An unexpected Thai encounter that changed many lives
BOOTHBAY, Maine — The beginning of their beautiful friendship, which would carry them across Europe and later to Asia where they have made a life-changing difference, was inauspicious.
They were locked up together in a London jail cell in 1982, entangled in a now long-forgotten visa dispute.
They were sprung within hours, but the seeds of their relationship had germinated. And within a couple years, Jane McBride of Weston and Patty Zinkowski of Norwood were high-flying entrepreneurs, running a business jet-chartering service that would take them to the edge of vast riches.
But it turns out those riches lay elsewhere.
“We had a heck of a good run and it went south,’’ Zinkowski told me the other day without a trace of regret at their home here on the banks of the Sheepscot River.
“We were going to do an IPO and it didn’t work out. Things fell apart. So we went from living large – the highest lifestyle we could ever imagine – to then trying to think what are we going to do with the rest of our lives.’’
“We basically got our backpacks out,’’ McBride said. “Licked our wounds. And said, ‘Let’s go to Thailand.’ ’’ Those four words had a profound effect on the little kids they found there: a group of 15 girls, from ages 10 to 15, living in an abandoned school with little adult supervision and barely enough to eat.
It was even worse than it first looked. The children were at risk of being targeted by nearby sex trafficking agents on the lookout for girls just like these, girls without strong family ties or legal citizenship. “OK, Jane, we can’t save the world, but let’s see if we can help them out today,’’ Patty Zinkowski said, recalling a conversation that would change the shape of many lives.
They drove three hours to the nearest department store. They loaded their rental car up with flip-flops, stuffed animals, toothbrushes, bed clothes, and as much fruit as they could cram into the back seat.
“Then we left,’’ McBride recalled. “There was one little girl, Jiab, and she was just smiling and she said, ‘Take me to America.’ There was something about this kid. She was about 8 or 9. And then we got to a beach and were having our beach beer.
“We didn’t say anything to each other. We were probably thinking, I know I was thinking: What was that about? We’re walking on the beach and we said, ‘We’ve got to help.’ ’’
And in that moment something remarkable took place. Friends of Thai Daughters was born.
They set up a nonprofit charitable organization. They used US State Department resources to identify those most at risk of falling prey to sex traffickers. They began to provide food, clothing, education, health care, and emotional support for shelters known as Sunflower Houses in Chiang Rai and Chiang Khong.
In short, Jane McBride and Patty Zinkowski, who were married in 2004, have built themselves a special family, some of whom have blossomed into teachers, nurses, artists, and social workers who will never forget the two Americans who wandered into their lives and never left.
“I was a 12-year-old little kid and we were all so excited because that was the first time we had ever seen a Westerner,’’ said Khai Suparat Crocco. “They were really kind. I think they are like angels.’’
Crocco was married in Jane and Patty’s front yard here in 2017 and is expecting her first child in September.
“I call them Auntie Jane and Auntie Patty,’’ she told me when I reached her by telephone in Baton Rouge, where she now lives. “They’re like my family. They’re my moms. They’re my mothers. Without them I can’t imagine where I would be right now. They care about me. They sent me to school. They still take care of me. They mean everything to me.’’
Mee Pitchaya Aryi first met McBride and Zinkowski 17 years ago when she was 15. She has become the general manager and house mother of Sunflower House in Chiang Rai, where she cares for 15 girls.
“I can’t tell you how amazing both of them have been. I love them so much,’’ she told me when I reached her the other day in Thailand.
Then she quickly sent me a more explicit— and emotional — e-mail to underline that love.
“They are my flashlight and sunshine,’’ wrote Mee, who is a graduate of Chiang Mai University. “I couldn’t be me today without their love, care, education, and support. I can always see my way to walk towards the future because of them. I might have been lost since I was 15 years old if I didn’t meet them. I might be gone if they didn’t give me this love and amazing education.
“I am now able to give back as the house mother for a new generation of young women at FTD. . . . So many girls are safe and have a great life because of Pa Jane and Pa Patty’s support. They work so hard to try to save so many young girls in Thailand from human trafficking and from a hard life.’’
When I visited with them the other day on a gray spring afternoon, I walked on the hemlock floorboards of their 1905 barn, where Morris the quarter-horse shares space with three alpacas and a Shetland pony.
They bought several acres here in 2005. But as we settled into their living room, it was clear their greatest possessions were the emblems of the sanctuary they’ve built half a world away.
There is a framed image of a drawing of the two women, dressed in identical blue dresses, surrounded by their Thai daughters, little girls with dark hair and colorful outfits. It’s the picture of a family.
Priceless tokens. Like the greeting on one card that reads: “Happy Mothers Day to you both. You both is my best mom forever. I love you so much than I can say. And I know you both love me too. Thank you so much for everything.’’
These days, the two women spend months each year attending to their family business in Thailand. It’s a nonprofit enterprise with an annual budget of nearly $500,000 raised largely through private donations.
When I told them that I could not imagine doing what they have done beyond placing a modest amount of money for the missions in the collection basket on Sunday morning, Patty smiled.
“Believe me,’’ she said. “I thought hard about that. I loved my life and my lifestyle.’’
But then she saw those girls in that abandoned school 17 years ago.
“We both realize that we come from really loving families,’’ Jane McBride said. “And that’s what’s made our lives happy and successful through good times and bad times. And I think that’s the one thing that we thought we could do here: Letting them know that somebody cares about them and really loves them.’’
And that’s how two women who just missed the brass ring of corporate riches found something even more valuable, something more sustaining in a remote village they’d never heard of before in Northern Thailand.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.