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(4.12.2008)
Last year at this time, I had the Glenview (IL) girls, Kirin and Kate here to write the Christmas letter, which they finished in 2 hours, and it was a fabulous job. But the lasses have moved on with their lives, and it is only Uncle Alzheimer here, desperately searching his fading memory cells for news of the past year. The news certainly is not about me but of the kids and their health and hopes and dreams.

Bittersweet news for this year was the death of little Josie. She came to us 6 years ago, convulsing and near death. Many of the staff were unhappy about taking Josie (who was the victim of a botched abortion) but I believed that God would bless us in a special way, for taking care of her. Those very women were the ones to pray and cry for Josie, as her breathing slowed. We believe that Josie is free and happy and basking in the love of our Lord. Some evenings, I see some of the staff who have personal problems, praying at her graveside. She is buried with the four other little people who died in the era before we could get ARV medicines.

Last year, our Christmas gift was Dottie, the Baby Buffalo, who still is experiencing sickness, but who talks up a storm and pretty much runs Sarnelli House! This year, our Christmas gift might be Uncle Father Chuck Beierwaltes, who is coming in January for a few months with the kids and staff. This year, we took in three boys, all very sick with AIDS and TB. Once they adjust to the ARV medicines, they have an astounding turn around, and put on weight and suddenly are running and playing with the others. The doctors finally found out that Lynn did not have epilepsy, but nearly died from the lack of potassium. Those who knew Lynn before cannot believe the change. Her weight has doubled, and she is now a lively beautiful 16 year-old girl. Little Miss Tokyo (her father was Japanese) had to have her ARV changed, and got very sick as a result. Now, though, Tokyo is on the road to health and does really great in school.

We finished the House of Hope in May, and the bishop blessed it. Two toddlers (Mimi and Oop-Ip) just joined us, so there are 17 spoiled little urchins yelling, playing, fighting and squealing their days away. I thought I built it too big, but it is like the "Field of Dreams" movie, "Build it and they will come". One of the things the housemoms wanted was a "wading pool" so the babies and rug rats could stay cool when it got hot. The pool was built in memory of my cousin Helen Shea Hamm Landreman. The kids play nude in the pool, and one fat little oaf named "Citizen Kane" took a huge bowel movement while the kids were playing. Kids poured out of the pool, horrified and screaming. Now they won't let the poor porker near the area.

In July, we began our program for 13 teen age girls who have AIDS, at Nazareth school for girls. The idea is to make them mature and responsible. So far, we are having mixed results. A few of them still have emotional problems, sometimes caused by the medicine. Now, thanks to the Jan and Oscar Foundation from Switzerland, we are building a Nazareth House for Boys, in Pai Si Tong, where the House of Hope and St. Patrick's is located. We will also build a big, spacious kitchen/dining room for kids from all three houses, thanks to collection from St. Michael's church, in Wheaton IL. Fr. Chuck preached there in early September and received a really generous response.

Charlene Richard House continues to operate, taking in guests and volunteers who wish to stay. We were blessed to have 5 of Fr. Dick Strass' relatives come to see what Dick accomplished, and they were here for the Nov. 1 Mass in the cemetery. We had Dick's photo and some of his ashes in a small urn next to the altar.

The Mekong River flooded and my AIDS clinic, the school, church and priest's house were under about 4 feet of water for two weeks. I went to take photos of the reeking flood, and a herd of my little girls from Our Lady of Refuge came along, and got right into the water to get in photos. I pointed out the golden nuggets floating around, and told them were they came from, namely the school latrines. They literally ran on water, gagging and cursing. Made my day.

I took my tin cup to London and Dublin on November 5, and returned on Nov. 15. I was there at the request of the Pattaya Orphanage Trust. I don't know how much good my presence was, but I did get to see my sister Brigid for a few days in Dublin, and that made the trip worthwhile! The kids were relieved to get me back.

Before I went home in May for another wildly successful CEBORIDE, I bought 6 rai of paddy rice fields. Then, an old couple gave us their fields to do, and asked us for a couple sacks of rice, since no one was helping them. We had a good harvest, although if we had better rain in August and September, we would have nearly enough for the whole year. Our orchard continues to thrive, and I bought over $2,000 of Mekong River dirt to plant big vegetable fields. I can hear the girls moaning already.

The days grow shorter now, and with the northern winds, the roads and trails each evening fill up with eager, happy little bike riders. These kids could only dream of this type of activity when they first came to us, sick, heart broken, abandoned and scared. Now, I see bikes of every size and color and age. This old man bought himself a bike with birthday presents that has multiple shifting gears. I try to get out there every day. But as I labor up hills and over uneven terrain, runts zip past, legs a blur as they celebrate their lives with relish and joy. As my ability to bike and lift weights diminish, I truly thank the Lord for letting me live to see these kids break out of their cocoons and become stronger and swifter and full of happiness and hope. Like my brother Jack wrote on his 60th birthday, these kids are teaching an old man how to live.

May the Good Lord bless you and yours at Christmas and throughout the New Year! We pray for you every evening at Holy Innocents chapel.

Happy New Year!!

Father Shea
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