How Althea Mason (pictured left) went from being an ordinary Kiwi girl to a mum of some 50 orphans in Thailand.
I was born in New Zealand and lived there for the first five years of my life. We then moved to New South Wales, Australia, for four years, where I attended primary school. Due to my father’s work, we moved to the United Kingdom when I was nine, returning to Australia when I was 14.
I attended seven schools in eight years but completed high school back in the town we first moved to in Australia. At university, I started studying to be a primary teacher but switched courses and graduated with a diploma of applied science in nursing.
As a little girl, I loved to play “mummies and daddies” with dolls. My ambition in life was to grow up and be a mum. I picked out my future children’s names for when I had a family and used to tell my mother I wanted to work in an orphanage one day.
My parents moved back to the United Kingdom for a five-year period when I was 25 years old and I visited them for Christmas one year. That Christmas Eve, a drunk driver hit the brick fence of my parents’ house. A young man named Mark came to fix the fence and I brought him a cup of tea. He asked me out to dinner and two years later, we were married.
Mark and I lived in England for the first three years of our marriage before moving to Australia, where we lived for the next 18 years. During that time, we discovered—devastatingly—that we could not have children. I went through a grieving process and hoped that my dream of working in an orphanage would come true.
A guest speaker from an aid agency, International Children’s Care Australia (ICC Australia), gave a presentation at my church one day. He spoke passionately about the desperate circumstances many children found themselves in and his stories and photos touched my heart. After the presentation, I asked him how I could become involved with ICC Australia. He suggested Mark and I join a medical and building mission trip to Cambodia and Thailand, which was planned in a few months’ time. Once we had been on the trip, we would have our own experiences and photos to talk about and we could then be ambassadors for ICC Australia, helping to raise funds and find sponsorships for children.
Mark and I agreed to go on the mission trip and I looked forward to it with keen anticipation. We first visited Cambodia and walked on the rubbish dumps where both the young and the old were scavenging for anything recyclable. It was amid the rubbish and the stench that I said to Mark, “If we go home from this trip unchanged, then that is the worst thing that could happen to us.”
From visiting poor villages and the rubbish dumps of Cambodia, to visiting the poverty-stricken villages in Northern Thailand, assisting in building a boys’ dormitory in the town of Phrao and then conducting medical checks at Kirsten Jade Rescue Centre (KJRC), an ICC Australia orphanage outside the city of Chiang Mai, the mission trip was a life-changing experience.
We both fell in love with the children at KJRC and, for the next five years, we visited them twice a year and formed ongoing friendships through sponsorships. We chose to visit them in the middle of the year and every Christmas. It was such a joy to be able to organise special Christmas programs and gifts for the children.
I spoke often to church groups, school groups and other gatherings, of how we walked on the rubbish dumps and witnessed the raw poverty of village life that drove us to make a difference. I couldn’t change the world but I could endeavour to make a difference in some children’s lives. The stories we told and the photos we showed encouraged others to donate and sponsor children, helping to improve the old and rundown buildings at KJRC and fix broken or outdated equipment.
In June 2014, having just returned from Thailand, I received a phone call from ICC Australia, asking if I would consider becoming the new administrator for KJRC. At that moment my heart seemed to momentarily stop and then jump at the possibility of my long-term dream coming true. Of course, I had to discuss this offer with my husband, but my mind was already running away with ideas.
Following a prayerful discussion and opening the Bible to Psalm 113:7, 9: “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap . . . he settles the childless woman in her home as a happy mother of children”, the answer was a resounding yes.
We sold our home, packed our belongings, gave away a lot, took too much with us and traded my $80,000-a-year salary for $6000. I gave up a Monday-to-Friday job for a seven-day-a-week position that often was 24/7.
I exchanged job security and comfort for smiles, hugs, laughter and the sound of all the children calling me “Mummy” every day!
When I first arrived at KJRC, the gardens were 90 per cent weeds, the fruit trees were not bearing much fruit and it appeared that maintenance had been neglected due to lack of funds. It was hard to know where to start. We weeded the gardens and planted soya beans to enrich the soil and started composting and mulching.
I learned it was better to teach by example, especially when you don’t speak the language. Slowly we saw staff and children composting and mulching the gardens as well. Today, we can pick vegetables for meals and the fruit trees are starting to bear more fruit. There is still much more we can and will do, but I have learned to be patient and that improvements are an ongoing process, a journey that does not have an end, but rather, with many new beginnings along the way.
When I arrived at KJRC, I found many of the children suffered from headaches and stomach aches. I believed the headaches were due to dehydration and the stomach aches from drinking dirty water (there was no access to clean, cold water) and constipation. So we installed a cold, filtered water fountain, donated by the generosity of others. We also introduced brown rice to their meals, which has improved the many complaints of constipation, and thanks to an increase in donations, were able to add fruit to our weekly market purchase (the fruit trees we have do not provide enough regular fruit for 50 children).
The KJRC budget is solely reliant on donations and sponsorships. Child sponsorships cover the day-to-day running costs, while donations allow for improvements and changes. My future plan is to enable us to become more self-sufficient. I hope to one day buy land nearby and build a house or cafe on it to provide a halfway house for children who have become too old to be sponsored, but due to their tragic past, find it difficult to live independently as adults.
Also, if a child leaves KJRC, gets a job but has to leave or is fired, or goes to university but drops out, or attends vocational training but fails to gain employment, they will at least have a home to come back to. This home would be a safe haven, a step towards independence by being separate from KJRC. Otherwise, these children risk having their vulnerability exploited.
KJRC melts my heart. The children just need love, care and nurturing. That doesn’t mean it is always easy. In fact I often shed tears at the responsibility, frustrations and the heartlessness of some people. The heat and the language often get me down, but the smiles and laughter, the beautiful singing every day, the cuddles and the children calling me “Mummy” remind me of the big picture—them.
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