When Blah joined The Freedom Story seven years ago, at the age of 17, she had already lost both her parents and her grandmother. She had gone to live with an aunt who, instead of being the caring, stable provider that young Blah needed, struggled with alcohol abuse. Blah dropped out of school in middle school. When she talks about that time in her life, she admits, “I was badly behaved, I did things that made my life difficult, and I lacked vision or direction.”
Blah grew up in the village surrounding The Freedom Story’s Pong Phrae Resource Center. Knowing she was out of school and could benefit from further support, The Freedom Story staff approached her and started building a relationship with her. She started coming to the Resource Center. “It helped me realize I wanted to go back to school. It helped me want to develop myself,” she explains.
THE JOB THAT BECAME SOMETHING MORE
Despite being out of school for almost three years, Blah took on a job at The Freedom Story, supporting the scholarship team with home visits and data entry. The job turned into more than just work experience. “When I arrived, I wasn’t comfortable showing my emotions, talking about my background, or the bad things I had done. After I started work, I was able to tell my story to the staff, and they listened.” Blah grew more confident and comfortable. Eventually, she was even able to advise other students, “kids who were at risk of walking in a way that wasn’t very good, [doing] things that I had done or gone through. I thought about the experiences I had, and how my experiences might help them.”
The effort put in by staff to help students, combined with her desire to make her grandfather proud, inspired her to apply for the scholarship and enter informal school. “I thought, ‘If I can improve myself, if I can be dedicated to my education, it would be good. Better than if I continued to do bad things and not develop. I wanted to apply for the scholarship because it was a chance, a good chance, for those who don’t have money. Because if I had had money, I would have wanted to study. I didn’t want to go back to the bad things again.”
A RETURN TO EDUCATION
Blah entered a school in which students work and study simultaneously in an accelerated vocational program. When she completed that program, she made the bold choice to re-enter the formal school system for high school, despite being out of formal school for almost 5 years, and being older than all her classmates. Blah showed incredible determination in her studies. “It was really hard. I didn’t have any of the knowledge that my classmates did. For example, I couldn’t speak any English. But I tried really hard. I told myself that, at the least, I had to be responsible. I had to send my work in on time, I had to go take my tests. Whether I could pass them or not, I had to go. If I couldn’t study one subject, I’d find another. I used this strategy until I went to University.”
After finishing high school, she was accepted into a program in industrial psychology at Chiang Rai Rajabhat University. She again faced great challenges—being older than her classmates and lacking the same level of academic preparation that they had. However, her determination to study continued. “I have so many people helping me be dedicated. When I went to university, in my first year, I felt like I couldn’t do it. But when my grades came out and my GPA was over 3.0, I knew that I could do that well every year. I would have a good future. I am so proud of myself going to university. These things I am doing help my life and future get better.”
RELATIONSHIPS THAT MATTER
In that same year, Blah faced another loss—her Grandfather, her last caregiver. She speaks with emotion, wishing he could have seen her graduate. While he was unwell, her Freedom Story mentor played a huge part in supporting her, taking her to visit him at the hospital and being an emotional comfort. “She helped me, regardless of whatever situation made me sad or upset. She would always tell me, ‘Do not think that you are by yourself. Do not think that there is no one who can help you. You have to think, ‘I have The Freedom Story still.’ Everyone, all the staff, are looking after you and care about you. Everyone here is your family,’” Blah explains. “Any time I was sad or upset, I just opened the door to the Resource Center, and she’d laugh. When I was stressed, I’d go talk to her and she’d say I didn’t need to be stressed. Like when I didn’t pass my entrance test for one university, I called her and cried and asked her what I should do. She listened and was encouraging.”
Blah has also taken advantage of the other resources offered by The Freedom Story, for example, art therapy. “When I am stressed or over thinking, it helps me to be more present. I don’t have to think a lot, and it often makes me free to express my emotions. Many different activities at the Resource Centers have helped me improve my life,” she adds with a smile.
Blah plans to take the future day by day. She is proudest of the changes she has brought about her in life—from not going to school as a directionless teen, to becoming a dedicated and motivated university student. The support of The Freedom Story has helped make this change possible.
The Freedom Story works with children who are at high risk of exploitation by providing financial resources to pursue education as well as mentoring and emotional support. Children living in poverty with one or both parents unable to provide basic needs are at the highest risk. Each year, The Freedom Story works with the local communities in Northern Thailand to identify children at the highest risk and works to get them involved in the scholarship program through sponsorship.
Join us on the 10-year anniversary of The Freedom Story as we celebrate a decade of child trafficking prevention. Help us achieve child trafficking prevention by teaching human rights, raising awareness and understanding, and facilitating healing in the Chiang Rai region of Thailand. Please consider donating your support today!
Photos by: Amy Doerring
Article by: Lucy McCray