Boxing Day Tsunami: 15 Years On

11 Dec 2019

There now exists a generation that for them the events of the 26th of December 2004, are something they learn about rather than have lived through. For those that lived through that day their proximity to Thailand often shapes their memories or in many cases the nightmares of that day.

For some, the events of the morning of the 26th of December are a point in time that with thought they can recall where they were and what they were doing. For others it was a day that would irreversibly shape them and in some instances define them as a person.

Somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 lives would be lost across South East Asia with the highest number in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. 5,395 bodies would be recovered in Thailand with half of those Thai citizens and the other half visitors drawn to Thailand for the sun, beaches, smiles and culinary delights. For each and every life lost there was a family left grieving, there were parents left without children and children left without parents. Bodies and hearts were broken by the wall of water that consumed all before it, but what that wall of water couldn’t do was drown the spirits of those left behind.

Fifteen years on and the broken bodies have mended, the hearts are healing, but the scars remain, even if they are now hidden and out of sight. Those left behind, having lost their family to the wave, have learnt over the ensuing fifteen years to rise above the challenges and with the helping hand of many they show each day that their spirits are indeed stronger than the force of that almighty wall of water that took so much.

Help arrived within hours of mother nature leaving her calling card reminding us of our tenuous hold on life. That help from the initial days were the foundations from which lives would be rebuilt.

Peter Baines, an Australian whom had never before been to Thailand, was like many who witnessed the unfolding disaster from the safety of a country that was spared the impact of loss and destruction. But unlike many he would, in the face of the disaster head to, rather than away from Thailand. Baines was one of the hundreds of International forensic experts from the thirty six countries who deployed to Thailand to assist in the identification of those who died, both Thai nationals and foreign nationals. Spending many months in Thailand, the impact of the events and in particular the lives forever changed, would have an impact on him - the true effect would take years to manifest.

A chance meeting with a group of Thai children left behind without a family to care for them, all of whom were living in a tent, was the “sliding door” moment for Baines and many of the children he met that day and the hundreds who would follow in their footsteps.

Baines returned to Australia towards the end of 2005, having completed his duties as a forensic specialist and leader of the Australian team. What might have been another end to a growing list of International deployments, would turn out to be the start of his biggest challenge of all.

Hands Across the Water was a charity started by Baines and a colleague from the UK that wanted to offer assistance to the children of Thailand left behind living in that tent. The initial intent was to raise enough money to build a home believing - naively as Baines acknowledges now - that would be the end to the problems the children were facing. Years on, he now realises the building of Baan Tharn Namchai - the home for the children living in the tent - was just the beginning.

Baines and the Hands team quickly came to the realisation that to bring about long term change they would need to make a long term commitment. Just because the memory of the events of the 26th of December are for many, just a point in time, this doesn’t mean the challenges for those who lived through the events are gone, they have simply changed. The parents of the children who survived that were lost that day have never come back and of course they never will.

In the ensuing passage of time that will pass another milestone on the 26th of December 2019, Hands Across the Water haven’t deviated from their commitment to bring about long term change. As many larger organisations left the country in the months and years that quickly passed, Hands stayed to create a life of choice rather than chance for the children who would grow without family to guide them in their formative years.

Hands Across the Water (the Australian Charity) and Hands Group (the social enterprise that was formed in 2011 to support the charity), have raised over $25million AUD, ensuring that 100% of all donors funds go directly to the children and communities they support. The work of Hands has grown and spread far and wide from its origins in the tsunami ravaged area of Takua-Pa. Hands is now operating in seven different locations all across Thailand supporting children the vast majority of whom have no connection to the tsunami but have better lives because the tsunami brought Hands Across the Water to them.

It’s relatively easy to measure success in terms of dollars raised, homes built, children impacted, but for the small yet hugely committed team from Hands, the measure of true success is what happens when it comes time for one of the children to leave the home. Hands runs a University Scholarship program for the children they care for and has a growing Alumni of those that have graduated with a degree. They employ English Language teachers in their homes and are continuing to work on career planning and support to create opportunities for the children they might not otherwise have.

The work of Hands Across the Water has had and will continue to have a profound impact on those they support. From the children living with HIV in the Isaan region who now receive their life saving medicine, to the children of the tsunami succeeding in life despite the challenges they face, Hands will continue to look for opportunities to create strong and self sufficient leaders of tomorrow.

Those at Hands have accepted the challenge to do more than what might previously have been done or considered “enough”. You don’t have to have been personally affected by the tsunami of 2004, just a belief that children have a fundamental right to a life of decency and dignity which often starts with them having choices of their own. They acknowledge that they can’t help everyone, but as they say “we can all help someone” and for them they are driven each day by the desire to create a life of choice rather than one of chance for those they work with.

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