"Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success".
- Henry Ford
History of the project
In 2000, HIV/AIDS was claiming an increasing number of lives in the villages where the Good Shepherd Outreach team was working. Anti-retroviral medicines were not yet available. Those infected were shunned by family and communities and those still well enough to work, found great difficulty securing employment if employers or fellow workers became aware of their illness. Preventative education for which Thailand became a forerunner in SE Asia, was in its early stages and HIV/AIDS carried a stigma that would take over a decade to diminish.
Friendship Center & Employment
In 2001, in response to the sense of isolation experienced by those with HIV, the Friendship Centre was built, providing a base for this community for health education, family days, children’s activities and celebrations of important events throughout the year.
When ARV medicines became available in 2003 - although on a quota system at first - those visited by the Outreach Team became stronger and with their renewed strength, their ability to produce the clay animals escalated. Despite two orders from an organisation in Germany for 35,000 animal pencils, we were soon overrun with mini- elephants, turtles, fish, horses, dogs and birds and could not find sufficient markets to sustain the work.
To provide a means by which families affected could earn a living, a small group visited by the Team, were invited to work in conjunction with the Good Shepherd Pottery Project, to make small clay animals that were fired and attached to pencils. This work was mostly carried out at home, with the producers meeting fortnightly at the Friendship Centre to exchange their finished creations for their earnings and new raw materials. Most importantly, this coming together provided much needed support and a sense of community.
A new project is born
In 2004, an extension was made to the Friendship Centre, as numbers of families in the programme increased and with the new large room available and a new product in mind, Hands of Hope began.
Working alone at home, the producers had no distractions, no one to talk to and so they worried about their children, their health and the future. Coming together daily to work in a serene environment, creating beautiful products, allayed their fears and restored hope in their lives.
We abandoned the idea of clay animals and instead, decided cards would be easier to transport a and to sell. Starting with a group of six villagers, a few sheets of saa paper, some pots of glue and scissors, production got underway
"The lotus begins life in the mud at the bottom of ponds and waterways. Slowly it makes its way to the surface, to the light. Its bud begins to open, until warmed by the sun,
the beauty enclosed bursts forth".
Our first design - a lotus card - held special meaning for the production group.
Some of the first producers had never worked with scissors before, having been previously employed on building sites, their hands adept at carrying bricks. Everything was new, challenging but hopeful.
Our designs were few that first year but all proved popular with customers and we were encouraged to try new designs, not only for cards but for decorative items also. The production group grew also, with those already working in the project welcoming and teaching newcomers.
Fourteen years on, we now have 674 original designs.
We have produced in excess of half a million products that have sold on four continents. Every design is comprised of dozens of individually cut and glued components, and each finished piece reflects the work of many hands.
There are currently 26 daily participants and 3 others who, due to distance, come just once a week to connect with others and collect their work to do at home. We have maintained an average group size of 32 throughout the past ten years with over 100 women gaining employment. The number of permanent participants is over 85%.
Production aside, our greatest achievements lie in the social aspect of the project whereby people work together instead of in isolation. We celebrate and embrace life, valuing each member, sharing responsibilities and encouraging each other’s efforts. Despite difficulties, setbacks, and ill health, we still hold on to hope.
"Hope is like the sun, which, as we journey toward it, casts the shadow of our burden behind us".
The tranquil, natural environment of the Friendship Centre overlooking a large fishpond, with neighbouring bamboo forest and rice fields, provides a calming place to work.
There is dignity to be found in creative pursuits and Hands of Hope fosters creativity. Participants are encouraged to design their own products and feel proud of the feedback received and resulting orders.
An elected committee oversees production and management of the daily tasks, including care of the working space. The specific roles of designing, quality control, stock management, packing, ordering and shopping for raw materials, are undertaken by others within the group, with each person, from the committee down, involved directly with production itself.
A six-hour working day is the norm with production beginning after morning meditation. A meal is shared at noon and the producers have time to relax. A short exercise period is taken mid-morning and afternoon to stretch muscles, re-energize and refocus during production.
Wages are paid by the day, with paid time given to attend hospital appointments. Transportation from the villages is provided and those who come by motorbike receive a weekly petrol allowance on top of their wage.
An end of month bonus is paid into a ‘retirement’ fund for daily workers and a generous end of year bonus is received by all participants. A monetary birthday gift is also given.
A commission for every product sold, is paid to the designers at year’s end. In 2018, twenty-four of the group received such bonuses.
The community aspect of this programme is so important. The participants have friends with whom to share their concerns and their joys. The participants also have the opportunity to join weekend workshops and seminars on health issues and family celebrations held throughout the year, commemorating Songkran (the Thai New Year Water festival), Mother’s Day and Christmas.
The planting and harvesting of rice to feed the patients in the Garden of Friendship Care Facility, is also an annual activity and great fun is had together, despite the aching backs.
Pre-schoolers may accompany their mothers to the centre each day and school-aged children are welcome to take part in a holiday programme, producing their own line of products and receiving remuneration which helps with expenses when the new school term begins.
The Good Shepherd Outreach Staff monitor the health of our producers and accompany them to medical appointments when necessary. Anti-retroviral medicine is indeed necessary for prolonging life, but without dignified employment and daily social support, it cannot give quality and purpose, to those living with HIV/Aids. Hands of Hope does exactly that.