THAILAND (BP) — Rays of sunlight spray over the mountains, ushering in a new day for May Messang* in Thailand. Air thick with heat and humidity surrounds her as she stands on the pavement. Her ponytail bobs back and forth when she runs.
Every morning, she circles the playground, skirting around bicycles, toys, swings and a small trampoline before her daily responsibilities begin. In these early moments she is free — free to think, to run, to remember.
“When I run, I think about my mom and dad. I wonder how they are doing,” Messang says, adding softly, “I [have been] in prison for four and a half years.”
Her early life has been laced with rough experiences. A transient childhood saturated with drug dealers and prostitutes landed her in a juvenile detention center. Her eyes shift and she adjusts her posture before cautiously unfolding her memories.
“I didn’t grow up with my parents. [My] mom and dad [are] divorced since I was a kid,” the small Thai woman confides. “I lived with my brother for a while [and] it wasn’t too long before my mom got arrested.”
Later came the marriage of her mother to an unwelcoming stepfather. Messang returned to live with her brother among disreputable thugs. She married when she was 15 and had her first child at 17. Shortly after she gave birth, Messang was arrested when police raided her home.
Her dark eyes soften when the sound of waking toddlers drifts from a nearby window, bringing her back to the present. She smiles and explains that because of her five years of “exceptional” behavior in the detention center, she’s been given a second chance — a chance to work with children, a chance for a better life, a chance to find peace.
Messang is one of two women chosen for a groundbreaking work release program in Thailand founded by International Mission Board workers Ken and Susan Quaid*. The detainees join other Thai young women training to be au pairs at the Quaids’ foster home. They learn childcare and child safety. The end goal for most of the women is to work internationally as a nanny. For Messang, who cannot leave Thailand, she hopes to one day be a “live-in” nanny within her home country.
When Messang first arrived at the foster home several months ago, her emotions swirled. This is the first program of its kind in Thailand and no one really knew what to expect.
“I was so nervous, I couldn’t sleep,” she says before pointing out an added bonus to her new surroundings. “Because I get to walk around the garden here, I feel like I have more freedom.”
Susan admits she was just as nervous as the girls she welcomed into her program. She worried about how to react to them and their stories. After prayer, she and Ken decided the only way to react was to “accept them for who they are” and to go on with life as normal.
“I was very cautious in the beginning. I could hear their feet on the track outside while it was still dark — very, very early. I’d peek through my window and ask, ‘What are they doing?'” she laughs in recollection. “The girls were simply sweeping, mopping and cleaning the rooms. They never even left a wrinkle on the beds.”
Determined to make the most of her new start, Messang sticks close to Susan, learning childcare basics like changing diapers, giving hugs and scheduling activities. Messang is amazed at Susan’s choice to care for orphans.
“Susan is so happy, she [treats the] kids like her own children,” Messang says, adding that she sees something different in Susan — something she has not experienced in her life. “She gives people a chance.”
The Quaids offer Messang a chance to break out of a cycle of drugs and prostitution that seems to ensnare so many Thai girls. Messang’s quiet gratitude to this couple winds its way into her everyday actions.
Susan observes the girls and to what extent they are improving. She notes how Messang’s interaction with the children has changed.
“I see [her] giving the children a kiss goodbye,” Susan says. “I see attachments and emotions, where in the beginning it was a still face [or front].”
When Susan sees Messang interact with the children, she often wonders whether the Thai woman thinks of her own child. The young woman’s hands shake ever so slightly at the mention of her son.
“When I see those kids, they do remind me of my own child,” Messang admits. “When I take care of these kids, it’s like I’m taking care of my own. He’s almost 4 now.”
A hollow grief is exposed in her eyes as she pauses, lost in the past again. She then offers her impression of Susan and how this work release program is changing her.
“Susan is kind to me, better than my own relatives. My relatives don’t even give chances like Susan has given me,” the young Thai woman says. “I’m happy to be around her, happy like finding a new life. I will change myself and will not go back to the old life. I will throw away that old life.”
The missionary smiles at the declaration. This is just the first step in offering hope for a changed life not only for Messang but for other women who need a second chance.
*Names changed. Evelyn Adamson is a writer in Southeast Asia.