The Thais That Bind

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As a 20-year veteran in the credit union movement, Les Ginoza is used to making a difference in the lives of others.

Earlier this year, however, he chose to do so by leaving credit unions. The former vice president of marketing for Farmers Insurance Group FCU left his job in Los Angeles, moved his family across the width of the Pacific Ocean, and began helping save the lives of children in Thailand (CU Journal, Feb. 28).

Ginoza, along with a small group of Americans, is running a children's home here in the second-largest city in Thailand after Bangkok. The home is dedicated to keeping kids out of the hands of human slave traders and brothel owners-who pay thousands of dollars for certain prized children.

"The problem of child prostitution and human slavery is much worse than I initially realized," said Ginoza, who has been here since March 1. "According to various statistics, organized crime is the backbone of this movement. This trade is set to surpass the illegal profits of drugs or weapons in the near future. The penalties for drug or weapons trafficking are much more severe, so it is easier for organized crime to traffic humans. They already have the distribution system in place, so they merely 'switch' products to people from guns or drugs."

The ZOE Children's Home focuses on the preventative stages of getting the kids before organized crime or brothel owners can get to them, he continued. The most at-risk are orphans, but, in some instances, the home will take in a child with living parents under special circumstances. For example, some single parents cannot take care of their children. In this case, the home has no legal grounds to hold the child if the parent later wants him or her back.

Children At Risk Of Being Sold

"Our priority is taking the kids who are in the most severe risk of being sold, so the orphans naturally are higher on our list than those with a parent," explained Ginoza. "Many of the people are afraid of these children, because they think they may have AIDS, so they want us to take them. Others just don't want the obligation of another mouth to feed, so it is pretty easy to convince them to give the kids to us. We have a good reputation in the villages we visit and they see how well we take care of the children, so it is a pretty easy decision to give the children to us."

In some cases, people who know of at-risk children contact the ZOE home. For example, an older sister recently brought her two younger sisters. The oldest girl is a prostitute, and the brothel owners have the sisters selling flowers in front of the brothel. "They have a mother, but she is an alcoholic, so these kids are left alone for hours," said Ginoza. "It was very possible they could have been snatched off the streets, but they are living with us now."

Making Adjustments

The three things Ginoza and his family took the most time adjusting to was the language, the food, and driving on the opposite side of the road from the opposite side of the car (the steering wheel is on the right-hand side).

He said his family is taking Thai lessons in an effort to better communicate with the locals.

"Three months into our new life, the transition is still in progress, but it is much better than the first two weeks here," he said.

In some ways the transition has been easier than expected because of the support group. In addition to Ginoza's wife and son, the home is run by Ginoza's wife's sister and her husband, along with five other people. He said the influx of talent has helped make significant in-roads to improving the existing home and help gear up to take the organization to the next level.

Providing Shelter, Education

The ZOE home currently is in a rented facility. With 54 children, it is near its maximum capacity. Ginoza said the group is looking for another building to expand into, or possibly land to acquire, which he said is the long-term goal.

"Most of our time here has been spent upgrading the living conditions, Thai staff training and mentorship, health and hygiene issues, and implementing new educational initiatives. For instance, we began offering English classes because a child's potential for success in this economy increases between 200% and 400% if he or she can speak, read and write English," he said. "Thailand is a major destination for tourism and has a growing business economy, so there are many English-speaking people either visiting or migrating to this country."

Ginoza's group recently took in three new orphan boys, approximate ages eight, nine and 12. He said the children had to be screened for HIV and AIDS prior to acceptance, because the home is not set up to support children with intensive medical needs. "Fortunately, all three tested negative and are now in our care," he said.

If children test positive for HIV or AIDS, the ZOE home has relationships with other children's homes that can offer support. However, this requires a monthly fee per child.

"Funds are limited, and they have to charge us for the added expenses associated with the higher medical needs. This is why fundraising is so important for us. Whether or not we house the children, we always make an effort to try to keep them from harm's way."

Tsunami Aftermath

Because the ZOE home is located in northern Thailand, Ginoza has not had much contact with the areas affected by the devastating tsunami that swept through the southeast portion of the country last December. He said the group visited the region to offer assistance and take in orphans, but there has been little official support.

"The king gathered up all the orphans off the streets and secluded them to get them into the hands of relatives. Those who did not have relatives would be farmed out to various orphanages. We put our name on the king's list to adopt children, but we have not heard anything."

"It could be we are located in an area that is so far away from the disaster area, the government does not want to send children here," he continued. "We don't know, but we still hope there is a possibility we can obtain some children. There still are great needs in the area. But, because the tsunami is old news and no longer in the limelight, much of the aid is dwindling. It will take another year or so before everything will be back to a semi-normal state there."

While signficant relief funds are available, it is taking a long time for organizations to spend the money wisely, Ginoza said. "There still are many people who have not gotten any help."

Fighting the Good Fight

For Ginoza and the others involved in the ZOE home, daily life consists of a battle-to educate and to rescue. The organized crime syndicates go to poor villages and tell people they have "jobs" for children. They offer parents the equivalent of $1,000 to $3,500 for a child; the latter amount could be a year's salary for some residents.

"We don't cross paths with the people from organized crime because we are preventative," he said. "We are trying to stop it before the kids are in the brothels. We need to educate people and make them realize what's going on, then we will have a better chance."

"This is not hard to do because it is our passion," Ginoza added. "We are excited about doing it. Once you meet the kids, they really touch your heart. They know what we gave up when we moved here, and they know we are not just visiting."

Ginoza said Farmers Insurance Group FCU, as well as one of its vendors, have been "gracious in supporting our cause." He said many individuals in the credit union movement he personally knows have given support, as well, though donations on the national level have been nominal.

CUJ Resources

For those wishing to support the ZOE children's home and its efforts, contact info gozoe.org or visit the Website at www.zoechildrenshomes.org .

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