A Day in the Life of a Mom at The Well

The typical “human trafficking” tale is simple: a villain lures a girl with promises of a good job, but she ends up trapped and sold. We’ve all heard some version of that story – but we’ve never heard it from a woman at The Well.

The real-life stories are never simple. Instead of being tricked by a trafficker, girls meet tricksters like peer pressure, teenage romance, or illicit drugs. They’re often trapped by abuse, economic hardship, or a mental illness.

Most women at The Well are young single moms who ended up working “at night” to support their kids. These women are a key reason we focus on holistic family recovery, from keeping nursing babies next to mom to offering parenting classes and support.

We want you to understand what we do and why, so we’re dedicating our next few articles to our single moms. This first essay is a fictionalized day in the life of a young mother who is new to The Well.

Kay wakes with her daughter Noy asleep next to her, tangled hair all over her face.

“Baby, wake up!” She nudges Noy half-heartedly, then considers rolling over for more sleep. Then she remembers her attendance contract.

“I can’t be late.” she thinks. She’s tired of failing. This time, she’s going to make it – she will get up early and she will not party on weeknights.

“You can do this,” she whispers.

“Wake up.” Now her voice is stern, with an edge that Noy knows well. The little girl drags her feet to the shower. Her school uniform, ironed and ready, waits on a chair.

They arrive at school and Noy realizes she was supposed to wear her scouting uniform today. She begins to cry, and they run the half-block home for the right uniform. Noy makes it back on time, but Kay is late to work.

She signs in with a tight feeling in her shoulders and goes to Bible study. Someone reads the verses as little breezes move the curtains. A sparrow walks across the tile, and her spirit begins to settle. She looks up shyly at the other women.

Her second hour is a mom’s class. Ann, a volunteer at The Well, talks about teaching manners to your children. Kay already teaches Noy to be polite, just as her grandma taught her, so it’s easy to let her mind wander. She worries over money problems.

At lunch time, her grandma calls. She takes care of Kay’s 9-year-old son back home, and Kay is due to send money. Grandma knows she won’t get paid until Friday, but she still yells about the delay. She tells Kay she is no good, and that she needs to get a job like her cousin has. Her family is building a new house with all the money she sends.

“Grandma, I will send you money on Friday, I promise,” Kay says. Her grandma ends the call without a goodbye.

“I’m trying so hard and she doesn’t believe me. Maybe I can’t do this. Maybe I should just go get drunk with the money,” Kay thinks. She pushes the rice across her plate.

The afternoon is slow. Women upstairs are making peanut butter to sell, and the smell makes her hungry. She wishes she’d eaten her lunch. Downstairs, The Well is rebuilding a cafe. She sees the construction workers in their long-sleeved T-shirts and it reminds her of husband. His eyes used to light up when he saw her.

She wishes she could go back to life before he left her. She sighs and remembers how it was – just show up at job sites for work and party any night; no need to keep a schedule or plan the right school uniform. She could run away and do that again.

But she sighs again. She doesn’t want to run. She wants to take care of her daughter and send money home for her son. She wants things to be better for herself and for them. That’s why she is here.

“Kay, focus!” Pi Bee’s voice brings her back. The earrings she is making are complicated and she doesn’t quite have it right.

“You can do this,” she whispers. She writes her name carefully on the tag as she finishes the set: “Kay, 25 years old.”

At the end of the day, she picks Noy up at the Center’s aftercare program, and they stop for noodle soup on the way home. Noy’s eyes droop as she does her homework, and Kay double-checks that the right school uniform for tomorrow is ironed.

“You can do this,” she says to herself as flicks off the light and lies down next to Noy. “You can.”

Would you like to hear more?

Over the next few weeks we’ll explore the social and economic realities women like Kay deal with every day, and how we believe we can bring about real transformation for these women and their families. Subscribe to our newsletter to be notified when we post the next one.

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Your Brain on Trauma

A few months ago, a pickup truck turned in front of a motor scooter just 50 feet ahead of me on my own bike. The rider braked but slammed into the truck at maybe 5 to 10 miles an hour. He appeared a bit dazed but stayed on his feet, bystanders quickly coming to help.

Afterwards I noted that while it was only a minor accident, a picture was now indelibly painted into my memory: the rider, wearing a lime-green shirt, arms flying up to catch the impact, slamming into the white truck. Twenty years from now I will most likely not remember typing this article, but I will retain that image.

Recently I asked “Nan”, 25 and with a left forearm completely scarred from years of self-cutting, what some of her worst memories were. Nan had started out very guarded and to some, threatening: her income sources had been drug dealing and pimping other girls. But having spent a few years working to slowly earn Nan’s trust, I knew I could ask. “So many!” she exclaimed.

“Tell me a couple,” I pressed.

“I was raped at 15,” Nan began, then added, “When I was 13 I watched about 30 guys rape my friend.” To our team, reports like these are sadly and disturbingly common.

Brain science has come a long way since my B.A. in psychology in 1979. We now have a pretty good understanding of what happens when the brain goes through a traumatic experience. “Write this one down!” our amygdala, there to protect us, shouts not only to the brain but to nerves connected throughout our bodies. The greater the fear, the more permanent the paint recording all five senses.

Most of the time and in healthy people, this works like an immune system. We become more careful. But when one experiences severe and/or repeated trauma, a number of unhealthy things start to happen that don’t just go away. Any one of the five senses can trigger a fear response, often without our full awareness. We may feel anxious, angry, or apathetic, but not know why.

The worst of all is repeated trauma, involving helplessness, that occurs randomly to a child. Brain and body lock into a perpetual state of fear. Life becomes survival from constant threat. She lashes out or withdraws, with growing shame over her irrational behavior. She will try anything to feel better, or feeling numb, may hurt herself to feel something. It only gets worse.

Arousal hormones such as adrenaline tear at healthy cells and the immune system derails. Many women at The Well get sick at least monthly. One of our dear long-term addicted women passed away just last week from infectious disease.

There are answers, and a growing understanding of trauma-based disorders has been incredibly helpful at The Well. It fits very well with the Good News of grace, making Scripture wonderfully alive. However in a real sense we are only just getting started.

We will explain more in our next edition. For now I’d like to introduce our main staff counselor, Siri, an amazing, grace-filled woman who comes out of a traumatic background herself, including addiction and sex trafficking. Siri is encouraging several younger women to follow her in psychology and counseling studies. Please take three minutes to watch her story then prayerfully consider the possibilities below.

Thank you again for praying for and supporting The Well.

Ways to Help

Sponsor a future professional.

This coming school year, ten students from Servantworks Thailand ministries will be in university. Most have goals to work helping others in professions such as teaching and counseling (one is the daughter of the woman who just passed away). In addition, one married couple is working on M.Div. degrees at a Bangkok seminary. Perhaps you would like to help support one of these wonderful young leaders.

Provide training and consultation.

We are inviting mental health professionals, or others with experience in addressing trauma, to teach and coach. While a visit to Thailand is most helpful, online video chat can work very well.

Help build healthy places.

Because rampant addiction and other severe dysfunction make for very unsafe communities among the Thai lower class, we have two complementary dreams: 1) “Connect”, growing a healthy church-without-walls network in our community, based around a coffeeshop; 2) a short-term residential recovery center, where women with high dysfunction can receive safe, intensive help. Connect needs about $6000 in building repair, and we would like to begin a capital fund for land and improvements for the recovery center.

“I saw light!” God’s Work in Bringing People to Freedom

I walked into the jewelry room the other day to find only a few working–others were away at classes. Right away “Nan*”, a gregarious 18 year-old, with beautiful skin tone and features from her African-American father, said she wanted to be baptized. She pronounced the unfamiliar Thai word slowly, “baptisma”. I looked at her quizzically. Nan has a lovely personality to complement her gorgeous smile, but has never shown more than a casual interest in matters of faith.

We are very clear with everyone that our love for them and the benefits of The Well are in no way dependent on their changing to Christianity. The Thai desire to serve and please is such that many will gladly change to for our sakes-obviously not what we want.

Bam, a bright 20 year-old who has risen to manager status, changed the subject. “Dad, you need to take us to the beach!” she ordered. “My daughter hasn’t seen the ocean yet, and I want to take her.”

“Sure, that would be great!” I said, seeing an opportunity for Bam to step up in leadership. “Why don’t you work on putting something together with a cost per person, and the ministry perhaps could help some?”

silhouette 2“I saw light,” Nan interrupted. I looked at her again, confused, wondering if I had heard correctly. “I saw light!” she repeated.

Two weeks ago Saun had handed out instructions on how to become a Christian. Saun, who met Jesus at The Well 6 years ago, along with his wife Gik, teaches a class for newer women on basic Christianity. “You can do this on your own if you want to,” Saun had instructed. “It’s completely up to you.”

“I did what Saun said,” Nan reported. “I prayed to God, and confessed my sins. And I saw light. Jesus was in the room with me. I kept hearing him say, ‘Welcome! Welcome! Come in!'”

Now Nan was glowing. “I keep thinking over and over about that woman, you know, the one who was being punished and Jesus let her go? I keep seeing her in my mind and thinking, ‘I am that woman! I am that woman!'” This girl who had so far only shown casual interest was now totally in love with Jesus.

Living in a religiously free, highly evangelized but barely reached culture has taught us to work solely from a perspective of God’s work in people. The traditional ways of reaching folks that bore fruit in the West don’t work here. And with no quick answers, the sheer numbers of desperate people are overwhelming and discouraging. Instead we have learned to let God lead us to people, and then to let God grow them, one by one.

On the crowded block known as Soi Cowboy, where some 2000 scantily dressed women and ladyboys entertain Western and Japanese men, we don’t think about passing out tracts or preaching on the corner. Neither when we visit Circle 22, where hundreds more come to solicit on the street. We pray, “Lord, we don’t know what we’re doing. If you have someone for us to meet, would you lead her (or him) to us?”

Judy and Jessica Mangiameli met Nan that way, at a Soi Cowboy coyote bar last year. Nan was then 17, and about to enter 12th grade, but was wavering. She never knew her father, and her mother has lived in Europe for years. Nan said at the time that she needed to quit school in order to take care of her grandmother. Judy and Jessica’s best efforts failed to convince her. Around last December, Nan became pregnant, and agreed to join The Well.

When someone joins The Well, we explain that we will teach her about Jesus as the example that we follow-the reason we came to Thailand, the reason that people give financially etc. We do not compare religions. We do teach the Bible to show God’s heart and principles for living, but most importantly, we love and pray.

We can now tell multiple stories of men and women becoming all-in followers of Jesus through this approach. After some time God, in His own way, breaks through their natural barriers of self-centeredness. They walk out of that prison of self, understand sin and grace, and are able to love as they are loved. It’s great fun when it happens. After that point we see very little relapse into old ways.

hug cu bwOf course there are many, both current students and alumni of The Well, who are still very much in process, some after many years. But we see progress often enough to remind us that God doesn’t quit. Alumni contact us regularly, and every year some return.

It is completely freeing. We don’t have to worry so much about doing just the right thing in order to bring someone to wholeness in Jesus. The best we can do is enjoy them-care for them not because we are supposed to, but because they are precious. We plant and water. God does the growing.

We wish you all could enjoy the opportunity we have here in an unreached culture, to introduce Jesus to people completely fresh, not having to wade through misconceptions or baggage of previous bad experiences with Christianity. But we believe the same approach is right for the West as well.

The time has largely passed when leading someone through the plan of salvation and referring him or her to a church is adequate. By all means that is not to say we should not look for such opportunities. But when we listen to what folks are saying to us in the U.S., it appears that there is a need to grow in learning to love people to Jesus, in that order.

Here are some suggested steps to try. They are not original by any means.

1. Pray.

  • for people in your life, for God to draw each one to Himself. Always think Ephesians 2:10. It’s not your job to make things happen.
  • for God to bring new people into your life that have a need you can meet. If your relationships are mostly Christians, look for new ways to meet others.
  • for God to prepare your own heart, that you will truly have His love for folks.

2. Love. Find God’s glorious image in each person. When you see it, you will naturally love out of enjoyment, not out of duty or obligation. See Paul’s example in I Thessalonians 1-2.

3. Explain when asked, cf. I Peter 3:15. Simply tell your story-why you follow Jesus, why you love the Bible, etc. Don’t expect others to see what you do. Especially important in the current age: don’t be afraid to mention the highest standard of morality and sacrifice that Jesus taught and embodied, along with grace for sinners. When we truly love, people will let us bring up this point, even welcome.

4. Wait. Don’t think that someone has to change within weeks or even months. Don’t be discouraged at 3 steps forward, 3.9 back. That’s normal. Keep going, don’t give up, cf. Galatians 6:9.

Of course Nan has a long ways to go. Her private, subjective experience must be confirmed and relearned in daily life; her new childlike faith must be tested and stretched. But indeed that is happening. She talks now of getting answers to prayer, but more importantly, of realizing God’s presence daily, including in stressful situations. We are confident that God is the one who is working in her, and that He will complete His work in His time and His way. Our job is to watch, enjoy, and praise His Name.

*By policy, we usually use pseudonyms. 

When She Can’t Say No to Drugs

I sat down with “Jang” today to let her know that she was out of work.
Jang, 43, is a yaba addict. Yaba, literally “crazy drug”, is a mix of mostly meth and caffeine that is pandemic in Southeast Asia, especially in the lower class. It is highly connected to risky behavior, including prostitution. It is relatively cheap, not as intense and harmful as homemade meth, but is still highly addictive, debilitating and potentially devastating. Jang has been incarcerated twice, for a total of 9 years.

Everyone likes Jang. She loves Jesus, is bright, gentle, good at making jewelry, and gets along with everyone. Sadly, it also means she hits it off with newcomers with a weakness for yaba. For the good of both Jang and others, we had to regrettably decide to ask her to step away and find a program for recovery.

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Yaba addiction is one of our biggest challenges.

We’ve worked with Jang for a long time, trying to help her through every means at our disposal to quit. She has made strides, then always relapsed. She tested positive to a surprise drug test last week, and we finally had to tell her that it isn’t working. The Well isn’t helping her, and she is hurting others.

Drug addiction, like all mental illness, is improperly stigmatized. No one grows up saying, “I want to be an addict.” Addiction preys on the hurt and vulnerable. A few years ago, when my mom was more mobile, she would visit women at her local county jail. About 90% of women with drug convictions, she said, reported having endured sexual abuse as children.

That of course is what makes this all so hard. Jang sat motionless, staring at me with wide, puppy-dog brown eyes. I wanted to reach across the table and hug her. Her eyes moistened, but she did not weep, nor did she protest. I asked her about her talk earlier today with a counselor. She said she talked about growing up unloved by her mother. Her father died when she was little.

People usually need healthy support systems in order to recover from years of addiction. That is our problem. There is a government drug clinic nearby which has limited counseling and groups, but there is no 12-step or other recovery network in Thailand. Churches, limited in number as they already are, rarely address it.

There is slow progress. We recently began a recovery unit as part of our program at The Well. Women who are unable to work due to trauma and addiction can receive holistic therapy. Our three newest ministry workers are former addicts, who just joined us in April but are already having a huge impact. Sorn and Gik, a husband-wife team, were heavyyaba users before meeting Jesus at The Well in 2008. Sii was a heroin addict, prostitute and sex trafficker before the Lord met her in Singapore years ago. We will be telling their amazing stories very soon.

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Recovery students working on an art exercise

However, we still are only able to provide a day program, and folks are still very subject to bad influences evenings and weekends. Our next goal is developing activities, such as Bible study, recovery support groups, music and recreation for folks during those hours. We hope to add Saturday and Sunday options very soon.

Please pray for Jang with us, that she will find God’s perfect plan for her. Pray for God’s victory against the overwhelming negative spiritual forces that dominate the Thai lower class. And please pray for God to continue to build and bring the leaders needed to form a healthy, supportive 24×7 community.

The Secret to Successful Ministry

Visitors to The Well often give compliments, such as “This is a tremendous ministry!” or “You’ve really accomplished a lot.”  We’re indeed grateful for “success stories” and a growing base of change-agent leaders, but we are also quick to point out that we take no credit. We’re just muddling along, really, and have only done one thing well: we haven’t quit.

img_1193Anyone in ministry among broken people (and since we’re all broken, that’s really all of us) knows how messy it is. We also know how completely incapable we can be. I asked God many times over the last nine years why He couldn’t have picked someone better to lead this thing. Packing up and leaving has indeed come to mind a few times.

We can only imagine the plethora of obstacles and discouragements over some years that prompted Paul to write to his Galatian friends, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

If we don’t give up. That’s the only ‘if’. For Paul the worst had to be not the beatings and jail (as if those weren’t so bad), but the unrelenting opposition from his own people. Imagine Paul’s chagrin each time he found a new synagogue, hoping, “Maybe this time,” only to be rebuffed once more. Then even when confident in his call to all nations, Paul found his own brothers wanting to squash that as well, prompting the Galatian letter. How many times do you think he asked, “Lord, what now?” And we all know that sometimes those “What now?” times can last a while.

The good news is that when we push through those times, however long we have to wait, we do find encouragement. In our case, runaway women came back, ready to change and grow. Some stuck in old habits finally began to break free. We saw children starting to grow up healthy. People unable to grasp the sin-grace dichotomy of salvation finally got it.

But more importantly, we have changed. Yes, we’ve made mistakes enough times to finally learn from them. We’ve also read books and received training on needed topics, from organizational management to brain science. But mostly we’ve learned to slow down, major on basics like praying and loving each other, and wait for God to do His work.

Many of you have stood by us since the beginning, giving faithfully to this work, trusting God along with us for an eventual great harvest. We are humbly grateful for your entrusting us with this ministry, and always do our best to spend wisely and carefully. We especially pray that our work can be an encouragement to you, that you will remain faithful and confident in His perfect plan for you and the work He has entrusted to you, in spite of obstacles and discouragements you face. Don’t quit. You will reap.

Introducing Cycle Breakers

Here’s a short video intro to our new program in Northeast Thailand. Four workers from The Well have moved to the Khon Khen province and are serving well over 60 children per week in supplemental education programs. Additionally they teach values and English in local schools, and are in regular discussion with community and school leaders about how to reverse destructive patterns in families.