An outspoken advocate of trauma-informed care, Helen Avadiar-Nimbalker is a trauma counselor and the founder of The Whispering Willow, a social justice organisation dedicated to empowering women in Thailand, most of whom are from the commercial sex industry or have been impacted by exploitation and human trafficking.
“My childhood was not the happiest of places,” says Helen Avadiar-Nimbalker. Her parents divorced when she was around nine years old, and her mother raised Helen and her sister single-handedly.
“As my dad was struggling with alcohol abuse, we had grown up in a traumatic environment. My sister and I grew incredibly close as we often only had each other, and when my mum became a single parent we built a three-way support system,” she shares.
Helen’s mother juggled three to four jobs to make ends meet and put her daughters through school and college. Education was a priority in the household, and Helen is grateful because it gave her a holistic view of life.
“Watching my mother become self-sufficient gave us determination and focus to do the same, and education also gave us a sense of hope. It gave us an assurance that poverty did not have to hold us back.”
“I was looking for God and I couldn’t find Him in church.”
Her mother was a devout Christian, and Helen remembers going to church. However, there was only one occasion where she experienced God’s nearness. When she was 17 years old and attending 6am mass in church, she felt an indescribable peace wash over her for around half a minute.
“That was it. And after that, I was just looking for that peace everywhere, and I couldn’t find it,” Helen remembers. With her turbulent childhood and adverse trauma experiences weighing upon her, she couldn’t find God in church and so she moved away from the faith.
Thus began a season of growing and searching. After finishing her business degree in the United States, she came back and worked for a few companies but found she disliked sitting at a desk.
“I was passionate about social work and had always been interested in psychology so I delved more into mental health because I was trying to understand mental health and addiction,” she says, adding that she began volunteering with NGOs focusing on women and children.
Eventually, Helen became a certified counsellor and social justice advocate, working with local organisations and authorities on various human rights campaigns.
But there was still a struggle within. She explored seven to eight religions and had become tangled up in alcoholism and drugs during her college years in her desperation for answers. Her battle with alcohol and substance abuse went on for many years.
Encountering God again, Helen found freedom, answers and purpose
However, God was always near. Helen loved reading the Bible and would read it from cover to cover. On nights when she came home drunk, her mother would leave strips of paper with Bible verses written down on her bed.
“Looking back, the Word of God and my mother’s prayers kept me alive,” she recalls. One day, Helen’s sister, Suzane, who had recently returned from living abroad persuaded her to go to church.
“My sister and I are inseparable, so she convinced me to visit a church that had once prayed for me when I had gone off the radar while drunk and high. At the service, I had a re-encounter with God; it was the peace and presence I’d been searching for since I was 17. Something switched on within me. My addictions and suicidal thoughts went away, just like that. That was in 2012, the year I turned 40 years old.”
At the time, she was active in counselling and human rights but decided she wanted to dive deeper into the neurology and science behind trauma. “I had found that trauma is really something that can mess a person’s head up,” she explains.
In 2015, she began to study the impact of trauma and adverse childhood experiences. Along the way, she found answers to her own questions and life experiences. It helped her personal healing process, but it also revealed a truth that has shaped much of the work she does today: the importance of safe spaces.
Jesus provided a safe space for everyone, even those who opposed Him
“Safe spaces, being seen and heard, just being able to express and be who you are without fear makes a huge difference. What Jesus did was provide a safe space for everyone, even those who opposed Him. Just speaking about Jesus doesn’t always help.”
Helen’s own life experiences have also proven this to be true. She found that the seasons in which she was doing well (not looking for alcohol, drugs or unhealthy company) were when she was surrounded by people who truly cared about her. “And they were not Christians,” she added.
Today, Helen is a Certified Trauma Counsellor (CCTP) with an emphasis on the Neurobiology of Mental Health, Traumatic Stress, Child & Adolescent Trauma & Substance Abuse Treatment. She’s also a trained Christian counsellor.
“I love teaching, training and equipping people with trauma-informed care. After a while, I joined an organisation doing discipleship and training and once, on a trip to northern Thailand for training, I felt such a strong prompting to serve this country.”
With a newfound burden for Thailand, Helen entered her mission field
The prompting, Helen shares, was strange because Thailand was far from her mind at the time. Her hope was to serve in a country like Syria and provide trauma care for war-affected communities, especially the children.
Back in KL, she had also just launched a huge anti-trafficking campaign with the local district authorities. But she gave God three markers, one of which was how her mother would respond. They were living together then and she didn’t want to leave her mother alone.
“I told my mother the evening I got back from Thailand that I wanted to move there, and she brushed it off. But the next morning she came up to me sobbing and said, “Many years ago, when you were still struggling with alcohol abuse and disappearing and all, I prayed and told God, “If you bring my daughter back to Your Son’s feet, whenever she needs to go out to do Your work, I will release her.” My mum had forgotten all about the prayer, only remembering it that morning itself.”
With the support of her mother and blessings from her church, Helen moved to Thailand in 2018. She planned to conduct training, run campaigns, knock on government doors, and advocate for policy change on human trafficking and exploitation, but God had other plans.
“Put it all down and walk the land.” For six months, Helen walked the streets of Chiang Mai and prayed
Upon her arrival, she felt a prompting in her spirit to lay her plans aside. “Put it all down and walk the land.” So for six months, she did prayer walks in the mornings. It began with four locations, all red-light districts in Chiang Mai and over time, narrowed to one location, then one street and finally one spot. It was outside a bar, and there she would just sit and worship.
“The first woman I reached out to, who’s now the Director with our organisation, was working at that very bar. Now, every Monday we meet with a group of missionaries there to pray and one of the key leaders is the daughter of the bar owner,” Helen shares.
Looking back, Helen knows the six months was an arduous but necessary process. “God was shaping my love for the land. As I did the walks and prayed, I became familiar with people, spaces, and the rhythm of life. And I became a familiar face to them as well, so when the work actually began, it was easy,” she says.
In 2015, Helen’s sister had a dream she couldn’t understand. Three years later, it became reality.
One night in 2017, Helen and Suzane were having a late-night catchup at McDonald’s when Helen shared her desire to formalise a prayer team for human trafficking and to add some structure for expansion.
Suzane suddenly remembered a dream she’d had of a bookshop cum cafe called “The Whispering Willow” and suggested the name. Then she left to go pick up their order and when she came back, her face was pale. “Helen, do you remember the rest of the dream?”
In the dream, Suzane follows a lady to the back, where there’s a big warehouse filled with women from different nations. They were sewing, baking, making jewelry and crafts, and they all turned around and greeted her as though they knew her.
“Suzane looks at the older lady and says, “Who are all these people?” And the lady says, “Don’t you know? These are the women you and your sister rescued out of the sex trade.”
Helen recently sent a photo of over 20 women sewing in “The Whispering Willow” to Suzane, a glimpse of the dream God had given her coming to life. “When God reveals these things, and we look back, He’s just reminding us that He’s been on the path all along. That we can continue to trust Him,” she says.
Today, “The Whispering Willow” (TWW) reaches out to support women in the commercial sex industry and those who are set free from human trafficking, and aim to break the cycle of gender based exploitation. The team provides a safe place to Heal & Build women impacted by trauma through their drop-in center located in the heart of a red-light district offering alternative employment opportunities, education, counselling, medical services and food.
Helen also shares that the work has expanded beyond its original transition program as more women with trauma and at-risk young women seeking work are referred to TWW.
“It’s essentially an empowerment program. Most are women who have been impacted by exploitation. 30% are young girls who have come out of their villages to look for work. Most days, it’s a heavy mess. Women are breaking down and crying; you can’t just pray that away, they have real needs, they need real help.”
Missions is about creating a safe space for everyone to experience and encounter the heart of God
At TWW, the collective goal is for every person to feel loved and honoured by providing a safe space. Helen is firm in their approach of showing God’s heart rather than focusing on getting people ‘saved’ because there may be no real transformation, just behaviour modification.
“Throughout the Bible, there is a clear message: God sees people. So we do not need to underestimate the power of God’s love on the cross. We don’t need to throw Bible verses in their faces. His love speaks loudest. The danger is when the narrative changes to what we believe it to be. Then Christianity becomes an exclusive club; othering becomes such an easy thing and that causes people to lose their safe space.”
On a personal level, this meant having to do away with the whole “faith lingo” in order to reach the women needing help facing the trauma of their past. What they need, she says, is not what many of us think they need. It’s just basic love, care and conversation.
“I needed to be a human, a woman, Helen first with all my experiences and brokenness and passion of Jesus all in one in order to relate to another woman. I needed to know how to do it well, and so I had to unlearn a lot of things,” she says.
Her personal challenge is representing her Christian faith powerfully but also understanding how to live out the cause in her heart, for people to be seen, heard and loved. “Love first, then when people ask where this love comes from, then you talk about Who is walking alongside you. They will ask,” she declares with certainty.
God brought Helen a perfect life partner for the ministry He called her to
“I’m 50 years old, and just got married three years ago,” Helen says with a laugh. Her first encounter with her husband, Pr Vincent Nimbalker, was when he preached back in her KL church years ago. According to Helen, he preached an excellent message but that was all.
Sometime after her move to Thailand, she was visiting Penang for three days and posted a photo online of the Penang Bridge. Vincent reached out to her and they ended up having lunch.
“Then we started talking over the phone and just as I was about to head back to Thailand he said he was missing me. I was also thinking about him but was determined to push those thoughts away; I was 46 and had no intention of getting married. It was distracting!”
They continued conversing online and via phone, and soon after Vincent visited Helen in Thailand for 10 days. On the eighth day, he asked her mother’s permission to propose (her mum and sister saw it coming), then asked Helen to marry him.
She said yes, and six months later in June 2019, they were married in Penang.
“I have to say I wouldn’t be able to do the work I do effectively without a partner like my husband. I’m strong-willed and resilient, a visionary and a connector. He’s very zen. So when I get riled up, he’s the steady hand. He’s also got such a pastor’s heart and is a detailed person, so that balances us out nicely.”
“There are real people out there who need real Love.”
Living in the mission field today, Helen sees gaps between missionaries and the local church, especially in the area of supporting missionaries. She shares that there are many fields untapped because people are not being sent and even if they are sent, they’re just thrown there and forgotten.
“As Malaysians, our currency already isn’t the strongest. We have 40 women currently in our care, so we have to stretch every cent. So financial support is a big one, but there are so many other ways for Malaysian churches to offer real, impactful support to missionaries as well.”
For example, Vincent’s home church in Penang (EPCC Church) recently sent a team to Chiangmai to offer support and meet needs. Some gave their talents to help build shelves for the centre and others taught women how to bake different goods and package them well. They were just here being present to us and our needs. This is a real, needed kind of support as well, says Helen.
“It’s about understanding that there is a physical missions field, where there is a bigger need beyond your church and office. There are real people out there who need real love, to understand who God really is and that He created them for a plan and purpose. That He is for us,” Helen says.
To do this, the church needs to break down existing walls between the church and the mission field. It needs to be fluid. “We are all the church, we are all in missions.”
Where there is real love, there is real freedom
On New Year’s Eve in 2010, Helen was ushering in a new decade drunk at a bar. A decade later, she celebrated the new year surrounded by women on their own journey of healing and restoration. It was a celebration of freedom, and for Helen, a powerful display of God’s redemptive work in us.
“In 2 Corinthians 3, it says “Now the Lord is Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” In my wandering years, I used to wonder where that freedom could be found. And Romans 8:11 talks about the Spirit living in me. I’d ask, “If I’m supposed to be bringing freedom to others, why don’t I have it for myself?”
This feisty visionary with a heart for the hurting is living in freedom today, and she sees it in the women around her as well. Their lives have been changed by love; TWW is led by survivors, some women are reuniting with their children, and others are talking of the future with hope.
For Helen, the secret is in understanding 2 Corinthians 3:17.
“If you look at the original text and meaning, the closest translation would be, “Where He is made Lord, there is freedom,” she says. “And how do we make Him Lord? When we simply live our lives as Jesus did, showing God’s heart for humanity and having the same heart for one another. When that happens, then there is freedom of true expression, and everyone can come as they are to Him.”
Helen is supported by AsiaCMS, a trans-denominational mission movement based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and established in 2012. AsiaCMS connects people, organisations, and churches to meet needs; facilitates collaborations for mission initiatives, and resources people and organisations through mission education, cross-cultural ministry training and support.
All photos provided by Helen Avadiar-Nimbalker.