A few months ago I visited the Safe Haven Orphanage located near the Mae La refugee camp along the Thai/Burma border.  I introduced you to Gary Van Haneghan who is a primary fund raiser and organizer for this orphanage and their website  where people can leave small donations via PayPal.

 

Safe Haven Orphanage, Mae Sot, Mae La

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  24mm  ISO 200

Their plight hasn't changed, and what was once described as dire worsens as the cooler weather approaches along with the rains and resulting mudslides and other dangers.  Two weeks ago I was visiting again and I arrived unannounced.  Immediately I could tell several projects had been started but not yet completed.

 

Safe Haven Orphanage buildings are made from local materials and need to be replaced every few years.

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  24mm  ISO 100

It amazed me that the buildings/structures I saw on my last visit just months previously, were now in much worse stages of decay and needed rebuilding immediately.  I learned while there that most of the structures made from local materials need to be rebuilt every two years.  Most of these structures are 3-5 years old.

 

Every bare patch of land is used to its fullest.

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  40mm  ISO 100

I'm still impressed how this "rock ground", land filled with huge rocks and boulders, so many of them that it's impossible to level the ground or move the rocks, has been made usable. Every bare patch of land is used to its fullest.

 

 this young Karen mother tried desperately to comfort her sick baby.

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  24mm  ISO 100

The afternoon was really warm and this young Karen mother tried desperately to comfort her sick baby.  He was hot with fever, snot dripping down his nose, and the mother bathed him in cool towels and did her best to care for him.  There is no nurse or medical professional on-site.  If someone gets really sick they need to be taken by car to a clinic 45-60 kilometers distant.  Often the Thai military must be asked to help with transportation.

 

anyone not engaged in work tries to get through the hottest part of the day in a shaded area swatting biting flies away.

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  43mm  ISO 100

Shade is precious, and anyone not engaged in work tries to get through the hottest part of the day in a shaded area swatting biting flies away.

 

This young teen has it right!  She has a nice hammock with a bit of shade and she was all smiles as we approached.

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  24mm  ISO 100

This young teen has it right!  She has a nice hammock with a bit of shade and she was all smiles as we approached. 

 

At Safe Haven Orphanage sleeping structures have dirt floors and rotting walls.  Across the river from Myanmar / Burma and about 50km from Mae Sot

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  51mm  ISO 100

The sleeping structures have seen better days.  Floors are rotting through to the dirt below, yet the many children who sleep in these never complain.  Ragged mats and blankets touch each other as there isn't much room for privacy or even to fully stretch your legs while sleeping.

 

Natural runoffs for water run through the camp and simple bridges are built over them.

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  70mm  ISO 100

Some of the smaller rocks almost look decorative.  Natural runoffs for water run through the camp and simple bridges are built over them.

 

The children move around this obstacle course with the natural agility of a mountain goat, while visiting volunteer workers have a much worse time of things.

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  35mm  ISO 100

 

The simple tents and lean-to's many call home might be hard for you to pick out from the background.

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  24mm  ISO 100

The simple tents and lean-to's many call home might be hard for you to pick out from the background.  The big rocks and boulders are ever present, forcing you to alter your path, watch your step, and exercise caution at all times.  The children move around this obstacle course with the natural agility of a mountain goat, while visiting volunteer workers have a much worse time of things.  During my last visit I learned a lady volunteer had broken her foot and ankle.

 

This outdoor toilet serves the orphanage well, Safe Haven Orphanage, Mae  Sot, Mae La

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  51mm  ISO 100

This outdoor toilet serves the orphanage well, though I'd imagine navigating the rocks and other hazards during the night hours would be quite challenging.

 

These flat areas are used to grow vegetables.

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  24mm  ISO 100

These flat areas are used to grow vegetables.  It's hard to picture the entire land with huge rocks and boulders, and then small flat spaces where putting up a structure or growing something is possible.

 

This outdoor wash area serves the entire orphanage.  Clothes are washed here and the process is entirely manual.

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  70mm  ISO 100

This outdoor wash area serves the entire orphanage.  Clothes are washed here and the process is entirely manual.  The clothes are washed, rinsed, and then hung to dry.  They never do look "clean" as we know clean, but the worst of smells and bacteria are kept at bay.

 

Small Karen Child at Safe Haven Orphanage along the Burma border

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  32mm  ISO 100

I have a string of about 8 images captured at 4fps taken of this little girl as she spies us and then runs in excitement to greet us.  She wasn't shy at all.  Last time I was here she was wary of me and gave me a challenging look.  This visit she wanted to be my best friend.

 

These structures appear to be under construction at first glance..  Safe Haven Orphanage

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  40mm  ISO 100

These structures appear to be under construction at first glance.  A closer look reveals instead they are falling apart.  The roofs are long gone and plastic tarps try to do the job, and the wood used for the frame is rotten and infested with insects.  Yet, these are still considered usable structures.  Anything is better than sleeping on the ground.

 

Safe Haven Orphanage Thailand  A few hours later on the way out, I notice the sick baby now sleeping in a scratchy wool blanket fashioned into a hammock.

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  70mm  ISO 100

A few hours later on the way out, I notice the sick baby now sleeping in a scratchy wool blanket fashioned into a hammock.  I stopped to wipe away the snot and sweat from his face before taking the image.  He's tired and sleeps through the entire experience.  This is normal here, but I can't imagine my own sons at this age, sick and hungry, left out in the heat and sun, bugs landing on him, as the mother lays exhausted in the dirt a few feet away.  She's done her best and she'll do her best tomorrow.  I wish she had more to do her best with.  She watches me clean the boy and smiles as I take his picture.  I wanted her picture as well, but even outside in this great expanse.. it seems to be her only private place.  The picture can wait for another visit.

 

Every visitor is appreciated, and the kids will gather in the one solid structure they have so you can introduce yourself, perhaps bring

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  70mm  ISO 800

Every visitor is appreciated, and the kids will gather in the one solid structure they have so you can introduce yourself, perhaps bring treats or fruit to share, tell stories, sing songs, and show off anything they feel like sharing.

 

Safe Have Orphanage Thailand.  Burma / Myanmar  Mae Sot

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  24mm  ISO 100

 

These hand wash stations help keep the kids healthy.  They step on a pedal, which pulls a string, which tips the water jug, which streams water down to their hands

Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8  @F8  70mm  ISO 100

Some of the improvements are remarkably simple, yet very effective.  These hand wash stations help keep the kids healthy.  They step on a pedal, which pulls a string, which tips the water jug, which streams water down to their hands.  A bottle of liquid soap hangs nearby.  When the kids come in to eat or for classes, they're reminded to wash their hands.  This is the stuff habits are built on!

I didn't expect this trip to impact me as much as my first trips, but it did.  The weather with the beautiful blue skies and warmer temperatures had some to do with this.  Literally seeing things in a different light?  Or perhaps there is just enough to see for many trips.

Each time I come I try to bring someone with me who hasn't yet been here.  I tell them I can't say if they'll enjoy the trip or not, but what I can do is guarantee them a "life experience" and I really believe this.  If you make the effort of visiting this area and seeing how these kids live, visiting the refugee camps, or just experiencing the people.. it will change how you see certain things. 

A life experience indeed...