My journey started in 2007 with a bowl of Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) at a food court in George Street, Sydney, very close to my then workplace at the New South Wales Ombudsman’s Office. The people who operated the small shop over time became firm friends of mine and eventually words turned to an Orphanage in their home city of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).....
Later that same year I found myself volunteering at Truyen Tinh Orphange in Saigon for 5 weeks and then again for yet another 5 weeks in 2008. In 2009 I worked for 2 months as a consultant for a street childrens program in Hanoi called Koto and at that time decided I would call Vietnam home. Vietnam is a very hot, polluted, and seemingly always dusty place but the nature of the people is something I had not experienced elsewhere, the friendship and warmth, honesty and willingness to give without thought of receiving was the primary reason I chose to stay. If you live your life in good conduct what you require will come your way, in this life, or the next.
Late 2009 I returned to live with no real concept of where this pathway would lead but none the less confident I would find my place. I volunteered for 6 months and then did a small amount of work for a Vietnamese volunteer placement service but was disappointed in the quality of service provided and also I thought the volunteers were not being properly utilized, so rather than complain about that I developed a website, found a name, the Vietnam International Volunteer Placement Service, and VIVPS was born. I placed my first volunteer, Cathryn from Canada early the next year at a disability program in Dalat and we were on our way.
I built up a number of programs over the years at organisations that I had volunteered with and those that I would later volunteer with. I have never regarded myself as an administrator, just a volunteer, and still to this day find my joy in working directly with our kids. In early 2012 I came across a program in the rural province of Ba Vi, approximately 60 kilometers from Hanoi in the north of Vietnam. This is where my heart would be broken but over the next 4 years would also be renewed and a faith in my fellow human beings enhanced.
Although I had volunteered all over Vietnam from Saigon in the south, to teaching ethnic minority kids in the far north of Vietnam I had never seen a program so needy, nor so many violations of human rights. It was very difficult to believe that such a place could exist in this country I loved, but it did, the first day I visited I left with tears in my eyes and a resolve to help effect change. What I saw that day does not really serve any purpose to be repeated, I have been here for almost 4 years and the changes that have been effected have been encouraging, but still so far to go. VIVPS is the only volunteer service permitted to operate at this particular center.
I started to drop off other programs from our website that I thought could cope well enough alone or with other volunteer organisations and focused only on Ba Vi. It was not a good business decision but this has never been about the money I just felt the more resources I could attract to this program the greater we could enhance the wellbeing of the kids and residents – 168 children – 160 adults. The numbers vary quite a lot as we do have many come and unfortunately many leave us. They do not leave us for a better life, although occasionally we think some of them do and are better off in passing.
Late 2013 I thought that we still had to do more so I started our informal charity Helping Hands Vietnam (HHV) thinking if we can raise more funds we can better help the children. There are no administration or marketing fees taken from HHV, my income is derived through VIVPS, every dollar goes only to those that are disadvantaged. We started with basic infrastructure so we could get the kids out of their steel beds for exercise and to improve their mobility, most had lost their core strength from years of idleness. We built shelters, play areas, provided simple things they were missing, wheel chairs, mattresses, fans, heaters for the winter, exhaust fans, solar heating, medical care and on the list would go. We also have a nutrition program that sees the kids have fresh fruit and yoghurt 3 days a week and fruit for all other residents one day a week, We have raised over $188,000 in just over 2 years and distributed that not only at the center but also within the local community, helping poor families and aiding the local hospitals and schools.
HHV now employs 1 young British paediatric nurse and 6 local ladies to assist in all areas with the children. Our focus is firmly on rehabilitation, education, health and wellbeing. We have 2 rehabilitation workers, 1 teacher, 1 art and music therapy coordinator, 1 wellness coordinator and just recently we hired 1 more lady to be trained in the area of occupational therapy. All HHV workers receive training from volunteers with training and expertise in their particular field. We are fortunate to have formed relationships with a number of Universities around the world that help us out with their students, in Australia we have students come from both Southern Cross University and the University of New South Wales. Each worker has their own international donor or group that raise enough money each year to cover their salary and insurances (more required). We don’t see ourselves as anything else but family and each member not only cares for the kids, but also each other, and each a volunteer prior to joining.
We may not always have volunteers at the center for one reason or another, but if I can continue to find funds we will always have our HHV team there helping the kids. I am aware that I have occupied too much space with this article and the book itself still has many pages to be written, like our work we will do this step by step. One thing I have learnt in my time here at the center and in Vietnam is that you cannot just impose your expectations on others, Culture is to be respected and their place in the timeframe of things is to be understood. This is a third world country and cannot immediately make change to something they know very little about. We don’t tell them, we show them.