One Mother’s Journey Home
by Aileen Nguyen
During our first trip to Vietnam over a decade ago, I took my daughters to visit an orphanage in the suburbs of Hue. There, we saw many young children who were as young as a few months old. The babies, though dressed in old and worn clothes, looked still precious. One of the young babies was blind at birth. She had been abandoned by her parents and rescued by the orphanage. After that trip, my daughters could not get the image of the unfortunate babies and young children off their minds, the conditions in which they were raised in their own motherland. They felt very sad for the children and started ATG to to organize fundraising activities so that they could send money to Vietnam to help these orphans. That is how all this began. In many ways, ATG was founded out of our family’s desire to do more.
In the years to come, we found two orphanages in Danang and two more in Hue and have sent funds to buy food and supplies to these centers on a regular basis. To ensure that the funds have been used for their intended purpose, once a year, my husband and I pack our bags and leave our work behind to embark on a two week trip to Vietnam (at our own expenses) to deliver the food, supplies and other needed items to the orphanages. In addition to that, we continually search for additional orphanages and organizations that raise and support less fortunate children so that we can reach out and provide aid to them as well.
On the airplane to Vietnam this time, we were sitting next to a couple with a very young daughter. She asked me what I would do in Vietnam. I told her that I would visit the orphanages and the orphans. She turned around and asked her mother, “What does an orphan look like, Mommy?” Her mother said: “My dear, they are babies, like you, but don’t have parents.”
We landed in Saigon. After spending a night there, we took an early flight to Danang. After landing, my husband and I immediately got together with our local friends and organized for the visits to the local centers that needed help. Still on my mind was the voice of the little girl from the airplane, “What does an orphan look like, Mommy?”
The first center that my friends recommended that I visit was one of the houses of the “Street Children Program-Danang” (“SCP-DN”). This is a center for the displaced and street children or “Children of the Dust” as they are sadly called. Often children of drug-addicts, they live in the corners of the markets, along the railroads or on the streets. They beg or steal for a living and scavenge city disposals for food. SCP-DN gives them a safe place to live, food to eat and send them to school. The center tries to raise them into productive individuals in order to be integrated to society, or be reunited with their relatives.
Mr. Ran (Jean) Nguyen has been running the center since even before 1975, before it became SCP-DN. He uses his own money or begs for support from various sources to build and run the center. Jean often searches the markets to the streets of Danang looking for street children to bring back to the center. He has three more assistants to help him run each of the houses. My friends told me that the centers have few resources and receive very little support from the government to run their activities, getting VND8 thousand ($.30 cents in USD) per day from the government to support each child. With the rising costs of food and supplies, that amount is barely enough to buy one bag of instant noodles. SCP-DN has four houses, each with about 30-35 children. The house we visited was number four.
My friends and I went to Metro (a store just like Sam’s or Costco in America) to buy milk, bread, soap, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste, cooking oil, soy sauce, etc. My friends suggested that we buy them some chicken, as these children rarely get to eat meat, so we did. I also picked up some cookies as treats. We packed the items into my friend’s little car and went to the center afterward.
We arrived at the SCP-DN center in the late afternoon and were surrounded by about 30 children, mostly from 7-13 years of age, except two girls that were 15 and 16. There was another 17 year-old girl who was hospitalized because of a seizure, so we did not see her. The children cheered as our car pulled up to the gate. After unloading the items to the classroom, the children were asked to sit down. The manager of the center introduced us to them and asked the oldest girl to thank us, which she did. We passed out the treats to the children, and they politely waited for their turn to receive the cookies, but I could see that their eyes got brighter and the smiles got bigger as we approached them. The manager introduced us to the founder of the center, Jean (who everyone called “Bo” a Vietnamese term for “Dad”).
Jean is about 76 years-old. We were told that he was from a very well to-do family with children of his own. However, after they grew up, he chose to leave his family to form the center and had been active in fundraising activities for the children as well as running the program. He now has brain cancer and recently went through an operation, unable to travel to fundraise as he used to. During our visit, Jean showed us a box of old harmonicas and picked one and played a few songs for us. The instrument was broken, so he could not play all the notes. He said all the others were broken as well. He asked if we could give him a new one on our next trip so that he can play the music for the children. He said the music helps lift their spirits and makes them happy. We promised him that we will bring one back. Such a devoted man! We hope he will be well for the children’s sake. During the last several years, his center has raised and supported approximately 700 children. We were told that Jean once bravely wrote to the French President’s wife, Danielle Mitterand, to ask for a home for the children. The story of the man with his harmonica who tied his life to support the street people touched Mrs. Mitterand and led her to send some resource to help built one of the houses of the center in Danang.
While we talked to Jean and toured the children’s sleep and study areas, we heard loud cheers and clapping downstairs. We followed the sound back to the kitchen and found the children jumping and dancing around. They found out that they would be having chicken for dinner that night! My friends explained to me that the center could not afford to buy meat for the children, so they have not eaten chicken for a long time. It was so heartwarming that they could be so happy with such a simple thing that many of us in America take for granted.
We went into the kitchen and found two of the oldest girls helping the manager and her assistant chop up, marinate and start to cook the chicken. I spoke to these girls and found out that they have been with the center for almost ten years. One was from a family without a dad, and her mother could not afford to raise her. The other girl was raised by her grandmother until she died. They told me that some of the kids from the center came from “street parents”. A few of them were abandoned by their family for “misbehaviors,” from reasons like being handicapped or being born into poverty.
I learned that one of the girls from the center suffered from epilepsy and was hospitalized for a few weeks. Although better now, she is now so behind with her classes that she needs special classes in order to help her pass the high school exam. The center needs about $VND1.5M (USD$75) to help her go to those classes. I gave the center the money to do that. We asked the children what else that they would really like to have. They asked if they could have pork or some more meat, as they did not have pork for nearly a year. They also asked for instant noodles so that the kids can eat after school.
The next day, we went shopping for instant noodle, notebooks and rice for the children of SCP-DN. We also bought 3.5kg of porkchops and had them delivered to the center. We went back to the center to visit with Jean and the children. Everyone was very touched by our gestures. The children were just overjoyed. They are no longer babies, but they are still children. One girl around seven years-old kept holding my hand and asking if I would come back. I told her yes. How can we not?
Thanh Tam Special School (Danang):
This center is a health and education center for disabled children run by The Sister of St. Paul of Chartres in Danang diocese. Taking care of children with special needs requires a lot of resources and effort, and it easier for people from poverty to abandon their disabled children than to care for them. The Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres in Danang believe that by helping the parents care for the disabled and providing them with support, there will be fewer abandoned or orphaned children in the future. The center relies on donated items or funds from outsiders to sustain. Since 2010, the center, with 39 of its staff, have been offering intensive treatment and care to 182 children of low income families or orphans.
We accompanied two nuns from Thanh Tam to shop at Metro. There we bought milk, beans, soap and cooking condiments. We visited the center and delivered the purchased items. We visited with the Director and toured the facility to learn about the conditions and the needs of the center. We toured an art class where the children were taught to paint. There were quite a few impressive paintings at the gallery. We dropped in when the children were having lunch. In all of the places that we visited on this trip, we found that the children from this place received the most nutritious meal. Everything was cleaned and organized. At this center, we did not see any babies. The youngest was 4 years-old and the oldest was 20 years-old. They all have special needs. Some has Down’s Syndrome, some are deaf, some cannot walk, some are mute. But the nuns were very dedicated in taking care of them.
Uu Dam (Hue):
We left Danang after three days, then traveled to Hue by car. Separated from Danang by a only a short mountain range, Hue’s weather was so cold and dreadful compared to Danang’s. It rained all day during the two days we were there.
Uu Dam is an orphanage run by a Buddhist nun. The orphanage is located approximately 13 km outside of Hue. When we arrived in Hue, we called the Director of the orphanage and learned that the children needed clothes, in addition to milk, food and supplies. The number of the children at Uu Dam is now 43. We bought clothes, instant noodles, milk, toothpaste, tooth brushes, shampoo and soap and delivered the items to Uu Dam. There were some older children that we were not quite sure of their size, so we advanced money to the store so that the Director could bring the older kids to get clothes for them later. When we arrived at the center, the children had finished dinner and were gathered around the old TV in a small room watching old Kungfu movies. It was so cold outside. The chilly wind blew so hard, reminding me of Chicago weather. The children sat on the floor snuggled next to each other, each wearing a wool cap. There was no heating unit to keep them warm.
We spent a few hours with the children and passed out treats to them. They politely waited for their turn. It was heart- warming to see the little boy that was only eight months-old when we first met him. He is now almost four. Like ATG, he is growing with us. There was an additional one year-old boy, and a two year-old girl. The twin girls we met on our last trip are now 18. One is attending nursing school, and the other is studying to be a teacher at Hue University. Both of them still come back to Uu Dam every night, because they have no family. The Director of the center told us that she hopes in the future to have the other older children study in other fields that will be helpful to the center such as computers, electrical, medicine, etc. Together, they have formed one big family, the orphans and the Director and a few helpers.
Son Ca (Hue):
The next day, we visited Son Ca, another orphanage run by the Sisters of St. Paul Chartres in Kim Long, Hue. We have regularly sent support to Son Ca since the spring of 2010. The children at Son Ca are mostly girls. There are only a few boys who have Down’s Syndrome. The oldest of the children is now in the last year of high school. Most of them were born by unwed mothers. The nuns convinced these unwed mothers to relinquish their babies to the center to help instead of throwing them in the trash or turning to abortion. Some of the children were born to the mountain people, who are very poor and could not afford to raise them.
We went shopping for food and supplies with the nuns. They asked if we can give them some bicycles for the children to use for exercise and entertainment. If the children are well behaved, they would earn bicycle playtime. There were 67 children, and we bought 16 bicycles in different sizes. The Sisters invited us to spend an evening with the children. Since that was our last night in Hue, we accepted the invitation.
That last night was the coldest evening that we have ever experienced in Hue. When we arrived, the children were eating dinner. We ate with the sisters and talked about the history of Son Ca and the children. During our dinner, the nuns expressed concern about their future, especially their education, how they would be able to survive and gain a living when they grow up. Sister Director asked if we had some old laptops that we could donate to them so that the girls could learn more.
After dinner, the nuns took up for a tour of the facility. We did not know that the girls had prepared a few surprises for us. When we went upstairs, we were asked to sit in a room and wait. Then the children appeared with a colorful sign: “Welcome ATG.” Before we could react, they started to perform a few different dances that they choreographed themselves. It was touching to see them dressed in the clothes and uniforms that were bought with ATG money during the last holiday. After all of the performances, the children reappeared with a new sign: ”Thank you ATG.” The nuns let them gather and test drive the bicycles. That was the cutest scene! On this coldest night, we were warmed by the sight of the smiles on the children’s faces.
In total, we spent USD$2,356 on foods, supplies, notebooks, bicycles for the four centers on this trip. This is not including the money we spent on transporting the foods and supplies. We paid for some trips with our own money, and some trips, we got help from our friends in Viet Nam. We have seen so many faces of the children during this trip, some who wandered around restaurants selling lottery tickets or begging for food and money. Their faces of these street children lack one important thing that those in the centers did have: a smile. As I am writing this report, I can still remember the sounds of their dancing and clapping when they received all our donations and gifts. Some of the children were very young, some were older or approaching adulthood. Some may still have families, some have no one. But the centers and supporters like us are all they have now to lean on at this point. This is hard work, physically and emotionally. These children need everything: books, school supplies, foods, clothing items, and education. There is much more that we can do. So for these children, we will be back!
*Throughout 2011, ATG will give over $10,000 in outreach to orphanages like these, scholarship stipends for young adoptees to attend culture camps, and scholarships for two outstanding Asian American students pursuing a degree in the arts. Education is one of the biggest ways we can give back and help continue our story. To donate to our cause and help support our programs, visit our Donate Page and give today! ATG is a 501(c)3, and your donations are tax deductible are used conscientiously to make every penny count.