Umphang orphanage

The children at the Umphang orphanage are growing in number and age. “I received a vision that it will be more children,” said Esther Yi Lazum, who founded the Umphang orphanage in 2008. Photo courtesy of Esther Yi Lazum..

“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” (1 Cor 3:6)

What began as an initiative to house stateless refugee children has seen God bring provision again and again, from the right people to financial support in the nick of time.

Some obeyed the call to go to a war-torn location to support refugee children. Others sacrificed from their pockets, even donating their CPF payouts to the cause.

In the war-torn border of Umphang, located between Myanmar and Thailand, an orphanage was planted in the 2008 by Esther Yi Lazum — herself a stateless Burmese university student in Thailand at the time — to house these children who had lost their families in the ongoing war between the Burmese tribe people and the junta (military) forces of Myanmar.

Esther began her work with modest funding from Finnish missionaries.

Singaporean Freddie Tan, 74, was familiar with Myanmar, having gone on annual mission trips to Yangon in the 1990s, where he met and worked with Esther’s father Lazum La Htoi, a pastor.

But when Esther invited Freddie to minister to the children in the orphanage she had set up in 2008, he was ready to say no, given that Umphang was a remote area that was difficult to access, and funding was limited. 

He told Esther he would “pray about it”.

God’s provision for the vision

One day as he did quiet time, Freddie was convicted by Galatians 6:9-10: “Do not be weary in doing good for in due time you will reap a harvest of righteousness.”

When Freddie sought prayer support for the school building, he received a donation from his church. The amount was exactly what was needed to complete the building. 

God also reminded him of His promise in Philippians 4:19: “And my God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”

Beyond just money, what Freddie needed was a co-labourer. God sent him a ministry partner who specialised in children’s events.

Through his obedience, Freddie was able to witness the Lord multiplying their modest efforts and finances over the next 15 years.

The orphanage started by Esther and her husband, Pastor Gum San Hpauyu, began as a shelter for refugee children. But Freddie had a vision one day of a Burmese man holding a Bible walking into the orphanage. He believed it was God directing the orphanage to start a church.

The following year, Pastor Gum Sang built a little shack next to the orphanage to hold church services. “It was a small church,” Freddie recalled.

As years passed, a proper building was erected to house the orphanage and the church. The congregation began to grow, and the team would minister to the children as well as their parents.

Colin Soh (top row, left) with the beneficiaries of the ministry in Umphang. Photo courtesy of Colin Soh.

The orphanage now has a second facility in the city of Mae Sot where the children stay as they progress in their education. Today, more than about 180 children and their parents attend church services at both facilities.

Looking back it is clear God has always been there for them, though there were times when crisis hit. In fact, it was during such occasions that He showed Himself strong.

In 2011, the team began building a mission school in 2011. Halfway through the building of the school, however, funding abruptly stopped.

The orphanage owed money for materials and work done, and building could not continue. The original funding from the Finnish missionaries had been winding down over the years. 

When Freddie brought this problem back to his church — Bethesda (Bedok-Tampines) Church in Singapore — seeking prayer support for the building project, he received a donation. The amount was beyond his expectations and was exactly what was needed to complete the building. 

“I was overjoyed. I didn’t ask for money and I did not tell them how much was needed,” Freddie marvelled. “It was very encouraging.”

The church also made a commitment to support the mission school for a season. 

Kingdom partners

Although his first ministry partner is no longer involved today, Freddie has not lacked helpmates the last 15 years. His  sister Elsa Tan, now 82, and ministry partner Kenny Auw Yong, who is in his 50s, go twice a year to the orphanage with him.

Freddie preaches the gospel in Umphang while Colin focuses on securing funds for the orphanage.

Sometimes, members of his cell group accompany him.

There, the Singapore team shares a Biblical message with the children and their parents, conduct children’s events and pray with them.

As the years wore on, however, Freddie sought God for a successor.

“I was telling the Lord I’m not young anymore,” he recounted. “I really need someone to come alongside with me, someone I can eventually hand over the baton to.”

This time, God brought fellow church member Colin Soh, 64, who at the time had recently retired from the corporate world.

The partnership began five years ago when Freddie and Colin attended a seminar together. During a lunch break, Freddie told Colin about his work at Umphang.

One day soon after, Colin asked to join him on his next trip to Myanmar. On his first sojourn to Umphang, he was captivated by the singing of the children.

Even though he did not understand what they were singing, the voices ringing with the familiar melodies of Christian songs moved Colin deeply.

“They sing so beautifully,” he shared. “They really, really capture your heart.”

The team that spearheads the support of the orphanage (L-R): Colin Soh, Elsa Tan, Kenny Auw Yong, and Freddie Tan. Photo courtesy of Freddie Tan.

He also saw the love that Esther and Pastor Gum Sang have for God and for the children. Both husband and wife eschewed political asylum in the United States to remain on the border to care for the children. 

“They are for real. They have sacrificed a great deal for this ministry,” Colin stated. 

Now, Freddie teaches and preaches the gospel at Umphang with his team while Colin focuses on securing funds for the orphanage and co-labouring with Esther on the organisation and administration of the orphanage. 

He shall supply all their needs 

In 2019, the Finnish missionaries stopped funding the orphanage.

Amidst the growing needs of the orphanage, the team was left with a gaping hole in its budget. 

When Colin and Freddie shared this burden with their respective cell groups, both cell groups stepped up to support the orphanage.

“When I pray seriously with God, God shows me the paddy fields. I believe the harvest fields are ripe.”

Each group now contributes between $500 and $600 a month to the orphanage, each member giving as God leads. Even some former members of Colin’s cell group continue to donate to the orphanage.

Apart from contributing to the fund, the cell groups also pray for the children and the ministry.

Whenever the orphanage needs money – for Wi-Fi, remote CCTVs or food – Colin sends money from this fund. The cell groups also contribute whenever the children have special needs, such as money for medical care.

“Whenever there is a request, I forward to some members and one way or another they will find a way to help,” Freddie revealed.

The number of children has tripled in the last year due to the intensifying conflict between the Burmese tribes and the junta. Photo courtesy of Esther Yi Lazum.

As fighting along the border intensified, the number of children coming into the orphanage has tripled in the past year.

When the stateless orphans come, they are immediately registered into the school, which is recognised by the Thai government. This way, they are able to progress to middle and high school at a Thai public school.

The early children who came to the orphanage have also grown since then, from elementary to now, high school. 

“The fruit is definitely growing,” Freddie said.

“I received a vision that it will be more children,” Esther told Salt&Light, her voice full of conviction. “Myanmar is in a very bad situation. When I pray seriously with God, God shows me the paddy fields. I believe the harvest fields are ripe.”

As the ministry grows, so do the costs.

Monthly operating costs for the orphanage now run at $9,000 for basic needs including housing and teaching of the young children. Costs for education needs and lodging are expected to rise steadily with a big group of orphans now aged 14 to 16.

Colin has also been reaching out to private donors to raise financial support for the orphanage and mission school. The ministry is almost exclusively supported today by a collective of private donors in Singapore. 

“This comes with the participation of all the believers – those who can give, give; those who can do, do; those who can connect, connect.” 

One donor gave $1,500 anonymously. Another decided to forego his CPF payout of around $1,500 a month and direct it to the orphanage instead.

“These donors realise that such a sum may not have such a big impact in their own lives but it can make a permanent and long-lasting impact on the children,” said 65-year-old Sam Lam, a leadership advisor who helps connect Colin with parties who help support the orphanage.

Freddie’s wife Agnes has also been a faithful supporter of the orphanage although she has not been able to travel to Umphang. She handles all the packing for Freddie for all his trips these 16 years, and contents include many gifts to be brought to the children.

Recently, another group of donors pooled together money to buy land for the orphanage so it can move towards self-sufficiency. 

When the Thai government opened up the opportunity two years ago to apply for the Thai national identification, Colin worked with a group of donors to secure the Thai identification for 12-13 teenagers so they can have legal status in Thailand. The application costs $2,000 each.

More recently, in response to the needs highlighted in a Salt&Light article, three donors gave a significant contribution that arrived just in time to meet urgent and critical needs of the mission school this month. 

Freddie’s cell group is one of two that support the orphanage as a cell; the other is Colin’s. Photo courtesy of Freddie Tan.

“This takes the participation of all the believers – those who can give, give; those who can do, do; those who can connect, connect,” Colin reiterated. “There is no comparison, no guilt.”

“Whatever we give can yield 30-fold, 60-fold and 100-fold (Mark 4:20),” Sam concurred. “One Singapore dollar can stretch so far in Thailand. Think of the multiple-folds that can reach multiple lives.”

Cultivating sustainability 

Financing from the private donors keeps the orphanage and mission afloat for the present. However, there are concerns about sustainability for the long run. 

Currently, Colin is working with Esther to take the orphanage from donor-driven to self-sustaining.  

The roadmap is to train the children to acquire adequate academic skills, and then to help them to go to trade school, Esther explained.

Just before COVID became rampant, the team acquired a piece of mountain land on which the orphanage had been leasing to plant vegetables to supplement their rising food cost. As the lease was expiring, donors in Singapore bought the land for them.

Colin (first from left) took a group from Singapore to Umphang to understand future plans of the orphanage and to help Pastor Gum San Hpauyu and Esther Yi Lazum (second and third from left) with planning and administration. Photo courtesy of Colin Soh.

However, more farm land was needed to grow food for the orphanage. Buying the second piece of land was daunting, as the sum needed was sizeable.

But God began to put names in his head, Colin said. Eventually, he connected a group of 13 Christians from different churches who collectively raised the money for a second piece of land for the orphanage to plant rice and corn.   

With the two farms, Esther hopes needs will be met. The orphanage has built a chicken coop that can handle 1,000 chickens and are planting fruit trees, avocados, mangoes, bananas, and pumpkins.

“We’ve managed to help them in doing many things, but really it is not our doing. God’s doing it.”

Despite the fact they have food supply concerns, Esther and Pastor Gum Sang brought rice, vegetables and pumpkins to the influx of new refugees at the refugee settlements, where they preached the gospel and distributed food. 

“They felt they had a lot more than the people who just came across the border,” Colin recounted. “You have to admire their generosity and the love of God they’re showing so clearly.”

To help drive the orphanage towards self-sufficiency, the cell groups in Singapore bought sewing machines and ovens, and paid for teachers to teach the children in the orphanage how to sew items and bake bread that can be sold. Their aim: To help the orphans acquire skills and secure jobs. 

Now that the children have seen and experienced God’s love, some of them want to go to Bible school. 

“We’ve managed to help them do many things, but really it is not our doing — God’s doing it,” Colin pointed out. “I’m just lucky enough to be the guy available at this time to help with these things.” 


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About the author

Peck Sim

Peck Sim is a former journalist, event producer, and product manager who thankfully found the answer for her wonderings and a home for her wanderings. She loves stories, corny jokes, short runs and long walks. The world is her oyster but Heaven is her home.