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Brave and beautiful

Dani Larson

Born in Chicago and adopted by her family at three days old, Dani spent the first 10 years of her life living in Chicago before she moved to Thailand — aged 11 — with her parents and five siblings. Now 24, Dani calls Thailand her home and works for the Thai community in a way not many have the right amount of compassion for. Read about her story.

Tell us about what you and your family do.

We came to Thailand as missionaries and we still are. We work with at risk and troubled women specifically. When we founded the Thai Restoration Community Development Foundation -- also known as "The Well" -- in 2009, we immediately focused on troubled women because we saw what a severe and inadequately unaddressed problem this was in Thailand. "Troubled" in this instance means those who have a particular background that puts them at risk of abuse or exploitation. Some women may have already participated in the commercial sex industry or have sold themselves privately.

What is your role specifically in the foundation?

I teach art to these women who are in the recovery process and we do this for therapy as well as art.

What factors or events led you to this occupation?

After graduating from college in the States, I got a job at a nursing home but my boss was so cruel. I quit and after a couple months of severe depression, I decided to return home to Thailand to get better and teach. I studied art in college and always wanted to be a teacher but never quite knew where to start. Then these events kinda fell into place.

Surely there are some tough moments doing what you do. Have you ever broken down from hearing a student's story?

I have broken down many times due to the severity of some of the women's stories. For example, one woman recently shared that when she was born, her drug addicted parents left her at the hospital because they didn't want to or couldn't pay the hospital bill. Tragic stories like this are a daily thing, especially as the women open up to us more and more. It's something I don't think I will get used to anytime soon.

What gets you through and keeps you going in this line of work?

Seeing many lives changed. Lives so changed that women who were once part of the programme are now staff working for the foundation. I came hoping to bless but I have been so blessed by my students. We have created a safe place to create, make art, laugh and learn.

What are three lessons you've learned from working with women of troubled backgrounds?

One: they may be damaged but they are not scary. Two: they are the most non-judgmental people. Nothing shocks them. And three: They need love -- a lot of it -- and they respond to love so well so don't be hesitant to give it to them.

What are three misconceptions people have about you?

Because of my appearance, people often think I'm a rough person, but nothing could be further from the truth. I'm a gentle person. The second misconception people tend to have about me unfortunately is that I am uneducated. Again, I think this stems from my appearance and stereotypes. Lastly, many people consider me to be an extrovert because I'm a people person and I enjoy singing in public, but I'm truly an introvert.

How can people help?

There are many ways to help. First, people have to understand that women who get involved in prostitution don't do so because they want to. No one dreams of growing up to be a prostitute, but many factors -- often drug-related -- lead them into this business. Helping them leave therefore requires many different types of help -- physical and emotional -- such as drug rehabilitation, finding them better jobs, child support and education. Professional volunteers, such as doctors, dentists, nurses and therapists are always needed, but anyone can help just by being a faithful friend to a woman at risk. Spend time with her and her children, encourage her to do what's right and lend a hand where you can because a lot of these women didn't have that healthy, positive role model guiding them through life. And of course, donations are always welcomed.

What's next for you?

I will be working here for at least another year or two, but after that I would like to continue with my studies and get my masters in order to pursue a career as a professor in art and art therapy.

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