Mae Thiew or Mother Thiew established Home Hug in 1987, but it took decades to turn what started as a makeshift shelter into a proper home for abandoned and disadvantaged children in Yasothon, a village in the north-eastern province of Thailand.
Mae Thiew’s desire to love and help others came from her own experience of growing up in a broken family. “I grew up as a love-deficient child. But my parents taught me an important lesson - we should set a good example for the children instead of just repeatedly telling them what to do. My father was my role model for making other people happy and my mother was a role model for sharing love with others,” she says.
When Mae Thiew was at university, she joined a volunteer camp to help poor farmers in the province. Following university, she decided to take a teaching job in the northernmost province of Mae Hong Son where her students were ethnic mountaineers. It was during this time that she started to notice the great suffering of many poor HIV/AIDS afflicted children after one of both parents succumbed to the disease, especially among the migrant workers from the northeastern part of Thailand.
After working in the Khlongtoey District for a non-government organisation that aimed to improve the quality of life of slum dwellers, Mae Thiew decided to do something more to address the problem. She moved to the Yasothon province - among the poorest areas in the country - since that was where she had volunteered during her university years. Mae Thiew not only created a loving home to accept HIV/AIDS orphans, she also worked to promote social acceptance for these children in the community.
It hasn’t been easy. Especially at the beginning, children were dying weekly. At times there was not enough money to provide both food and the necessary medicine for the children. Mae Thiew had to make the impossible decision of either feeding the children or providing them with medicine.
In 2010, Peter Baines learned about Mae Thiew and the home she ran for kids who either suffered from HIV/AIDS or were there because their parents had the virus and were now too ill to care for them or had in fact died from AIDS or associated illness. At the time, one third of the children were infected with HIV, and more showed markers to indicate they had the virus but these cases had not yet been confirmed. On top of all this, Mae Thiew was also battling her own affliction with pancreatic cancer.
When Peter met with Mae Thiew they were both sceptical. Both had questions about the other’s operation in Thailand, and Mae Thiew was especially guarded. However, as both learned the other’s story, the barriers broke down and were replaced with a shared love and understanding for each other and the work that each had done to aid the children in their care. It wasn’t long until Home Hug was welcomed into the Hands Across the Water family.
And the difference it made was significant. The children of Home Hug stopped dying. In the first year after Peter made the initial visit to Home Hug, Mae Thiew was able to ensure the kids in her care had three meals a day, that they had all the medication they required on a daily basis and they could make the trip to hospital for treatment if the need arose. For the first time since the orphanage was formed, the children were not dying on a weekly or monthly basis. And this has continued since 2010.
In 2011, Mae Thiew participated in her first Hands Across the Water experience, riding with the January Ride to Provide 800 kms towards Khao Lak. Despite her cancer, despite the struggles over the years, the lives of over one thousand children she buried, and the thousands of children she has fought for and continues to advocate for on a daily basis, she rode with determination, courage and commitment.
And she continues to fight today. There are days when she feels weak, but the kids are what give her strength and her love continues to be the tonic on which she thrives, “not strong in my body but my Heart be strong.”
When asked if she would like to ride with Hands in 2024 with the support of an e-bike, it was a quick reply, “Yes,” she would. Her health permitting, of course, but her love unfailing as ever, as is her commitment to her kids and Home Hug. Until the day she leaves this earth, Mae Thiew will continue to support Home Hug with all the love that these kids deserve, she will do everything she can for them. She is an inspiration of love.
“While we are alive, we should love others as much as we can.” - Mae Thiew