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Opening of JoJo Sanctuary: teaching rural children and families about trafficking awareness, healthy relationships, internet safety and parenting strategies

Heather Askew, a Prosser native, moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2011 to work with children at risk of human trafficking who lived in the heart of the red light district. She planned to stay for a year. It’s now been six. In the intervening years, she has worked in human trafficking prevention, intervention and victim restoration. In early January, she co-founded a new program reaching out to children in rural areas of Thailand. This is the story of Jojo’s Sanctuary.

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Orawan was heartbroken. She had just seen a young teen she recognized working late at night selling alcohol in the parking lot of the grocery store. When she questioned him about what he was doing, she found out his parents couldn’t pay for him to continue school after 6th grade and they needed him to find work to support the family. When she asked if his parents knew how he was making money, he said that they would be devastated if they knew, but he felt a responsibility to take care of his family. As Orawan drove home, she couldn’t get this child out of her head and she knew this story was not unique in rural Thailand. After spending years working in anti-trafficking in the city of Chiang Mai, she decided it was time she focused on helping the families in her own back yard.

At the same time, I had also gotten some heartbreaking news. A little boy named Jojo, the nephew of friends of mine, had been forced by his father to move out of the safe refuge of my friends’ home and move in with distant relatives in rural Laos. Unbeknownst to the rest of his family, including my friends, he was experienced extreme physical abuse at the hands of his relatives. Ultimately, this abuse ended with his death in spring of 2015. After processing the initial shock and heartbreak of this tragedy, I started thinking about the underlying causes of this abuse. I realized that many of the factors contributing to child abuse and trafficking are the same: poverty, limited education, lack of parenting skills, and lack of family and community support.

When Orawan came to me with the idea of starting a program that would strengthen families and address these underlying issues of trafficking and abuse, I was all in. When I shared Jojo’s story, we decided to name it in his honor and Jojo’s Sanctuary was born. That meeting happened in April 2016, and on January 7, 2017, our project was launched. In the intervening months, we added two members to our founding team and spent hours developing ideas of how to create a holistic program that would address the many factors that contributed to kids leaving home for the big city. Our focus points became clear: Educate. Protect. Empower.

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Our goals are to:

Educate children and parents about the dangers of trafficking, as well as other important topics; provide information to parents on how to understand their children better and provide financial support to families who cannot afford to send their children to school beyond sixth grade.
Protect vulnerable children by providing foster care to children in need of short term care due to parental absence, whether they are in jail, hospital or otherwise unable to provide care for a time. After family reunification, we will continue to help support the family with regular visits to help strengthen family unity.

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Empower families by assisting them in the process of obtaining Thai citizenship. This process is long and confusing and without support, it would be easy for families to give up. We will walk alongside families as they work with the system to become fully contributing citizens. Once they have their official ID card, they are empowered to get better paying jobs, receive health insurance and purchase land or property.

Our team ushered in the new year with a project launch on Saturday, January 7 in the Pamaidang neighborhood of Doi Saket. Activities were focused on educating children about their human rights. Partnering with ECPAT Thailand from Chiang Rai and with funding from Vital Voices Global Freedom Exchange, 35 children ages 10-16 learned about their rights based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was created in 1990 and ratified by Thailand in 1992. Hosted by Pamaidang School and with a delicious lunch provided by a local parent, students played games, discussed the difference between wants and needs and learned to identify their rights in four categories: survival, development, protection and participation.

Jojo’s Sanctuary is currently developing programming to teach children and families in rural communities both in Doi Saket and beyond about topics such as trafficking awareness, healthy relationships, internet safety and parenting strategies. In addition, Jojo’s Center will be opening after the summer break and will provide weekend programming for disadvantaged children in the Pa Mai Dang area.

From now until February 5, Grace Community Church in Prosser will be collecting donations of school supplies and children’s books to send to Thailand. If you would like to donate, contact grace[email protected]. In March, Heather will be in Washington to share about Jojo’s Sanctuary and create partnerships with local businesses and churches. If you would like to hear more about how you can get involved, please contact Heather Askew at [email protected]

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