SPRINGFIELD TWP.: Nhu Than prays that the day will come when no other child will experience the pain she endured as a victim of child sex trade.
“I’ve been telling my story so people will support the children and help to keep them safe,” said Nhu, 23, of Cambodia. “The children need people to help. I want them to have love and to know Jesus.”
Nhu has spent the past two months in the United States, with her parents, Carl and Laura Ralston, raising awareness about the ministry named for her: Remember Nhu. The Ralstons founded the ministry to combat the child sex trade globally.
Nhu’s story is also the backdrop for a Christmas tree that will be part of the 31st annual Akron Children’s Hospital Holiday Tree Festival, which runs today through Nov. 25 at the John S. Knight Center in downtown Akron.
The Remember Nhu Tree, sponsored by the Maranatha Bible Church in Springfield Township, is decorated with ornaments designed by girls in Thailand who are being helped by the Remember Nhu ministry.
“The Lord put it on my heart to put a tree together to help raise awareness about Remember Nhu,” said Jan Tritt, a member of Maranatha, who organized the Remember Nhu tree. “The work that the ministry is doing is so important. It grabbed my heart from the moment I heard about it. Every time I hear Nhu’s story, I cry.”
Nhu’s grandmother sold her twice in six months, when she was 12 years old, to tourists. The first time, when she was forced to spend three nights with a man in a hotel, Nhu prayed she would be the last child to have to go through the pain that she was suffering.
Although she tried to hold firm to her trust in God as a recently converted Christian, Nhu began to doubt God’s love for her. She worried she might be sold into a brothel. She subsequently convinced her grandmother to allow her to go to cosmetology school to learn how to do hair and nails.
Her grandmother gave her approval. Because Nhu had no money for schooling, she was forced to clean the school 28 days a month in exchange for her training.
Unbeknownst to her, a man in the Akron area had heard her story while on a mission trip in 2003 and was moved to do something. That man, Carl Ralston, spent three years traveling back and forth between his New Franklin home and Asia, looking for Nhu. He found her working in a salon in Cambodia in July 2006.
“When my husband heard her story, God quietly spoke ‘Remember Nhu’ to his heart,” said Laura Ralston, a native of Suffield Township. “She was 16 when we met her, and we adopted her in our hearts. She is our daughter.”
During his search for Nhu, Carl Ralston, a Cuyahoga Falls native, established the nonprofit ministry in Nhu’s name. The Ralstons opened the ministry’s first home in 2007 in Thailand to rescue girls and boys from the sex trade. The home was built with donations from Maranatha Bible Church in Springfield Township.
Members of the church still sponsor the 57 girls who now live there.
Remember Nhu has grown to include 18 homes in seven countries, including Cambodia, nations of West Africa, India, the Philippines and Bolivia, where Carl Ralston spent time this month checking on the two homes that have been established there. The 18 existing homes serve more than 500 children.
The goal of the ministry is to meet the physical, educational, emotional and spiritual needs of children who are at risk of being exploited in the sex-trade industry.
“We want to do everything we can to prevent children from ever falling prey to people who will exploit them in the child sex trade,” Laura Ralston said. “We believe people are created in the image of God, and when you take children and don’t provide them an opportunity for a good life and don’t provide for their needs, we are destroying the image of God. We are trying to give these children a safe place where they can be children.”
The ministry always is looking for volunteers and sponsors. Individual sponsors typically donate $60 per month to provide shelter, food, clothing and schooling for a child. Some organizations, like Maranatha, sponsor an entire home.
The Rev. Steve Marshall, associate pastor at Maranatha, said the church’s commitment to Remember Nhu provides an opportunity for members to live out their faith through compassion work. Marshall also serves on the Remember Nhu volunteer board of directors.
“People like to know they’ve made a tangible difference. The children who are being helped by the ministry are very real,” Marshall said. “We send small teams over to the home that we sponsor, which gives sponsors a chance to have a real relationship with their daughters. They are emotionally attached with and connected to each other.”
The Christmas tree project has been another source for connecting with the children in the Thailand home Maranatha sponsors. The girls there decorated the purple and gold ornaments (the colors of the Remember Nhu ministry) that adorn the tree. The gold star-shaped ornaments have various names for Jesus (Messiah, Jehovah, Savior, etc.) painted in English on one side and in Thai on the other.
The tree will be among more than 400 holiday decorations for sale at the Holiday Tree Festival. Proceeds support patient-care programs, education and research at Akron Children’s Hospital. Since the event began in 1982, it has raised more than $3.9 million for the hospital.
Admission to the festival is free. Hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays and 2 to 6 p.m. Thanksgiving. The John S. Knight Center is located at 77 E. Mill St.
For more information about the festival, visit www.akronchildrens.org.
More information about Remember Nhu can be found at www.remembernhu.org.
“When [Carl Ralston] found me, I knew that I would be safe. I knew I would be OK,” Nhu said. “With [the Ralstons’] support and love, I am able to help other children. Now, I understand, as Christians, we sometimes go through hurt and pain, but we should be strong in Christ and pray and ask God to show us his plan for our lives.”
Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or firstname.lastname@example.org.