08/27/2005, 00.00
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From thief to "foster father of 50,000 street children"

Bangkok (AsiaNews/Ucan) – Dr Amporn Wathanavongs, "the foster father of 50,000 children" is one of Thailand's most generous benefactors. Through his non-governmental organization – the Foundation for Rehabilitation and Development of Children and Family (FORDEC) – he runs more than 80 centres aimed at improving conditions for children in Thailand.

Amporn's story is a bitter one: "I was a thief and a beggar", he says. His parents died when he was six years and he spent the next 12 years on the streets of Surin, a town in Thailand's northeast. He was totally illiterate and lived off stealing.  

His life was so horrible he tried to kill himself twice, but he failed: "It was too hard to live, and too hard to die!" Amporn knows that children who were in the same situation he was in need more than food and education. The change in his own life came with the kindness of the late Father Alfred Bonningue, a French Catholic priest who offered him work at St. Francis Xavier Church in Bangkok when Amporn was 27. More than that, the priest showed real care for him, sisters taught him English and Jesuit priests taught him about Jesus and Mother Mary. "I had no mother since I was five," he said. "When I got to know Mother Mary who loves and shows mercy and is gentle to everyone, I loved Mother Mary very much."

After a long time Amporn converted to Catholicism and found his true path. He became the national representative for an American NGO, Christian Children's Fund, where he worked for 25 years, and once that job ended, he did not retire. Instead, he used his personal retirement funds to launch FORDEC on 14 February in 1998.

Amporn says he "wants to pass on the love received from Father Bonningue, who died in France in 2001, to thousands of kids in difficulty in my country".

Dr Amporn Wathanavongs is now an expert in child care who often gives talks in international seminars. The "doctor" preceding his name comes from a degree conferred upon him ad honorem by an American university for his social work. He has been on television, dined with Thai royalty, bankers and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, and even met the late Pope John Paul II and he is proud of the 18 pilgrimages he has made to the Marian shrine at Lourdes in France.

At the moment, his NGO supports some 15,000 children, destitute or disabled people, drug addicts and HIV-positive people. In 2005, his Foundation invested more than 25 million baht (around 665,000 US dollars) in aid and development projects.

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