Thai children in need find a home and hope
Wisconsin priest cares for HIV/AIDS and abandoned children
By Jeff Kurowski
Compass Assistant Editor
DUNDEE, Wis. -- Redemptorist Fr. Michael Shea didn't know what God had in store for him in the late 1990s. Ordained in 1966, the Armstrong, Wis. native had served his entire priesthood helping the poor in the jungles of northern Thailand. The order wanted him to move to Bangkok, but he had different plans.
"I was getting old, so they wanted me to move, but I wanted to stay up country," he said. "I decided I wanted to try to help people with AIDS."
Promiscuity among males in Thailand and rampant prostitution increased the spread of AIDS in the '90s and into the 2000's. Males became infected with the AIDS virus and, before they were aware of it, they infected their wives or other partners. The AIDS epidemic saw many infected adults having children, who were born with the HIV virus. The parents were too sick or unwilling to care for the children. This led to widespread neglect, abuse and abandonment.
In 1999, Fr. Shea opened Sarnelli House in the village of Don Vai for children who tested positive for HIV or AIDS. Sarnelli House does not receive any funding from the Thai government. It is supported by private donations from individuals and churches.
"I remember at the time thinking 'I'll do the work, but the Lord needs to find the money, the materials and the people to help,'" said Fr. Shea during a visit to Wisconsin. "He's held up to his end of the deal."
Sarnelli House can accommodate 62 children, but Fr. Shea currently serves more than 100 youths. He also operates House of Hope for babies, St. Patrick's Home for older boys in the village of Phaisi Tong, and a home for older girls in Viengkhuk. He conducts regular medical clinics at each site.
The school age children attend Rosario Catholic School. Public schools will not accept AIDS children. Fr. Shea pays tuition, furnishes uniforms and transportation.
"They all get an education," said Fr. Shea. "We can give them faith and an education. We now have eight in college. No one has left yet to go to work. There are opportunities to go to vocational schools."
Taking care of AIDS children from a behavior standpoint is easy, added Fr. Shea.
"They have been through so much that they are so thankful for the love you give them," he said. "Sometimes that desire to be loved is not a good thing, because people take advantage of the kids."
There are many success stories at Sarnelli House and Fr. Shea's other operations.
One young man who stands out, said Fr. Shea, was beaten by his aunt. He was then sent to live with his grandfather, who also beat him.
"When a child arrives here, we give them a bath," he said. "(The young man) had markings and bruises on his body. He was beaten by a fan belt. He would sit in dark rooms and dark corners for hours. I was very concerned about him. I was afraid he was going to commit suicide. Today, he is doing very well.
"The AIDS children are very receptive to children who come in. It's difficult for the new kids. They are terrified. This is a big institution with sometimes loud, raucous kids. They can't handle it at first. They don't have any friends. It's tough to see them go through that."
Fr. Shea's hometown is in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, but he has built strong relationships in the Diocese of Green Bay at St. Francis Xavier Parish in De Pere. Shawn Mulhern, a parish member, visited Sarnelli House in 2003. He became friends with Fr. Shea and offered support by arranging mission appeals through the cooperation of Fr. Tony Dolski, pastor at St. Francis Xavier at the time.
"I was surprised he (Mulhern) could find the place," said Fr. Shea. "Most people can't find it. When he talked about a mission appeal, I thought, 'yeah, sure.' I had heard that from many people before, but he was serious about it. I spoke there (St. Francis Xavier) in 2003 and again in 2004. They have been really good to us."
Mulhern, a retired radio professional, has made return trips to Thailand and has produced and narrated a film about Sarnelli House.
Reflecting on his work with children with AIDS, Fr. Shea said it has changed him.
"I'm Irish, so I'm naturally cynical and sarcastic about things, but this has deepened my faith greatly," he said. "It's strengthened me spiritually. It's hard work, but stuff that once bothered me in the past doesn't seem very important now. I used to be more impatient with things. People with AIDS don't know where to go, what to do and what is wrong with them. They need help. I'm hopeful for the future. Maybe there will be a cure."