Nearly 13,000 kilometres from Yarmouth, N.S., babies and children are being cared for in a new medical clinic in Thailand.
It doesn’t matter if their conditions are contagious.
They are held. Touched. Loved.
It doesn’t matter if they were abandoned. Here no one is ever rejected or made to feel that way.
The clinic – which, pardon the cliché, truly is a dream come true – is part of Nikki’s Place Agape Home, an orphanage in Thailand. Many children are (or are at risk of becoming) HIV positive.
Many have lost parents to AIDS. If the children weren’t here, there would be no other option for their care.
On the wall of the new clinic a plaque will soon be mounted identifying its name.
This is the MaCali Cormier Children’s Clinic.
MaCali is a little girl from Yarmouth who lit up hearts during her lifetime, and broke hearts when she died as a result of a terrible tragedy during Yarmouth’s holiday parade of lights in November 2018. The four-year-old slipped underneath a float as it made its way along the parade route.
The community, numb from its shock and sadness, quickly offered love and support to MaCali’s family and friends, to the first responders and to others – many families – who had witnessed the terrible incident during what was supposed to be a fun, festive, family event.
Days later, the family and the community gathered in Yarmouth's Frost Park for a candlelight vigil. To everyone that had been hurt and impacted by the tragey the message from that vigil was: We are here for you.
THE REACH OF HEARTBREAK
In another province Greg Roberts, whose hometown is Triton, Newfoundland and Labrador, heard the news of MaCali’s death. As a parent of two daughters, it touched him deeply. He later found out he had a connection to the little girl. MaCali’s grandfather, Rollie Hannem of Yarmouth, had been Roberts’ teacher when Hannem lived and taught in Newfoundland. He was also a guidance counsellor.
“I had Mr. H. in school from, I believe, Grade 9-11. The school was RW Parsons Collegiate. He was a special teacher and one of the first who I remember talking to us almost like adults and not just kids,” Roberts says.
“He had a lot of patience and to this day I remember many of the conversations in class and out and around. He was a special teacher to me and many others.”
A few years ago when Hannem was visiting Newfoundland, he tracked Roberts down for a visit. The gesture meant a lot to Roberts.
“It was probably 25 years since we met in person. It was like there was no gap. We just spoke from where we left off,” says Roberts.
“Mr. H. instilled confidence in me and other students and believed in our ambitions. I know I’m just one of many hundreds of students he had an impact on over the years.”
This added to Roberts’ sadness about a little girl he had never met.
“I just kept thinking about what the family must feel. What can you possibly say? I remember trying to write a note to Mr. H, but I was truly lost for words,” he says.
“Maybe when you are at a loss for words it is better to try and do something, in this case for his granddaughter’s memory.”
And so that’s what Roberts did.
HOW CAN I HELP?
Roberts – a successful businessman whose company owns Mary Brown’s – reached out to Avis and Roy Rideout, who are from his N.L. hometown and who founded and operate Nikki’s Place Agape Home in Thailand. He wanted to make a personal donation and asked if there was a project they needed help with that could be done in MaCali’s memory.
For Avis Rideout, her heart both broke and leapt.
It had been Rideout’s dream to have a medical clinic on the property of Agape Home.
The term agape, incidentally, refers to unconditional love.
It is unconditional love that is behind the ‘Nikki’ portion of the orphanage’s name. For two decades before she opened Nikki’s Place Agape Home in May 1996, Rideout was involved in missionary work. She worked in refugee camps where children died from malnutrition. Where mass graves and mass cremations were the norm. Where people of all ages – from babies to seniors – who had HIV or AIDS were rejected because people were afraid to be near them or touch them. And then babies were born into the world – HIV positive or at risk of HIV. Mothers who didn't have the means to care for them abandoned or gave up their children. Others mothers died and did their best to care for them until then.
It was in a government-run orphanage that Avis Rideout found two-year-old Nikki. She had been abandoned in the “AIDS room.”
Her chart read: “Leave her to die.”
Rideout, of course, couldn’t do that.
Instead she made Nikki a part of her family and did the things you’re supposed to do when you want children to know they are loved. She hugged her. Kissed her. Nurtured her. Cared for her. And got treatment for her. Nikki, she says, is a beautiful girl now in her 20s.
There have been many advancements in drugs to treat HIV and AIDS since the time Rideout first met Nikki, which has helped in Thailand. But HIV and AIDs haven’t completely gone away. The need continues to care for children and to provide medical treatment for other health issues.
“A clinic has been a dream for a long time,” Rideout said in an interview from Thailand.
There was an existing clinic, but it was small, and it was lacking.
With the money donated by Greg Roberts, a bright and spacious clinic has been constructed through the renovation of a former mother-and-baby unit.
“We had built that so mothers could stay there and were living with AIDS with their babies,” says Rideout. “As the mothers would die, would look after their children.”
Over the years around 200 orphans at Nikki’s Place Agape Home have been adopted by families in 17 countries. There are around 100 children at the orphanage at any given time. They are housed, cared for, fed, educated and loved. Rideout says it is one big family.
All of the supplies and furnishings in the new clinic have been donated. When Rideout speaks of the clinic, she does so with passion and excitement. As does Gregory Roberts.
“There is a lot of need in the world. Overseas in the Third World countries, the needs are even more profound,” he says. “I know Avis and Roy need a lot of support from Canada and really need people to realize the need. The clinic will improve the lives of many who cannot fend for themselves.”
Roberts also hopes the clinic will bring comfort to MaCali’s family.
Entering another holiday season, Yarmouth continues to remember MaCali. This year sees no evening parade but rather community togetherness of a different sort.
The evening of Nov. 23 was chosen for the Candy Cane Lane Festival, with a large section of Main Street closed to traffic and opened to pedestrians. Stationary floats decorated and lit up for the season, visits with Santa Claus, music, hot chocolate and other activities were planned.
The candy canes are a throwback to a much-beloved Yarmouth tradition.
Following the lighting of the town’s Christmas tree on Nov. 22, in Frost Park a tree was lit. It was cold. It was raining. Yet hundreds gathered to see the tree lit to further show their support for MaCali's family. The tree is purple.
Purple, after all, was MaCali’s favourite colour.
Greg Roberts contacted Rollie Hannem and his wife Beth a couple of days before Christmas last year saying he wanted to bring some form of comfort to the family. He told MaCali's grandparents about the clinic.
“We were overwhelmed by this act of kindness. It has given so much comfort in a time of unspeakable tragedy,” says Hannem. “To think that the smile and the love for life that MaCali had will be continued on the faces and in the lives of these children in Thailand gives a light at the end of this tunnel of grief.
“It is our hope our community will also find comfort in this story. So many have reached out over this past year in so many ways trying to help us get through this tragedy,” he adds. “Perhaps this Christmas we can all celebrate that MaCali’s legacy will change the lives of hundreds of children for decades.”
Hannem notes they are “blown away” by Avis Rideout’s energy, commitment and compassion.
“Her life has been dedicated to children in Thailand for over 40 years. It is our hope and prayer that through the clinic, these children will grow and live healthy lives,” Hannem says. He and his wife will one day travel to Thailand to witness Rideout’s work.
Avis Roberts posted this video of a tour of the clinic on the Nikki's Place Agape Home Facebook page.
This is our new medical clinic at Agape. Big thanks to Gregory Roberts and the people in Holland that donated for the equipment.Posted by Nikki's Place Agape Home - Official on Friday, November 15, 2019
HEALING AND CARING
That a part of MaCali will live on at the clinic that will help countless children means a lot to Avis Rideout as well, who turned 72 on Nov 22 and shows no signs of slowing down.
Her to-do dream list continues. Next up will be the construction of a dormitory at Agape where older children who face academic and mental challenges can reside and be involved in hands-on initiatives to further solidify that their lives have purpose and meaning. She doesn’t yet have the money she needs, but that’s not getting in her way.
“I started Agape with no help, no church, no mission, no nothing. All I had was a little girl’s life that was almost gone, a candle that was going out,” Rideout says.
Throughout the decades she has seen children thrive. Others she’s held in her arms as they’ve died.
But there is always hope. And it is called tomorrow.
“I’m helping them to realize that they are not just an orphan, or they’re not just abandoned, or they are not just about HIV,” Rideout says about each child she and her staff care for. “They are part of a family that loves and cares for them.”
Just as in Yarmouth, where love and caring continues to be extended to a family and to a little girl whose memory the community cherishes.
THE STORY GOES ON....
Learn more about Nikki’s Place Agape Home by visiting its Facebook page.
You can also learn more by visiting the Nikki's Place Agape Home website, which also includes information on how you can donate to support the efforts.