Belfast Telegraph

Portrush publican's 6,000 mile trip to see terminally-ill Thai 'angel' at orphanage he founded

By Ivan Little

A charity champion is facing a heartbreaking 6,000-mile journey to say farewell to the terminally-ill 'angel' who has run an orphanage he helped set up after the devastating tsunami in Thailand.

Portrush bar manager Willie Gregg said Rotjana Phraesrithong was a surrogate mum to hundreds of children whose parents died in the disaster on Boxing Day 2004.

Two years ago Rotjana brought a group of Thai youngsters to Northern Ireland to thank people who had supported Mr Gregg's fundraising efforts.

She also took the children to Londonderry where they sang songs of tribute at the grave of Gerry Anderson, the late BBC radio presenter who promoted the orphan fund.

But now Rotjana, who is 51, has been diagnosed with cancer for a second time and Mr Gregg is planning to fly out to see her and meet the children.

Rotjana had been given the all-clear after she was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago.

Mr Gregg said: "Now Rotjana has been told the terrible news that she has bone cancer. And it's terminal.

"It's shocking. Rotjana is such a wonderful woman.

"I am a total mess. I just don't know how the orphanage and the children will cope."

It's the second hammer blow for the Baan Than Namchai orphanage in Khao Lak in Phuket, which gave a home and education to hundreds of children after the tsunami.

Five years ago another key figure in the management team of the orphanage, Englishwoman Allyson Parker, died of cancer.

"Allyson was a close friend of Ratjana and it's scarcely believable that the orphanage has been rocked again in this way," added Mr Gregg, who won the overall Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland award earlier this year.

The popular publican is not going alone to Thailand.

North coast woman Joanne Coyle has volunteered to travel to Phuket to look after Rotjana. Joanne has been to Thailand in recent years to help out in the orphanage's medical centre, part of which has been funded by Portrush golfer Graeme McDowell.

"Joanne got to know Ratjana well and wants to help her in her hour of need," added Mr Gregg.

During her last visit to Northern Ireland Rotjana told the Belfast Telegraph that the generosity of people here had been crucial to the success of the orphanage.

She added: "The orphan fund has been fantastic and Willie Gregg is like a saint.

"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."

One of the largest earthquakes ever recorded struck off the coast of Indonesia on December 26, 2004, triggering a tsunami that swept away entire communities around the Indian Ocean.

Around 228,000 people were killed as a result of the 9.1 magnitude quake and the giant waves that slammed into coastlines nearly 13 years ago.

The cost of the damage was just under $10bn (£6.4bn).

Belfast Telegraph

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