“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love,” as Mother Theresa, who devoted her life to serving poor people in India, once said.
Such small things can ripple out to have a wide influence. That’s what I see at Agape Home in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where orphaned and abandoned children live with HIV.
Founder and director Avis Rideout, originally from Canada’s east coast (specifically Triton, Newfoundland and Labrador), is quick to give credit to others. She could not have realized any of the home’s accomplishments without “those who have chosen to give of themselves and share the vision,” she says.
When the home began in 1996 under the umbrella of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland and Labrador, there were many deaths from AIDS, but happily that is no longer the case, due to today’s antiretroviral medications. It’s also due to the love given by volunteers – agape is a Greek word associated with God’s unconditional love.
Agape Home, also known as Nikki’s Place, is always close to its capacity of 100 children. It provides those children with a loving, supportive environment with nurture from Thai nannies and international volunteers. The majority of the children who live there are HIV positive, so they do have specialized needs, but they also have the same needs as children everywhere.
Agape is a Christian home where children are encouraged to pursue their goals and dreams. Since its opening, close to one hundred children have moved on into adoptive families all around the world.
The only mistake is not to risk making one
Director Avis Rideout is the youngest, most enthusiastic 70-ish person I have ever met! (Or that’s what I thought, until she just told me she’s a little older than that; but who can tell – she is so young at heart!) The word enthusiasm is derived from Latin meaning “passion; possession or inspiration by God,” and that is certainly true in her case.
I met her during my volunteer stints at the home, and found her to be a tireless visionary with a lifetime commitment to work for the children of Agape Home. Part of her philosophy seems to be that “The only mistake is not to risk making one,” as American Christian author Max Lucado puts it in Cure for the Common Life: Living in Your Sweet Spot (Thomas Nelson, 2011).
While chatting recently with the volunteers, Avis talked about how she wants to make sure she pursues the passion and vision God has given her. “I could have missed it!” she says. It is very inspiring to watch her at work. Mae (mother) Avis is always on the go, tending to the children’s needs with a fun-loving attitude.
It started with Nikki
The vision began when Avis’ family adopted Nikki in 1996. At that time, Nikki (then known as Jarawee) was quite ill with many of the hallmark infections associated with AIDS. As Avis has told in her story: “Nikki was not chosen because she looked beautiful, but because it was all in the plans of God. When we make a promise to Him, we need not worry about God keeping His promise to us. It is sure to happen.”
After adopting Nikki, Avis made a promise to God that she would open a home for children with HIV and AIDS. That is why Agape Home exists today. Avis nursed her with unconditional love, and Nikki is now a beautiful, vivacious, much healthier young woman.
This beautiful story – starting with Nikki – has spread from country to country. Others can see the children who live at Agape, living and doing things with others who do not have this condition. “We love and care for children with HIV/AIDS at Agape Home,” says Avis. “Lives have been touched by the power of love that people feel and see here.”
Agape Home has grown remarkably. I witnessed the beginnings of a small village (named Jarawee) containing five homes surrounding the main building while volunteering there for the first time. That was ten years ago, when some of the older children moved into those homes with foster parents. There have been other expansions: a cafeteria has been built, where all of the children eat and socialize together.
Avis had a dream for the children to have their own swimming pool. Some years ago a lady from Russia gave a donation to start this fund. Since then, a very generous businessman from Avis’ home community donated sufficient funds to make the dream a reality. The pool was opened a few years ago, to the delight of all of the children.
Generous donors have also enabled construction to start on a multi-purpose building which will have many applications, including training in English, hairdressing, animal husbandry, cooking and sewing. The vision Avis feels that God has given her also includes future dormitories – places where the children can live once they get older and outgrow their Jarawee home.
There is also a mother-baby unit designed to accommodate a mom and baby, or sometimes for a woman who arrives pregnant, providing a home for her for as long as she needs it. This unit has also hosted adults who are sick with AIDS and needing a place to live out the rest of their lives in peace.
Support for children at risk
Agape supports Project Lek, which assists children at risk of being separated from their families, by providing stipends – support to allow them to stay in their family homes. Avis hopes to someday build a long-term care facility on the property to take care of some of the grandmothers who have been caring for these children whose parents have passed away.
As summer finishes, and the rainy season begins, so does the beginning of the new school year. Each summer Agape is blessed to have international teams of students visit during their holidays and spend valuable time with the children. They organize sports activities, swimming lessons, crafts and special projects. This is truly a high point for the children through the summer.
I asked for an update from staff since COVID-19 came, and heard this: Agape has been financially affected as well, but we can see the true blessings from God through many people who have the hearts to help and support Agape Home both financially and spiritually. Due to the pandemic Agape cannot accommodate teams or volunteers at this time, but we believe that things will be back in normal routine soon. Moreover, we are thankful that none of the children or staff have been affected by the COVID-19. We are truly blessed.
It is a privilege to have been a returning volunteer at Agape – to be among those whose goal it is to strive to demonstrate the love of Christ – unconditional love, agape love. As one of many volunteers, I know that our purpose at Agape is clear – to love the children. I can honestly say that my time there is well spent, in keeping with my life’s calling. I believe God has good plans for Agape Home – for hope and a future for these orphans, where the only thing that’s contagious - is love.
Donna Squires, originally from Newfoundland and Labrador, now lives in Kamloops, B.C., and has volunteered twice at Nikki’s Place/Agape Home in Chiang Mai, Thailand (www.nikkisplace.org).