MERCURY SERIES - Making A Difference
Two young Thai boys are among 93 babies and children affected by HIV who are receiving love and support from an extraordinary group of Illawarra women.
Robyn Johnson, Judith Bond and Lurline Butler have volunteered at the Agape Children's Home in Chiang Mai, Thailand, several times in recent years and another trip is just weeks away.
But before that they have organised a concert on Sunday afternoon at Keiraview Uniting Church to raise funds for Jaiy, Supakit and other children at the home who are at risk of or are already HIV-positive.
When the three women head back to Thailand, they will each pay their own way and take with them the money they raise on Sunday so every cent reaches the children.
The concert is specifically to help Jaiy and Supakit but all children at the home are likely to benefit from Wollongong's generosity and the activities the women do as volunteers for seven weeks.
"We hope to get enough money from the concert so we can sponsor those two boys $100 each per month," Mrs Johnson said.
"Supakit has been at the home since he was a baby. He was very sick. The first two years of his life he spent more time in hospital than out of hospital."
On at least seven occasions he was not expected to survive but he has, with some help and encouragement of his Wollongong friends.
"About 10 years ago they started getting this medicine [from the government] which helps people with HIV," Mrs Johnson said.
"He is now the fastest runner and a champion at skipping rope. Judith sits there for hours of an afternoon just turning the skipping rope."
Mrs Johnson said all children at the home attended a government school and could access the government hospital but the Agape Home ran on a shoe-string budget and relied on many volunteers and donations from around the world.
Mrs Johnson said that Jaiy was very good around the toddlers.
Mrs Bond said the number of children at the home had grown by about 20 during the last five years and the accommodation facilities were constantly being improved thanks to generous support.
Mrs Bond said the relationships they had developed with the children were priceless.
"When we return we are just swamped with a welcome hug," she said.
"We can't wait to see them and they can't wait to see us."
The trio's interest in Agape Children's Home started after Mrs Johnson's husband Ross visited Julie Neill, of Wollongong, who was spending a year volunteering at the home.
Mr Johnson made two visits while he was in Thailand on business and was so impressed with the home that he and his wife decided to sponsor a child after his second visit.
"He is a big softie and when he was there he just fell in love with the kids," Mrs Johnson said.
The Johnsons also work as volunteers for Samaritan Purse and Operation Christmas Child, which fills shoe boxes with gifts for children in need throughout Asia.
During previous visits to Thailand, Mrs Johnson and Mrs Bond have taught many of the older children how to sew and now hundreds of library bags are made each year for inclusion in the shoe boxes by the children in a vocational training centre established in 2009.
The children make thousands of library bags a year and are paid for the work.
Many of them are now working with industrial sewing machines and are using the proceeds to buy clothes.
And that has resulted in some girls pursuing a career in sewing and doing further studies.
Many friendships have been made over the last five years.
"Judith and I met by going to the Solomon Islands to deliver shoe boxes," Mrs Johnson said.
"We have a big group down here that work on that."
The Johnsons and Mrs Butler are members of Keiraview Uniting Church, which will be selling Thai food during the concert, on Sunday from 2pm.
Mrs Johnson and Mrs Bond are about to make their fifth visit to volunteer their time doing craft, teaching English and taking the children on outings and Mrs Butler is about to go on her third visit.
It was something she decided to do after retiring as a primary teacher and she has been able to make great use of her talents as a musician in the Wollongong Brass Band.
"Last year I decided to teach them the recorder," she said.
"By the end of the month they performed in a little concert. It was just fantastic."