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Back to say thanks: The Thai tsunami orphans helped by donations from Ulster public

By Ivan Little

Published 20/04/2015

Willie Gregg with orphans Benz, Penlen, Yoke, Bat, Korn, Guitar and Ken in Portrush
Willie Gregg with orphans Benz, Penlen, Yoke, Bat, Korn, Guitar and Ken in Portrush
Letting go of lanterns on Saturday
The orphans meeting newlyweds Colin and Valerie Kennedy
The orphans on one of the rides at Barry’s Amusements

Seven Thai children from a tsunami orphanage, who have arrived in Northern Ireland to say thank you to big-hearted fundraisers here who have helped them, will be going home to a tragic new addition to their ranks - a baby boy left for dead in Phuket.

And his discovery comes only months after another baby was saved by the orphanage after he was dumped in a rubbish bin.

"The problem of abandoned babies is becoming a real worry for us," said Rotjana Phraesrithong, director of the Baan Than Namchai orphanage.

"But in many ways they're the lucky ones. Many mothers in Thailand are too young to have babies and the children they don't want are killed."

Rotjana and a teacher are accompanying the four boys and three girls from the orphanage on a visit to shops, schools and businesses on the north coast which donated thousands of pounds to a charity set up in the wake of the tsunami by Willie Gregg, manager of the Harbour Bar in Portrush.

On Saturday night the children, dressed in colourful traditional Thai costume, remembered family members and friends they lost in the 2004 tsunami by releasing 10 lanterns from Portrush harbour - one for every year since the appalling tragedy which killed more than 200,000 people around the Indian Ocean.

"It was a very emotional moment," said Willie.

"The children had written their own little messages on the lanterns to all the people who didn't make it from the tsunami."

Earlier in the day the children, aged between 10 and 19, went on rides in Barry's amusements where they also met newlyweds Valerie and Colin Kennedy, who support Willie's Orphan Fund, which finances the education of children in the home.

"Once we saw their lovely smiling faces, we knew we had to get them in our official wedding pictures," said Valerie, whose husband Colin keeps collection boxes for the orphans on the bar of his pub, the Village Tavern in Articlave near Castlerock.

Rotjana said the generosity of people in Northern Ireland like the Kennedys had been crucial to the success of the orphanage, which is now home to 103 children, many of whom have been born in the years since the tsunami.

Some of the orphans, whose mothers and fathers were killed in the tsunami, were brought up by grandparents who have passed away in the years since the disaster.

"The orphan fund has been fantastic and Willie Gregg is like a saint," said Rotjana. "I really don't know where we would be today without him and the donations from Northern Ireland, especially for putting the children through school and university.

"Also, when a little girl in the orphanage was diagnosed with cancer, Willie and the fund paid for her treatment."

Willie Gregg decided to help the victims of the tsunami as soon as he saw pictures of the disaster on TV and recognised parts of the devastated area from a holiday in Phuket.

He collected thousands of pounds and flew out to Thailand, where he realised the crisis was even greater than he imagined and he later formally established his charity to help the orphaned children.

Among his benefactors at the orphanage have been members of the Ulster Rugby team and golfer Graeme McDowell, who helped to pay for a small medical facility which is called the G-Mac treatment room.

Willie said: "I couldn't have done anything if I didn't have the support of wonderfully generous people right across Northern Ireland

"And that's why we wanted to bring the children here, to let the fundraisers know what their money has done and to underline just how important the ongoing work is."

The young Thai visitors had never been out of their homeland before and they said they had been fascinated by what they'd seen, including the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, Morelli's ice cream factory and the Moorbrook Lodge trout fishery at Castlerock.

The oldest member of the group, Tammakit Ken (19), said: "The trip has been really enjoyable. Northern Ireland is a very beautiful place.

"We are happy to be here to say thanks to the people who have helped us with our education through Willie's orphan fund."

During their visit the children will go to a recording studio in Ballymoney to make a CD of a song which has become an anthem of the orphanage.

The song, Stay the Way You Are, was written 30 years ago by Coleraine man Uel Walls, a one-time member of the north coast rock band X-dreamysts, and the record will be released as a fundraiser around Christmas.

Belfast Telegraph

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