therapy assistant at the hospital, and Vit works at the same hospital, transferring patients to their rooms.
They are a stable, peaceful, content family of four.
But it almost didn’t turn out this way. When Malee got pregnant, neither she nor Vit — who is two years younger than Malee — had a steady job. They didn’t have any family support. In fact, their families didn’t even know they were pregnant. They didn’t know how they could provide for a child. As in many countries where Holt works, a strong stigma against unwed pregnancy endures in Thailand, and Vit and Malee felt ashamed. Friends and family looked down on them, and offered them no support. They felt completely alone.
During this time, they regularly met with Mick, who showed them compassion as she walked them through each step of their pregnancy. With Mick’s counsel, Malee and Vit decided that placing their baby in temporary foster care was their best option.
But everything changed the moment their daughter was born.
Choosing to Parent
“Once I saw her,” says Vit, “how could we leave our responsibility and have somebody else care for the baby?”
“He could not let the baby go,” Malee adds, remembering Vit as a new father.
Today, that baby — Mew— is 7 years old. Vit and Malee got married, and two years later they had another daughter, Nan, who is now 5. Mew and Nan both have glossy black hair pulled partly back on each side by two yellow hair ties. They both wear outfits featuring the sister characters from Frozen. They are polite, quiet, sweet and offer shy, excited smiles to the visitors who have come to their home.
How Sponsorship Changed Everything
After Mew was born, HSF worked with Holt’s team in the U.S. to pair them with a sponsor whose monthly support helped them raise their daughter. They joined HSF’s formula program — a program for parents of children 2 years old and younger that provides baby essentials and infant formula for mothers who cannot breastfeed their babies either because they are new to our program and are malnourished themselves, or because they work during the day. As Malee returned to school to try and finish her degree and Vit stayed home with their new daughter, the support was exactly what they needed. But even more invaluable was the continued guidance they received, and still receive, from Mick.
“The most important thing is feeling supported and understood by my social worker,” Malee says. “I feel like I can consult Mick about everything. For some issues, I could not turn to anybody else.”
But also invaluable is the support they receive from their Holt sponsors.
When we ask sisters Mew and Nan if they’ve kept any of the letters they’ve received from their sponsors over the years, their mom already has them on hand. She gives a small stack of letters to each of her girls.
“No, that one’s mine!” Nan says to her sister, excitedly exchanging her stack of letters with Mew’s.
Mick laughs. “They know exactly which one is their sponsor!” she says.
Among the letters are birthday and Christmas cards, as well as well wishes for back-to-school season. The girls proceed to show us their stuffed animals and ride a small tricycle that they keep near the back door of their kitchen — toys they received because of the support of their sponsors.
In addition to providing these fun things, their sponsors are the ones who make it possible for Mew and Nan to go to school.
“Even though we both have permanent jobs,” Malee says, “our income is not very big. So the school uniforms and school supplies help lessen the burden.”
With emotional support from their HSF social worker, and support from their daughters’ sponsors, Malee and Vit have had the space and opportunity to mature — individually and as a family.
“I could see the changes in Vit,” Malee says, reflecting on the past several years. “Now he’s a lot stronger. He’s become a very proud leader of the family. He takes care of us.”
Vit validates what she says. “I used to feel I didn’t have good self-confidence,” he shares. “But now, I feel that I am a valuable person and that is very important for me and my self-esteem.”
Similarly, Vit has seen great growth in Malee. He’s seen her grow in patience and maturity. Malee says for her, this change was motivated by two desires: to have peace in the family, and keep their family together. But they don’t want to see this change and growth stop with them.
“Because of this, we are empowered to empower others,” Vit says.
Through HSF, Vit and Malee now lead an unplanned pregnancy and young parents group through HSF — supporting young women and couples facing the same challenges they themselves faced seven years ago. During the group, they answer questions from other parents, and act as a hopeful and encouraging example.
“We want our experience and our lessons learned to be useful for others,” Malee says. “We are so proud of ourselves. It’s self-empowering for us as well.”
As we are about to leave, Mick pulls Malee and Vit aside and asks them if they were at all embarrassed by our visit — for their neighbors and community to see that they receive help. Vit skirts the question; perhaps slightly embarrassed. But even if Malee and Vit were uncomfortable with their neighbors knowing, they still invited us to come. Why? Because of Holt’s generous sponsors and donors.
“When I knew that you were coming,” Vit says, “we knew that Holt International supports HSF, and donors and sponsors would be happy with us to hear our story and to know that their support makes a big difference.”
A big difference indeed.
“Thank you for sharing your story with us,” we tell them through hugs and a tearful, heartfelt goodbye.
“I must thank you more,” Vit replies, “for seven years is a long time.”