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After The Tsunami Hit Thailand In 2004 I Couldn't Leave Those In Need Behind

03/10/2017 17:42
Natasha Whiting

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When I was 18, college didn't do it for me so I booked a one way ticket to Thailand to volunteer at an orphanage.

That Christmas in 2004, my first away from home, the Tsunami struck the coast of Thailand. I remember being in the sea on the other side of the country, coming back to the beach to 50 missed calls from my parents, who were in Egypt at the time. I was petrified something had happened to them. They told me to run for high ground and that there had been a tsunami. To be honest I didn't even know what a tsunami was.

In the days that followed I was glued to the TV, watching the news gets worse and the death toll rise. I called my project coordinator and told him I had to help and can I please end the orphanage placement early and go South.

Within five days I was in a van going down to Khao Lak. I was greeted by a camp with 600 yellow and blue tents, and people looking shocked all around me. I was made a team-leader of the camp and, with a few fellow Brits who came with me, we were assigned our tent, and we got stuck in. We hugging the children, and comforted the elderly who had lost everything. The language barrier didn't get in the way of the comfort we were able to offer.

natasha whiting

In the months that followed the tsunami, living in a small tent at the edge of a camp of 600, I saw things that I never imagined were possible. Dead bodies, swollen beyond recognition crammed into refrigerated containers with only a tattoo or a piece of jewellery to identify them. Businesses ruined beyond repair so we raised money to help to rebuild them. We helped a mechanic get back up and running and a fisherman and his fleet get back on the water.

Every evening I taught art to the children on the camp, their drawings were harrowing and therapeutic at the same time. Their pictures initially were of bodies in water and people stuck up trees but soon evolved into happier scenes of elephants rescuing people, and families in their tents smiling.

natasha whiting

One day I got a phone call from my mum, she said the press had got wind of what I was doing as I was so young and that Channel 4 and MTV wanted to interview me. The next phone call I received was the production companies asking me to come to Phuket (about one hour away) to see them. I hitchhiked there, in my only clean clothes! On arrival, I was met by Ronan Keating a film crew and a load of children on the beach. I was interviewed about Phuket, and how badly it was hit. I knew that the area I was in was hit way worse and the devastation was on a much larger scale. That night I had my first hot shower. Two of my camp buddies came with me and courtesy of Channel 4 we ate properly and slept well.

natasha whiting

Little did I know this was going to shape the next 12 years. I went home after four months and won an award as young person of the year in my hometown. But, home didn't cut it. I wanted to be back in Thailand. I came back four months later, took a job in a rural village teaching kids on English camps who had never met foreigners before.

In 2008 I took on an orphanage in northern Thailand with seven children who'd rescued from the street.

The feeling I got when taking on the orphanage is one of just impulse. It was over a phone call where I just said "I will take care of you", hung up the phone, sat down and said to myself... "what have I just done?" I had NO idea what was in store.

natasha whiting

Over the course of seven years, we rebuilt their home, got them into classes at the local school, got them ID cards and created a sustainable living model. The struggle of raising funds, getting the children places in schools and making the police stop flagging me down every time I dropped a kid to the hospital on my bike are challenges that I will never forget.

Just yesterday the eldest of the seven kids, who I am putting through uni, sent me a photo. He has opened his first bank account. He is studying to be a mechanic. I am so proud of him and he in turn has said he wants to make me proud. His dream is to come to England one day. I hope he will make it, I think he will. Especially with the support has from people over here.

natasha whiting

Another child we took on was called Monday. He arrived, aged around nine months, and was so glum. He hid behind doors and never wanted a cuddle. One day about one and a half years later, he skulked out from behind the door, let me cut his nails. He squished my face in his hands and said "Natasha I love you". That showed me we had made a change in that child's life.

I have single-handedly raised thousands of pounds through every possible means available and 10 years on, we have made a huge difference to the lives of many children. The struggle has been intense, with drought, flooding and money shortages so serious I have had to use any funds available to make sure the children were fed.

We have gone from strength-to-strength, but money will always be a struggle. The orphanage is well, and I am focusing on sending the children to university or further education. I have learnt so much and achieved a lot as well as gaining a deeper knowledge of the situations overseas, such as the refugee crisis in Myanmar, the lack of proper support and also how dangerous these situations are for young children. I have plans to go back to Thailand really soon and take on a new project I have heard of, which needs support.

I am proud of what my charity has become. Now I live in London, I work in branding and I run the charity in my evenings and spare time. I hold fundraising events three times a year, and hope to do more. I plan to grow the charity, Acorn Overseas, here in London as well as overseas, to help those closer to home as they need help just as much. I plan to set up multiple projects actually, my list is long. My dream is to be involved in social change, in making peoples lives better when they don't have the means to do it themselves.

Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from HuffPost UK that showcases weird and wonderful life experiences. If you've got something extraordinary to share please email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com with LLO in the subject line. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page.

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