Placed in a foster home as a 6-year-old, Ken Brookens was shifted from one home to another as he came up through the foster care program, not knowing where life would take him or how he would get there. However, young Ken, who had a low esteem, was about to find out. Between his freshman and sophomore year in high school, a loving family adopted the young teenager. Life was about to change.

“When that happened, he really had a sense of belonging,” says Jean Brookens, Ken's loving wife and helpmate for 60 years. Now, hope was realistic for Ken to accomplish whatever he wanted to do. And what he did was to follow his heart and to establish Sustainable Hope International, a nonprofit providing educational resources and training for teachers and marginalized students in Thailand.

Jean, a 1955 William Chrisman High School graduate and secretary-treasurer of SHI, recalls her husband came from an unstable background to where he is today as founder of SHI. She calls his accomplishments “a kind of payback to have other kids in that same kind of position in life to have the hope they can succeed. So that is really the major purpose behind the background of the founding of Sustainable Hope International,” whose headquarters are in Independence. Although founded in 2009, it wasn't until 2012 that SHI launched its life-changing program of hope in Thailand and began working with orphanages, before changing course and focusing on schools.

Why the change?

“We found the best candidates for what we wanted to do were in the 55-plus government welfare schools, he says, noting there are some 1.4 million at-risk children in Thailand. Since 2010, SHI has established a program of empowering vulnerable youth to claim a self-sufficient future through education, life and leadership skills in eight government welfare schools impacting more than 600 students.

Because most students in the program are shy, backwards and have no role models, SHI launched a three-year program teaching basic life, leadership and character skills to instill confidence and to develop self-esteem through We Can English Clubs at each participating school.

“One of our major goals is they learn to speak English in our We Can English Clubs,” Jean says, explaining those who speak English can find employment anywhere. “Basically, we hold a three-day training workshop in which we bring nine students from each of the schools and give them leadership positions. We form a club and give nine leadership positions. Then we train these students to interact with the community.”

Presented in club form, Jean explains the whole intent of SHI is that the kids meet outside the classroom and become the owners and learn the leadership skills of that ownership. And the teachers step in to teach them life skills in the English classes.

“Gratifying!” That how Ken sums up the work Sustainable Hope International is doing in Thailand. “Gratifying,” he says, “because we are able to help develop the skills in these students that they lack and challenge them and get them into a position to become successful. We are helping them to provide tools, and that is the most important thing to them.”

Because the Thai culture teaches “never make a mistake,” this belief results in shyness and saving face, which Jean calls a huge issue. She adds, “This (program) gives them the courage to know they can accomplish (things), and by working with each other, it grows a spirit of 'can do.'”

On a trip to Thailand in December, Ken experienced what he calls an “absolutely amazing” happening at a Christmas party at a Thai school attended by 848 children, K-12th grade. As Jean tells the story, one of the people heading up the SHI program in one of the schools was studying world religions and became very intrigued by the Christian Christmas. So he planned a Christmas program and asked Ken Brookens if he would play Santa Claus and represent Christmas in America.

What happened next was “absolutely amazing,” Jean recalls. “They portrayed the story of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem. There were shepherds, the Wise Men, angels singing, and it was all done in English. They actually read scriptures out of the Bible (about the birth of Jesus) and you would have thought you were in a Christian church singing Christmas hymns. Eventually they changed it over to the secular Christmas and the party ended up being a five-hour event. The kids were thrilled.”

With a home and office in Thailand, the Brookenses hope to stay there as long as possible. “But right now,” they say, “our objective is to develop a leadership so this (program) can be sustainable. And the concept behind this is the state of hope not only for us but the students so they can sustain a lifestyle that will be productive and a leadership style that will make a contribution to the community.”

For those interested in supporting Sustainable Hope International, contact the Brookens at sus.hope.mail@gmail.com. To learn more, visit www.sustainhope.org or call 816-350-3386. The public is invited to attend a “Taste of Asia” fundraiser and silent auction from 6 to 9 p.m. on April 13 at Adams Mark Hotel.

-- Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.