In a large, brightly lit classroom at the Fountain of Life Women's Center in Pattaya, about 20 young women curl and style hair under an instructor's direction. Down the hall, about a dozen women practice techniques and pressure points in Thai massage. Upstairs, some women learn computer skills while others take English classes.
These are some of the 250 women who come daily to the center, run by the Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd Sisters, to gain skills they hope will give them an alternative to earning money in Thailand's sex tourism trade.
Many think helping women get out of lives of prostitution "means you rehabilitate them, take them out of the bar," said Sr. Michelle Lopez, founder of the Fountain of Life Women's Center, which takes its name from the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:15 who asks Jesus to give her the life-giving water he describes. "After we worked with them, we realized you can't quite do that — it's just not possible."
"When we approach trafficking, we have to do so with a new vision," she said. "Our vision has been empowering women."
The Good Shepherd Sisters have been in Pattaya since 1988, when a Redemptorist priest with the support of the then-bishop invited them to the notorious beachside resort to help women, often victims of trafficking, caught in prostitution. Lopez moved to Pattaya from the order's Fatima Centre in Bangkok, a program that encompasses women's empowerment, shelter, and skills training. For a year, she and a Buddhist nun assessed the needs of the community and in 1989 opened the Fountain of Life Women's Center in a former restaurant and bar donated to the Redemptorists in the heart of the sex-trade section of Pattaya.
"I said, 'This is where we should be — among the people,' " said Lopez, who is from Malaysia but has served most of her life in Thailand. She is now developing a second Fountain of Life Center in Cambodia.
She said the center's approach "is not to judge, but to listen. Our center gives them love, and they are the ones to choose. We help them to help themselves."
Four Good Shepherd Sisters run the center in Pattaya, which now operates a couple of miles from the original location in a well-designed complex with classrooms, counseling space and even a small greenhouse garden. A separate Children's Center nearby cares for 140 children, about half of whom belong to the women at the center. The rest are from economically disadvantaged families in the area.
Courses are free, though those who can afford to pay donate money to the center. The women pay for work uniforms and supplies, with scholarships available to those who need them.
The hairdressing courses can take four months to a year to complete. The Thai massage classes usually require about three months to complete and prepare for certification. Others learn jewelry-making or take sewing, typing or computer classes, which Sr. Piyachat Boonmul, the center's director, said will enable some women to work as cashiers in bars rather than as sex workers.
Volunteers, usually from Germany or Denmark, teach different levels of English classes so the women can work in reputable hotels and in other tourist industries.
"You see how the women change and that you make a difference in their lives," said Svenja Eberlein from Stuttgart, a volunteer through the Union of German Catholic Youth.
To keep their own spiritual energy strong, the sisters are up at 4:30 a.m. for an hour of meditation, then they meet for prayer and Mass. They and the staff and volunteers meet at 8 a.m. for spiritual reading, reflection and sharing. Most of the staff is not Catholic, so the readings draw not only from the Gospels, but also from Buddhist and other sources.
Boonmul said that time of sharing is important to keep them bonded and prepared for the draining stories they hear: "I could not do this work without God's help and community support."
Boonmul offers counseling to the center's students on an individual and group basis. She shows them drawings of women in various situations, images that evoke discussion and sharing. One illustration shows a woman seated on a bed with money floating down from above.