One Thai church’s audacious plan to use soccer to prevent boys from falling prey to the sex trade is yielding incredible results.

For hours on end, you can find young boys crowded around sleek, flat-screen monitors in Thailand’s ubiquitous game parlours. Around the Kampang Ngam slum area in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, these stores are often filled with children from the slum. The brightly lit and often air-conditioned rooms are a huge contrast to their cramped houses. But the game parlours’ easy access and low cost have created a dangerous problem.

At all hours of the day or night, young boys from the slum, some as young as six years old, will exchange their allotted lunch money for time in front of a computer at the cost of only 25 cents an hour. Captivated by the free-to-play online games, they are not unlike addicts, unable and unwilling to cut the ties to the only escape they have from their challenging lives in the slums. But the game parlours hide a sinister and dangerous secret; these always-open, unsupervised establishments full of impoverished children from the slums make prime target areas for recruiters looking to pull boys and young men into the sex trade.

How one Thai church is stopping the sex trade with soccer

Mr. Wanchai Wankasamsan is the project director of Compassion’s project at the Chiang Mai Acts of Grace church. He has been working with families in the Kampang Ngam slum for more than five years. He says when he started, children as young as 10 were often approached in these game parlours by their peers or older children who are already actively selling their bodies to foreign tourists. The impoverished children are enticed by the lure of easy money and accommodations much nicer than their own homes.

“The older boys recruit younger ones from these game parlours, and they are all paid by foreign tourists. The foreigners often then take the boys to nearby hotels,” Wanchai says. “Sometimes the foreigner will become attached to a particular boy, calling him his boyfriend, and sending money from the foreign country to this boy.”

But how does it get to that point, and where are the parents? Mr. Wanchai answers with a heavy sigh: “The problems begin at home.”

How one Thai church is stopping the sex trade with soccer

“Their parents work in the night markets,” heexplains, referring to the many late-night, open-air markets often aimed at tourists visiting Thailand. Residents of the city’s slums peddle handicrafts and cheap plastic toys in these markets at night, dressed in their traditional clothes to draw attention. “The parents don’t have time to watch the children at night, and the children will run off to the game parlours, sometimes spending days there.”

When asked about where the young boys get the money to sustain that lifestyle, Mr. Wanchai explains how they pool their allowances. “The parents give each child as much as they can afford, on average about 80 cents a day for lunch at school. The children might spend a small amount of that on food, then use the rest in the game parlours.”

Dealing with this issue can be very difficult, especially when the parents are not fully aware of the danger their children face. Mr. Wanchai explained most of the parents are illiterate and don’t understand what their children are doing. “They will think, ‘Oh, my son is at least learning to use a computer and will have a skill,’” he says. “But they don’t know that their children aren’t learning a skill. They are getting hooked on addictive online games, or looking at inappropriate material online.”

Parents also weigh gaming parlours against other possibilities, like their children joining gangs or becoming addicted to drugs. “To get the parent’s cooperation, we have to help them have a new mindset about the game parlours,” says Mr. Wanchai.

Without a clear understanding of the dangers that their children face, parents were often at a loss when they learned their children had entered the sex trade. To Mr. Wanchai, seeing the children in that lifestyle was indescribably sad. With tears in his eyes, Mr. Wanchai says, “And once he’s in there, it’s almost impossible for us to bring a young boy out of it.”

The access to quick money and the culture surrounding the lifestyle are like drugs themselves, holding the young boys in their grasp until it’s too late. AIDS, HIV, and a host of sexually transmitted diseases inundate Thailand’s sex trade, affecting both males and females. Entrapment in the sex trade hurts every other aspect of their lives, including family ties, education, and mental health. Often, it leads to death.

Mr. Wanchai recounted an event that happened in March 2015. To feed their gaming addiction, a group of boys from the Kampang Ngam slum tried to steal valuables from their own school. They were only weeks away from taking final exams for high school when they were caught. Now, no school in the area will take them in. Kicked out of the education system, their future is uncertain. Mr. Wanchai tried his best to intervene, but two boys in the group chose to reject school and join their peers in selling their bodies for money. Fortunately, the other two boys accepted Mr. Wanchai’s help and have been placed in a school further away from their slum, where they will have a second chance at finishing school.

“But we don’t wait for them to get to that point,” Mr. Wanchai says. “We want to get to them before they’ve entered the sex trade, or are addicted to computer games. We have to pull them into our community.”

The struggle to get these rowdy young boys into a church or Sunday school class is understandably difficult. Having grown up in the slums with almost no adult supervision, the thought of sitting still and listening to stories is more or less a dream. “We tried that,” says Wanchai, “But it didn’t work. After a while, the boys just didn’t want to come at all to the church.”

That’s when they changed their strategy. In 2013, the church started a soccer ministry to children in the slums. All the children in the slum were invited to join a team of children from the church and learn to play soccer. The opportunity to be coached by a real soccer coach, a volunteering member of the church, was also a big draw. “At first the boys were very cautious. We started with only 10 children who were already coming to church, and only one young boy from the slum.”

How one Thai church is stopping the sex trade with soccer

However, interest grew quickly, and the program proved to be very popular with the children.

As the attendance rose, so did the cost. There were needs for uniforms, shoes, sports equipment, and renting the field. When the Acts of Grace church partnered with Compassion, many of these needs were met. Before partnership, the church could only offer volunteer coaches and limited playing areas; they lacked other resources. After Compassion joined the church in the fight to rescue these young boys, the church had the resources to go further with the ministry. They hired a full-time coach, and bought equipment and clothing for the children.

“After we joined with Compassion, we were able to increase our reach to 30 children and counting!” says Wanchai. Almost every young boy in the slum is now enrolled in their soccer program. In the program, boys are not only given an alternative to the dangerous gaming parlours, but are taught in so many other ways. Children who had no good male role models to look up to, often suffering abuse from their own fathers, now look up to the coach and trainers from the church as examples to follow. The men leading the program are not only church members, but also compassionate, skilled coaches and trainers who have a heart for raising these children.

How one Thai church is stopping the sex trade with soccer

One of these men is Phithack Phaodee, the head coach over the program. He has used his personal connections to occasionally let the boys practice on a professional practice field at a local soccer club. His fun, but firm, practice sessions are orderly and disciplined, and it’s clear that the boys look up to him with respect.

And what do the parents think about the soccer program? “Parents have told me,” said Mr. Wanchai, “that in the past, when they had to go work, the children would go missing all night. Now, because they’re so tired from the soccer practice, they sleep instead! So the children stay home, and are well rested for school the next morning. They are very happy about that!”

In fact, when heavy rains made their home field muddy and unplayable, the parents themselves pitched in with the cost for the boys to practice on an artificial grass field so they could be ready for an upcoming tournament.

How one Thai church is stopping the sex trade with soccer

Mr. Wanchai has great hopes for the future of their program. “We are watching to see where this program takes us,” he said, “but already, two or three children have come to believe in Jesus through this program!”

The benefits to the program are undeniably obvious. To date, not a single boy who has enrolled in the Acts of Grace Church soccer program has later entered the sex trade. Mr. Wanchai calls it “automatic protection”: the fact that simply registering a child with Compassion and entering him into the program keeps him out of the hands of recruiters. Children are staying home at night, sleeping well, eating better, and have good male role models in their lives. The church wants to expand this if possible in the future.

“We have many girls who say they want to have a volleyball team,” says Mr. Wanchai excitedly, “so we’re trying to make that happen too!”

And what of the sex trade recruiters? Mr. Wanchai hasn’t seen them coming around the slum at all this year. “Apparently, the boys are too busy with soccer,” he says. After cutting off the supply, recruiters have stopped coming to the Kampang Ngam area, and a vicious cycle of entrapment is being stopped.

Compassion’s mission of rescuing children from poverty is often served best by prevention; in this case, preventive actions by the church in a dark and dangerous world have kept many children out of a life of sadness and death. After trading late night game parlours for sunshine on a soccer field, children are seeing hope for the first time. As they continue through Compassion’s program, they will learn to achieve goals beyond the soccer field; goals that will lead to a life rescued from poverty.

Story and photos by Jonathan L.Suwaratana