If one of the subjects of this website is remarkable people it is fair to say that Juergen Lusuardi (Gio) qualifies and it is equally true that anyone who meets Gio will not quickly forget him – and especially when they discover how many others benefit from his energy and efforts.
But first let me put our meeting in context.
I have been renting a villa in Pattaya Thailand for almost three months in an effort firstly to stay in one place for a change and secondly to finish a book I am writing. I don’t think I slept in the same bed for more than three weeks anywhere last year (This website is called Notes from a Nomad for a reason!) so I have been successful on the first count and less so on the second as I reflect on a completed proposal for publishers but only three additional chapters!
I met Gio when a mutual friend brought him and his Thai girlfriend Noot to my villa for a relaxing afternoon around the pool he later told me it was the first afternoon he had taken off in ages.
It is very easy to generalise about nationalities, especially when people are removed from their native abodes and national characteristics are easily identified and exagerrated but it is also true that many of these generalisations are not inaccurate and it was soon clear that Gio despite his Germanic Christian name could only be one nationality – Italian!
Indeed although growing up in Bologna Gio is a very authentic ‘Gentleman from Verona’ but sadly these descriptive words are going to fall a few stanzas short of matching Shakespeare’s eloquent prose!
It did not take long to establish that Gio, in his early 40s, was loud, excitable, opinionated, articulate, amusing and knowledgeable over a range of subjects and well able to carry on a conversation in English, Thai and German and he told me in passing that he had worked for an Italian charity in Thailand for many years.
We also discovered we shared a passion for Football as Gio was a fan of the Old Lady of Italian Football – the famed Juventus of Turin about whom I commented
‘I was not aware they were still considered a proper football club after being relegated from La Liga to the second tier of Italian football for attempting to bribe a referee’
Gio dramatically rose from his seat and as much for the audience’s enjoyment as his own wounded pride barked
‘Come Noot, it is clear dat we are notta welcome at dees home of dees English philistine who hassa so insulted me’
I explained to Gio that no offence was intended but surely an educated individual like himself appreciated you could only be close to the soul of football in the 21st century by following the fortunes of a smaller club untainted by either bribery or the influx ridiculous amounts of cash from Russian or Arab trophy owners. Indeed benevolent soul that I am I suggested to Gio that he might be well advised to transfer his allegiance from Juventus to the mighty Yeovil Town in England’s League 1 who despite being one of the smallest towns in England to support a professional football team were making a valiant effort to secure a place in the Championship, just one level below the famed English Premiership. (Postscript – I subsequently joined 18,000 other Yeovil supporters to watch them secure an emotional victory at Wembley to indeed secure a place in the Championship just one division behind Manchester United while Juventus had to be satisfied with winning Serie A again – the Italian Premiership!)
As expatriates often do when they gather in any nation the talk around the pool eventually arrives at a discussion of some aspect or other of living in the host country and everyone of course, always has opinions based on their own experiences. Gio was particularly strident when commenting on the difficulties of working with Thai civil servants and it turned out he had indeed been working for Charities in Thailand for almost 10 years.
Gio was quickly railing against the both the bureaucracy and mind-set of the typical Thai government employee and it was clear he took any challenge or obstacle placed in front of him as a personal affront which is not so unusual for individuals committed to a cause and lets not forget Gio is also Italian!
In truth I am fairly confident that anyone who has to work with government employees in any country in the world can talk about waste, inefficiencies and unnecessary administrative procedures but I was intrigued at some of Gio’s comments ‘Our books are always open for anyone to inspect’ and ‘I don’t take any wage at all’ which if nothing else prompted me to learn more about how this likable and articulate Italian managed to support himself and his pleasant girlfriend Noot.
Despite not missing an opportunity to wind the other up whenever the occasion arose Gio and myself got on well and we met up a couple of times over the following weeks and he invited himself over to show me how Spaghetti should properly be cooked and brought an excellent aged parmesan cheese which defied all efforts of my Thai knives to slice it. In truth I think I am happy enough with Thai cooked spaghetti which I have always found very tasty and although my starting with the Salad was clearly the move of a culinary philistine (‘Mama Mia Noot, we cannot stay, my efforts are wasted and it is true that the English know nothing about how to eat da food’) Gio never did get around to explaining exactly when was the right time to partake of the Salad.
Nevertheless I did learn that Gio had founded the Charity that he worked for and it was called ‘Take Care Kids’. Gio was quick to stress was it was a legally registered Thai foundation renting a four floored building to provide shelter and accommodation for abused children and their mothers.
He has been with the charming Noot, for almost three years and she was far from a ‘trophy ‘girlfriend. Almost fluent in English Noot was now learning Italian after visiting Italy twice with Gio and was also a successful business woman who had owned a very profitable (straight) Massage Parlour in Bangkok and had relocated to Pattaya rather than pay an astronomical Rent hike when rental values soared in the Asok area of Bangkok following the completion of the new Terminal 21 Mall in the vicinity.
Despite my not knowing then (or now) when best to eat the salad without causing offence to the Italian chef the evening was a success and Gio insisted that all of us present should gather for lunch the following day and then join him at his apartment to watch the Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix. As I had set myself the target of losing 30 lbs during my three months in Pattaya I had been restricting myself to Muesli or Porridge for breakfast and snacking on fruit for the rest of the day during most of my time in Pattaya and Gio’s Spaghetti dinner was already going to blow my targeted weekly weight loss out of the window (it did) so lunch had zero appeal but I joined the gang for a coffee and then the males all transferred to Gio and Noot’s three bed apartment whilst the females continued with lunch as Thai ladies love to eat – frequently!
I was very impressed with Gio and Noot’s apartment which they had bought a year ago for about £135,000/155,000 Euros/US$215,000. Their fourth floor apartment was quiet, spacious and overlooked a lovely pool. It was very modern and finished to a high standard and although a little too far from the beach for me I nevertheless checked up if other apartments in the same complex were available when I went on a property search a couple of weeks later.
Property prices in Pattaya are no longer cheap and are comparable with Europe and more expensive than much of the USA. This is partly because of the strength of the Thai Baht (70 to the £ in 2005, 50 in October 2012 but now only 43!) but also because the local property market is booming.
Many businesses are needing accommodation for Managers and Executives working in the Bangkok Pattaya ‘Corridor’ (Why live in hot, crowded, polluted and flood prone Bangkok when you can live in crowded Pattaya but be on the cooler coast!) and an ever increasing number of Thai professionals and Middle Class families in Bangkok are wanting a second home and weekend retreat on the coast.
And finally there are countless overseas buyers joining in the rush to snap up the apartments in 30 storey condominium blocks as quickly as they can be built and planty are being built as Pattaya extends southwards past Na Jomtien and towards Raytong surely destined to be Thailand’s next boom town?
Overseas buyers primarily means Russian for Pattaya is no longer the city of sex and sin these days (those elements still exist of course) – it is a Russian city and shop sign and Real Estate Publications are all in Russian. One cannot get a free map of Pattaya in English – but every display rack has them in Russian! The old timer expatriates from northern Europe neither like nor understand the Russians who they consider to be curt and rude but I think the Russian’s are great for Pattaya which is rapidly transforming itself into an international resort of some distinction.
But let’s rejoin the plot with the drama of the Chinese Grand prix and perhaps I should comment that most of the drama involved the performance that unfolded in Gio’s apartment.
I am fairly confident that Fernando Alonso won the Chinese Grand Prix driving a Ferrari because Gio stood to attention as the Italian flag was raised and the Italian National Anthem played at the end of the race!
Prior to that as a good host Gio had provided a nonstop commentary on the race and an explanation of why Ferrari was indisputably the greatest motor racing team in the world in Italian, German and English. Combining vocal performance with movement that would not shame Beyonce he rapidly leapt to his feet, clapping his hands every time a rival met with misfortune or Ferrari strengthened their position.
Formula One can be difficult to follow and needs full concentration to appreciate the implications of pit stops and tyre strategy and fully understand what is going on but although I was nearest to the television and furthest from Gio I received the full benefit on Gio’s one man Tifosi performance without ever hearing the commentary nor having much clue about what was unfolding on the track!
But it was great entertainment (Gio not the race!) and afterwards we all departed to visit the shelter that Gio’s charity operated close to his apartment on the other side of Sukhumvit – the famous route that leads from downtown Bangkok, skirting central Pattaya and on towards Trat in Eastern Thailand and eventually to the Cambodian border.
And by this time I had learnt a lot more about Gio who had first visited Thailand for a holiday as a young(er) man 20 years ago and has been visiting the country annually since 2004 balancing life as a journalist in Italy with doing voluntary work in Thailand for 2 -3 months each year. His employers kindly gave him unpaid leave for visits that he made using a tourist visa. Indeed it was his visits following the 2003 tsunami which led to great destruction and loss of life in parts of Thailand that motivated Gio to establish Take Care Kids which was formally established as a charitable foundation in Italy in 2006 and in Thailand in 2010. The Foundation has a Board of Trustees to whom Gio reports in Italy.
Gio returns home to Italy for 6 – 8 weeks each year to discuss future plans with his trustees, arrange fundraising events and to visit sponsors; in short to do all he can to ensure funds are flowing in and he was departing on his annual trip back ‘home’ just 48 hours after my visit. I could have easily passed on lunch and the Chinese Grand Prix but I was keen to see the Shelter and the results of the work that Gio had described so enthusiastically before he left for Italy.
The charity cannot afford to pay Gio so he supports himself with the income from two apartments he owns in northern Italy and a third in Pattaya that are all rented out and any surplus income goes into……….Yes Take Care Kids which is clearly the focal point of Gio’s life.
He is quick to point out that although he draws no salary he pays tax on his property income in Thailand to ensure that in no way is either he or his foundation will be failing to comply with Thai law. When you ask Gio about his family it is clear he comes from an upper middle class background but that does not prevent his 70 year old mother in Bologna from baking pastries to sell at the market, just one of many strands of income for her son’s foundation.
The Shelter was less than a 5 minute motor bike ride from Gio and Noot’s apartment at the end of a group of commercial buildings on a little road (Moo) running directly off the Sukhumvit Highway. The exterior of the whitewashed building was plain, simple and functional as was the interior and gave no clue to the benefits and love that was contained within for the occupants.
The Ground Floor contained an Office that Gio shared with his staff, a Kitchen, Dining Room, Storage area and a Reception and the 3 floors above were given over to a Common Room, simple but spacious Bedrooms, communal Bathrooms and Showers. The extensive flat roof had been made into an Play area under a large fixed canopy to provide shelter from the relentless sun and it had recently had a new set of safety railings installed thanks to the generosity and woodworking skills of a local English Bar owner.
The house is currently home for seven mothers and thirteen children and each family unit has a room of their own. It was a Sunday when we visited and, although the foundation employs a Thai cook to come in and cook from Monday to Friday, at the weekends Gio’s unpaid volunteer assistant Maria, also from Italy, does the cooking. Maria has been helping Gio for two years and probably finds it both rewarding and therapeutic rather than demanding to be the residential manager. She doubtless has some empathy with the residents as Maria came to Take Care Kids herself as a victim of domestic violence.
The rent for the building comes to 30,000 Baht a month (£700/$1100) and Gio is hopeful that the Foundation can continue to operate the shelter. As we walked around the house we would come across boxes of toys, clothing, shoes, dried food and milk etc. for Gio will take donations of everything and arrange for supportive airlines to freight the same free of charge from Italy for distribution in the poor areas around Pattaya and nearby towns. The work of Take Care Kids is not confined solely to the kids and families in the shelter.
Whenever I go in any ones house I immediately look at what is hanging on the wall and what books are on the bookshelves because as well as being an easy conversational gambit it will tell me a lot about the inhabitants, their interests and motivations. When I have decorated Company offices in the past I always wanted the décor to reflect what we did, our ethos as well as our history and pride in what we had achieved. People and organisations that throw anything up on the wall tell me a lot about themselves by that act alone and what they do not put up! For me decorations do not need to reflect expenditure but they are an opportunity to display one’s interests and achievements and if you share my point of view you would not have been disappointed with the Take Care Kids shelter which had displays with photographs of all the inhabitants and their various activities and achievements as well as a homemade Display honouring and thanking all the sponsors.
Gio told us stories of all the inhabitants including on one hand the frustrations of trying to raise additional funds so that one of the children can have a brain tumour removed in a private hospital as the public hospitals in Pattaya appear to have other priorities, and on the other his obvious pride that one of the children in the Shelter who had never gone to school before coming to the Shelter was now the highest rated child in her class.
We visited the house on a Sunday when Gio said a volunteer teacher came in from another Charity to work with the kids and when he took us into the common room where the kids were gathered with their teacher his entry caused great excitement and with cries of ‘Khun Gio’ ‘Khun Gio’ several of the kids got up and raced across the room to hug his legs, such was the obvious affection his entry generated.
And when we gathered downstairs Gio turned to a couple of the Thai’s in our party and said ‘Are you sure you have to go back to your Village. Why not stay and work with me here. I can pay you’ but he has to be careful. He has received correspondence from people visiting the Take Care Kids website who are interested in corresponding with individual children who he suspects are paedophiles trying to make contact and being involved with the disadvantaged of Asian society Gio has lots of tales about those who are not fortunate enough to be protected by one of the Charities or overstretched Local Government Welfare Departments.
Gio tells us it is not uncommon for Pimps to ‘rent’ the children of impoverished families for an evening and then send the kids out begging, selling flowers and even in some occasions for sexual services to overseas visitors who travel to Thailand and many other Asian countries for just this reason.
And as an aside I have always believed however moved you might be by the sight of a poverty stricken mother, deformed kid or crippled beggar you achieve nothing other than relieving your conscience by passing over funds on the street. These funds may not be kept by the recipient and there are scams by the dozen. In Nepal Tourists are asked to buy dried milk for a child’s family which is ‘sold’ by the store holder at an inflated price to the tourist who gives it to the kid and ten minutes later it is taken back to the store and the profit is split and then the kid goes out and looks for another ‘mark’. In London my son took a homeless person into acafe for a meal rather than give him money only to be berated for not handing over cash as he was not interested in eating!
Indeed in Pattaya over the last three months I saw a very well nourished woman begging on the sidewalk in the same prime spot every evening and she was almost certainly making more than the average wage in donations and I frequently saw her counting funds and putting them away as I passed on my daily evening walk.
If you want to help ease the suffering in the Third World always donate through recognised and legitimate charities like Take Care Kids – hand outs on the street are only for the gullible and perpetuate rather than alleviate the problems of poverty, abuse and corruption. And that beggar on the street might well be passing on their earnings to a ’boss’ rather than using it for the child in their arms.
Gio and Take Care Kids work closely with other Charities pooling their resources where necessary as well as with the Police and local authorities and when the police find families and children in need of urgent assistance and with no means of support they will often call Gio to see if he can help. The work that Gio and his foundation does is by no means restricted to the Shelter. He will receive regular calls from Social Services and the Police alerting him to impoverished families in the area who are in desperate need of assistance and the foundation will make regular visits to impoverished families in the community distributing diapers and dried milk etc
And when Gio can take people in to live in the Shelter he makes it clear that Take Care Kids is neither a hand out nor a free ride.
Although the lack of responsibility of some of the mothers is often responsible for their predicament and they are hardly role models for their own children many are simply the victims of extreme poverty, neglect, being abandoned or abuse but irrespective of their background Gio believes that it is the interests of both the child and the mother for them to stay together and not be separated. He practices a Tough Love often spending hours one on one with uneducated mothers explaining the rules of the house and teaching them that they have to assume responsibility for their actions and children.
At times it is difficult when after hours of explaining to a HIV positive and emaciated mother she will ask if she can take a break so she can go down to Pattaya’s infamous Beach Road and look for a client as she has no cash but Gio will persevere and start again. The mother and child can only stay at the Shelter if the Mother gets a proper job, opens a bank account and saves from her salary – drugs and working in the sex trade are not options if she wants to stay at the Shelter.
The idea is to help people help themselves so they can rebuild their lives and acquire some discipline and responsibility to be able to eventually leave the Shelter and re-enter society. And whilst respecting each individual’s religion he will teach the Mother’s when their children are sick it is sensible to take them to a clinic and see a doctor rather than to the temple for a blessing from a monk.
The more Gio talks about his charity the more passionate he becomes as he describes the difficulties and frustrations of having a western ‘can do/must do’ mindset and coming up against the Thai Buddhist mindset. And just as many westerners living in Thailand assume that many of their problems are caused by Thai prejudices against ‘Farangs’ (foreigners) I believe it is usually simple problems of communication and cultural differences that are to blame.
But Gio believes that many of his frustrations in not being able to achieve more quicker is because Take care Kids is not a local charity and he faces unnecessary problems because he is a Farang. Because he is frustrated with bureaucracy and feels he could achieve more with more support from the Thai authorities it is easy to come up with the simplistic explanation that it is because he is a Farang but I suspect part of the problem is that because his work is his life and his life is his work he will always want to achieve more – all high achievers are the same and it goes with the territory.
I know that I like many foreigners living in Thailand get frustrated by my inability to get a point over or by failing to understand why something is not possible and cant be done now. And Yes there are times when I think my response means I am in urgent need of some Anger Management therapy and so it is understandable that for Gio because his work means so much to him he takes the frustrations and challenges as a personal affront.
So be warned a visit to the Take Care Kids shelter will doubtless be accompanied by a very Italian rant pointing out all the perceived and unnecessary hurdles facing a foreign managed charity in Thailand!
Different cultures have different priorities and different ways of approaching and solving problems and I suspect this is the root of most problems when westeners live in Asian counties rather than prejudices against foreigners. Of course it frustrates Gio when the Vice Squad has little credibility, when the Women and Child Protection unit is understaffed, when some local police are corrupt and when a lack of proper Sex Education in schools means he is sometimes faced with the problem of having to arrange help and support for mothers barely in their mid-teens after but unfortunately as the Americans so eloquently put it ‘Shit happens’ and despite all this Gio and his crew are doing a wonderful job. He just wants to do more.
Indeed my visit to the Take Care Kids Shelter was one of the highlights of my almost four month stay in Thailand and one cannot but be impressed by what one man has achieved with his energy and enthusiasm to help others. Gio may not be everyone’s cup of tea but those who try and make things happen rather than wait for them to happen will always offend some along the way with their relentless quest to make things happen.
People like Gio can only be admired because they are doing what all of us should try to do – make the world a better place by helping others less fortunate than ourselves. There can be few quests as noble and after listening to Gio railing on about the difficulties of running a legally registered charity in Thailand and the hurdles he faced I had to ask him ‘But despite this do you enjoy what you are doing Gio?’
His face turned into a the face of a child with a beaming smile ‘Of course I do – I love it’ and for those who can truly say that about their job and way of life I am both deeply envious and pleased for them – and more so for Gio because his is a challenging journey that brings help and hope for others.
You can learn more about Gio and the work undertaken by Take Care Kids if you go to www.takecarekids.org
Gio is devoting all his time to helping others and makes sure that all donations received go directly to help children in Thailand. If everyone who reads this was to donate an hour’s remuneration or income to Take Care Kids it would make a real difference and provide a lot of assistance to disadvantaged children and it is easily done if you follow this link to
where you can make a donation by bank transfer, credit card or Paypal.
Please think about it – individuals like Gio make a real difference to kids who need help and support and his efforts he can provide solutions for kids who are suffering at the sharp end of life’s challenges.
He deserves our support – and he is also fun to hang out with so go and visit the Take Care Kids Shelter if you are ever in Thailand as it is less than two hours from Bangkok.
You will be assured of both a warm welcome and be impressed by what one man’s determination can achieve if you are able to visit the house that Gio built.
© Michael Bromfield 2013