Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Refections: Window into the World of the Disabled

I want to make it clear I am not disabled. Now I want to add I am blessed to only have a temporary disability which has enabled me to look through a window into the world of the disabled. I broke one of my legs recently which dramatically immobilized me.

I live in a part of Vietnam where there are many people with permanent disabilities. If I go into town there are workshops for those with disabilities where they make beautiful products that are sold to tourists. They have been trained and are now highly skilled, but they still suffer from discrimination and back pain due to a deformed spine or they still can't hear or talk. I see others in town who had polio, or have a deformity or who lost a leg or their eyesight in the war. They move around with various forms of assistance; on crutches, with a walking stick, or in a cart a little like a large mechanized go cart, which we locally call a 'push-me-pull-me'.

In central Vietnam many suffered dramatically from the war, mentally, psychologically and physically. Some are mentally unstable or severely depressed due to the horrors of the war. Others lost a limb, or part of their face and an eye or ear; some are suffering with side effects from Agent Orange on top of their other challenges. Some have the more known side effects of Agent Orange fallout such as depression and large wart-like growths. They also rarely give birth to a normal child. Most of their children and grandchildren are disfigured or mentally retarded. We locally wonder if the high rate of spina bifida, heart abnormalities, heart disease and thyroid problems are also due to Agent Orange.

So my disability is a blip in comparison. I remember lying on the road in an ecstatic state when I realizing I wasn't dead. I felt so grateful to be alive. Soon after the accident I was blessed with lots of help and support. Lien who helps with my garden and home brought me food and did my washing. Miriam looked after me in her home and helped me with the simple things that were now hard such as making tea, making the bed and putting the mosquito net around me at night.

I found the first week of using crutches excruciating. I struggled and stumbled a little, and my chest, arms and hands all ached from having to use them. Then my body adjusted.

My dreams and plans for the next few months were dashed and had to be abandoned; some of the changes were easy to accept but the abandoned visit to my family wasn't. I felt sad, disappointed and started to feel low.

Over the following days that lowness made everything too much, such as the showers, getting dressed and undressed. My hands were occupied with holding the crutches to stabilize me and having no free hands and only one leg to stand on made bathing or dressing hard work. I felt frustrated that I could do so little and was so dependent on the help of others and was low as everything was just plain hard to do. I then felt guilty for feeling that way. I was alive and had so much help, and that this was just a temporary disability.

In receiving a lovely supportive email from a friend and recalling lying on the road, the gratitude I felt in being alive returned and the lowness disappeared. I was truly blessed and this was just a very short term hiccup in my hopes and plans.

This whole experience started me imagining what it is like for someone who has a disability that isn't going to go away, one that they have to live with every day of their lives. They have to depend on others to help them permanently in some way. What is it like to live all the time knowing there are some things you cannot do, that perhaps you could do before, or that you see and hear about others doing? What is it like when you cannot manage unless someone else does things for you ? What is it like when you will just never be able to do what you want, no matter what? What is it like to live with that dependency on others and maybe permanent pain?

There is a group of children we help whose parents or grandparents have had leprosy. It has been treated but they are left without toes or fingers or parts of their hands or feet. They don't just have a disability but also suffer from discrimination wherever they go.

One mother whose children we help to receive an education has had breast infections and tumors as well as being affected by polio. She was too weak to even look after her children when she was ill. She is much better but still needs daily help from her husband, sister-in-law and her children. She can’t work and her husband can only work a little because he needs to help look after her. So they stay impoverished. What is it like to know your poverty is the result of your condition?

Another mother has heart disease, has had thyroid tumors and is too weak to work. She struggles to look after her children and needs a lot of help and support from her husband. Due to her health she can’t work so they consequently never have enough money and have to live with the resulting poverty.

One of the girls we help to go to school has a mother who can neither hear nor talk. I wonder what her life is like and what she has to deal with each day besides being unemployable from the Vietnamese perspective.

I have a son with a disability so this accident has also made me think about him and what it is like for him. He has had dreams of doing things, and has wanted to make career choices that he can't and never will be able to. He was sometimes disappointed when he came to that realization, but at other times was furious that his disability would mean he would be discriminated against.

Through my experiences now and what I see and hear, I understand my son's world and those with a disability just a little more, but will never truly understand. My compassion and respect for anyone with a disability has grown hugely. I now know a little of some of the challenges they have to face every day for the rest of their lives.

I feel those with disabilities need compassion and understanding, patience and tolerance and perhaps an excellent counselor who will have some knowledge and experience of the challenges they live with day in and day out. But they don't need molly coddling.

Sometimes I feel that we, non-disabled, have a view that is so far removed from theirs that we have unrealistic expectations of what people with a disability are capable of. In this way, we can create more problems than solutions for them.

Sometimes it may be just what the doctor ordered and helps motivate and support them in what needs to happen to help them become more independent and integrated in their community.

But to be honest as a person without a disability it is not just hard, but impossible to truly know what they need, how they need to be treated and supported and what their lives really are like.

For donations:
Please see our blog'Information on Making a Donation'
Or Americans can contact Stephen at cef.vn.usa@gmail.com
and Australians can contact Graeme at c.e.f.vietnam@gmail.com

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Volunteering Sometimes is Not What is Expected

Well I may be wrong, but I suspect when Miriam came to help Children's Education Foundation for a short period of time she would not have anticipated how different her life and role would become.

As Miriam is a social worker and family therapist we had planned a week of meetings and home visits of CEF children who have challenging social situations. The rest of that week would be the necessary report writing. She and I only had one week free to do this.

When she arrived in HCM we talked but I felt poorly and she was too and so she delayed her trip up to Hoi An. By the time she was well again and arrived in Hoi An I felt very poorly and didn't feel well enough for the home visits and arranged for her to do them with my assistant, Duyen. I then went into hospital with suspected dengue fever.

After four days in hospital due to that pesky dengue mosquito bite Miriam took me back to her hotel and looked after me there while I regained some strength. As I recovered more we talked about CEF and I started to catch up a little. Dengue affects the brain and thinking actually hurts so I could only work a couple of hours before the pain was too much and I had to go back to sleep. Yes, any of you can use that as an excuse when you don't want to think about something!

When she could see I was well enough to leave her protective wing and get to the west for more rest, escape the remainder of the wet season and dengue infested Hoi An, she decided it was time for her to leave for her holiday in Laos.

Most of that planned visit for her had been spent looking after me! And amazingly enough she decided she would come back and help CEF further.

When she returned to Hoi An I had planned another period of meetings and home visits of the new CEF children (and of course the report writing). She also was working on developing a fundraising project with another friend for CEF.

Soon afterwards she found herself looking after me again in hospital and then in her home due to an accident I had that resulted in a fractured left fibula. Fortunately it's not serious and I am alive. Here you can have an accident and survive but then a bus or truck finishes you off! So when I realized I was alive and not in the middle of the road and without brain injury I felt so fortunate.

She has been wonderful and caring not just to the CEF children, but also to me. The worst of the pain is over and so I have reduced my pain killers and can stay awake long enough to think and work again. So Miriam has just returned from a trip to my house to pick up my computer so I can get back to CEF work.

Now I'm on Mai's bed working on the computer with the leg raised on a pillow. Mai is Miriam's house mate. Mai, a nurse has also helped CEF with home visits to a mother of one of the children we sponsor and has helped make sure she has an ongoing supply of medication for her terminal condition. Mai is back working in Australia for a short time earning money for her self-funded stays in Hoi An. She helps the local charities here when they need her nursing skills. While away she has kindly offered her room for me to recouperate in while Miriam helps care for me.

Lien, who is my security person, and home, garden and animal helper, has also introduced me to many of the children we help in Hoi An as they are from her neighborhood. While I have been recovering here at Miriam and Mai's home she has been delivering breakfast and lunch and doing my laundry,and running chores, making it less arduous for me and dear Miriam. I am very blessed and feel very loved and cared for.

It's actually overwhelming for me to be cared for by others when I am the one who is used to doing the caring. The only times I can remember being cared for and very happy to be cared for were the times when my mother-in-law came and helped look after me at home after I gave birth to three of my children. After my first and third child she she cared for me in her home. Each time she was wonderful, gentle, sweet, caring and hard working. That was very easy and natural to accept. That was a long time ago and so it's strange to need caring for and to accept it graciously as I don't want to stress my dear friend or take her away from the work she has been doing to help CEF.

A friend helped put it into perspective for me. He said that in Miriam caring for me,she is caring for and working for CEF. He said that there wasn't a more needed or better job she could do, as it was immediately needed and CEF couldn't function without it. The short term role she has ended up taking on has been more useful than anything else she could have taken on at present. It's just she is caring for CEF through caring for me, so that I recover quickly and can get on with all CEF work. He said her timing to volunteer was perfect and could not have been better. It just is not the role that either of us had planned for!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A few drawings CEF children did last week

Many of the children do beautiful drawings. When we interview children and try to find out what they love at school most of the little ones generally say art.

The drawings on this blog were done by some of the children we have just recently interviewed and agreed to find sponsors for. One of the drawings looks lovely but tells another story. In this picture Dieu, who is 5 years old has only drawn three people in her family. There is a lovely house, herself, her sister and brother in the drawing. Unfortunately her parents drowned and since then she has been cared for by her grandparents,but she has not included them in the picture. Granny and granddad are over 80 and frail; they aren't really able to do much in the way of caring for the children. When the parents died the children were put into an orphanage by other relatives and the grandparents were horrified and removed them and have tried hard to look after them, but they struggle to do so and look very tired. Her older sister of 17 is the person who has looked after her since the parents died and Dieu clings to her, rarely leaving her side.

Some of the other pictures are joyful and were drawn by children who are less traumatized than Dieu, although from impoverished families. One girl loves literature and has written a lovely poem about her life using the lotus as the image of herself.

For donations:
Please see our blog'Information on Making a Donation'
Or Americans can contact Stephen at cef.vn.usa@gmail.com
and Australians can contact Graeme at c.e.f.vietnam@gmail.com

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year & Birthday Presents to Create Change in Vietnam

I have reached a stage in life where I only really want presents that are meaningful to me,ones that have the potential to create change in my life or in the world. Some examples for me are a yoga teacher training course, spiritual retreats, or knowing I am putting a child through school who otherwise could not have an education. Maybe you are like me and the meaningful is important.

A very powerful thing to create change is to sponsor a child or co-share a sponsorship. Educating a child from an impoverished or marginalized family in Vietnam makes a difference not just for the child, but for their family and their community as well. The child has a more stable childhood and is more secure in their community and no longer vulnerable to traffickers. They have greater choice in careers as adults, bringing in a better income and are more useful members of their community.

The future looks bleak for many poor parents with children they can't afford to educate; it's a burden as nothing much can change as they still feel they will have a poor future. Out of desperation parents might abandon their children who are then at risk of being trafficked, or the parents realize they can make money by selling them to traffickers.

I hope you can help create change by buying some meaningful presents for your close friends and family this Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year and for forthcoming birthdays.

$20 for a beautiful CEF 2011 Calendar (see the 3 black framed photos in this blog from the calendar)

We have some CEF calendars left and as 2011 is nearly here we have reduced them to $20. The lovely photos have been taken by Shanti, my eldest daughter who has an artistic eye. They are of our northern project in Phuc Le. Profits will be used to buy desks, chairs and lamps for children who are doing homework on the floor in Phuc Le. This simple measure reduces their time off school due to chills.

Ongoing sponsorship is needed for 5 children (2 boys and 3 girls)at $150 each (at present)

Next year it will still be $150, but will rise for secondary and high school
Photos of 4 of these children I have added - Bi, the little boy, Loan with side bangs, Trinh with a touch of orange on her jacket and Y with a touch of yellow on hers.

Ongoing sponsorships for 7 children at $250 each
We have 7 children(2 boys and 5 girls)who each need a sponsor to pay $250 for them to go to school this year and each year until they complete school. Some finish this year,some in one, some in two and some in three years. Sponsorships can be shared.

University / College or Career Training $400-$1500
Each year we have children finish school who need sponsors to pay for their occupational training or college studies. This can be a shared cost by sponsors. Prices vary according to what they study and where they study. Each year it varies from $400-$500 for training and $800-$1500 for university. Training is usually complete in a year and university in 4-6 years.

I hope you are like me and want to make a difference even though a little one. I believe a little one is better than none especially if it means a child is safe from traffickers.

May you enjoy your end of year celebrations with those dear to you and wishing you all a meaningful 2011.


Our New Volunteer has an Endearing Smile and a Good Heart

Miriam has taken a year out of her life for travel, adventure and volunteering for Children's Education Foundation. Originally she just intended helping for a short period, but has found herself a nice Hoi An home and has decided to stay and help for a year.

Children's Education Foundation raises funds for education,especially for girls from impoverished families, but we also do believe in doing what we can to reduce the suffering of the families we help if possible. We had a straightforward situation. We needed funds to move a family to dry ground in the rainy season when their home easily becomes submerged and for the monthly medications the mother needs for her heart and thyroid condition for a year. I reached out to Miriam and asked if she felt she and her friends might be able to help. Before Miriam left to come to Vietnam she raised the funds required to help this family. The family were thrilled and you could see their anxiety drop away with the news.

Our new volunteer is a social worker with a big heart and winning smile. We have taken her to meet some of the families and children we are sponsoring, or are about to sponsor, and she is very good with them all; winning their trust and friendship. Her advice and ideas are helpful and makes one realize how in the west we are so fortunate to have a variety of valuable services available, but in Vietnam there are very few of these services, and very few social workers, although they truly are needed.

Her enthusiasm and passion for making change is moving. Her passion is readily expressed and easily conjures up sponsors for the children. She is already deeply engrossed in Internet conversations with a good friend of hers in Australia working on a project that will involve some of the children CEF helps and at the same time raise funds for them.

She is a true blessing for Children's Education Foundation and the children.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

2011 Calendars can turn into desks

How do calendars turn into desks? It's simple. Buy three calendars and there is enough money to make a desk!

CEF Calendars are for sale and profits from three will provide a desk for a child who does homework on a cold floor in the north of Vietnam. Getting the children off the floor will help them have less chills through the winter and give them ultimately better school results due to better school attendance.

Very poor children sometimes don't have a choice and have to do their homework on the floor, while others do it on the family bed and some have floor-level desks and some a desk. Some children do homework at the family table and sometimes desks have to double up as storage facility too. Most of the children we help are very organized and neat.

The photos are of some of the children sponsored by CEF working at their desks or it's a photo of their desk which they wanted us to take. These photos are not from the calendar.

The pictures in the calendar are both interesting, colorful and lovely and were taken by Shanti my eldest on visits she did to Phuc Le to help with assessments. See another blog PROFITS TURN INTO CALENDARS FROM THE SALE OF THE CEF 2011 CALENDAR which has several photos from the calendar.

Supplies of calendars are available for you to buy for family and friends. They can be posted to you.

Graeme has some in Sydney:
graeme51@gmail.com / or c.e.f.vietnam@gmail.com or Graeme's mobile is 0416 177 012

Stephen has a supply in New York:
cef.vn.usa@gmail.com or 917 402 1249

You can buy them as birthday, Christmas or New Year presents and turn them into desks!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Quick update - Flying away from the mosquitos

As I am still weak from dengue fever I have been given medical advice to fly away and avoid any further risk of being bitten again and getting hemorrhagic dengue.

I will be working on CEF in a cool mosquito free zone while I continue to recover. I am still contactable and still working. I will be back in Vietnam in four weeks when the worst of the rainy season and mosquito season will be over and I will be strong and well by then! Linda

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Dengue Fever

Well it's rainy season and with rain comes mosquitos and here some of them come with Dengue. One of them bit me and I am recovering from Dengue now.

I wanted to just let everyone know I am not ignoring emails and haven't stopped blogging, but have just been ill. Today is the first day I was well enough to open up my computer and start work again. More blogs to come soon!

May you all stay healthy as health is one of the most precious gifts we have in life. Linda

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Help is needed as soon it will be raining cats and dogs

It's just snails and spiders falling from the skys at present but soon it will be cats and dogs then hippos and elephants by the time we are full on into the rainy season and typhoon season.

Joking aside this affects all of us here. See the evacuation and walking through the flood waters photos by Nadine. My challenges are small. I have just started to buy my 'being stranded' foods; food for the dog, cat and fish. I buy foods that last a long time that I can get a meal out of without fresh ingredients such as instant noodles, prepared sauces, instant breakfast cereals and pastas and pasta sauces. I also need to make sure I have my torches charged, some candles, gas bottles and lighters, etc.

But for Thoa and Cuong and their two little children it's another story. Last year they were all wet and ill once it started raining as they lived under four pieces of metal sheeting and a large piece of plastic. (See Picture). We fortunately were able to move them to the top floor of a nearby house for four months with the generous help of others.

Their plastic and few pieces of metal sheeting were washed away in the rushing flood waters where they had their shelter. That area is in the flood plain and last year had about one metre of rushing waters sweeping away everything in its path. So for them to have somewhere to go back to when the weather cleared up we needed to buy them some more corrugated iron sheeting and some wood planks so they could build a stronger and more protective temporary home while they continued the long wait for land from the government. (See photos of their original home and the new stronger one).

The rains have started and they need to be moved again soon. We need help to help them. I have started to ask individuals for help for them, but want to put it out here to see if anyone can help. If six people gave $50 each we can help them through this season that is so unpleasant and life-threatening. If we receive extra on top of what is required it can go to Thoa's medical care when she has surgery for her post surgery care. (Surgery is free but no related costs are.)

As Thoa is in urgent need of heart surgery and I am pushing for her to be moved up the emergency waiting list so this can happen soon as she is getting weaker quickly now. So moving them in the next fortnight is crucial before Thoa starts getting chills again and becoming weaker.

CEF is putting their eldest child through school but doesn't have the funds for heart surgery,or hospital care, or to buy land and build houses for the families we help, but they will eventually have help when the government provides them with the long-awaited land and Thoa will have heart surgery soon. But in the meantime with your help we need to move them and provide an ongoing supply of medications for Thoa until the surgery.

Many thanks to anyone who can help this family live through the next few months.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Giving vs Giving

There are an amazing number of people in the world with big, open, caring hearts and I am blessed to know many of them as they are supporters or donors. I am stunned sometimes by the kindness, thoughtfulness, care and generosity I experience. We have sponsors who have even taken on four children which is a big ongoing financial committment, a most generous and kind one.

I have discovered there are many ways of giving. It's an interesting subject and I am trying to understand it.

I have been given a small donation which I was told was to help support me while working on the charity. That is unbelievably kind and they don't even get a picture of a cute child or reports as do sponsors. For two years in a row the charity received two large donations that I was told were unconditional. That was very useful as it enabled us to put the unsponsored and 'unattractive' children into school.

Some of the kind people who help only want to sponsor a pretty child and others only a young child. While others don't even want to know where their money goes - they just want to help. A few ask us to use the money to put a child into school who has been hard to find a sponsor for.

So on reflection I can get almost anyone to sponsor a pretty young child, but the 'unattractive' or males are hard to get sponsored. I used to think it was just in the west we had the interest and attraction to the attractive. I thought it was the media who promoted this. I am not wrong, but it is in Asian too and not just due to the media. I am told I am ugly on days I wear unfashionable clothes. On days I wear fashionable or slightly sexy clothes I am told I look beautiful.

How much of it is the media and marketing that makes so much of looks that it even filters through to the type of child we want to sponsor? Are we more superficial than we like to think. Even when I was a young child I can remember a boy with a harelip in my class and a very small unattractive boy who were both not popular. I was an unattractive child too and was not popular, but the company of the beautiful girls in my class was sought after by both the females and males even at 8! I can remember that nearly fifty years later.

I remember when I was about 17 I sponsored a child in Africa. I can't remember where in that huge continent they came from or if it was a boy or a girl, I just remember signing up to sponsor and a bio of a child arriving one day. I remember I only sponsored the child for a few years and then I moved continents shortly before giving birth to my firstborn and I passed on the sponsorship of the child and a cat to my mother.But did I do that as I had not chosen the child and perhaps they weren't good looking? Why do I not remember where in Africa they were from and if they were a boy or girl while I recall many details about the 'unattractive' in my class nearly 10 years prior to that.

I suppose I should give a definition of unattractive or attractive..... attractive and endearing looks are similar... they just have something about them... it might be the shiny hair, the big eyes, white-blonde hair, jet-black hair, lovely skin, fine features ... yes it's vague. So what makes a person attractive and how do we decide who is and who isn't ?

As I am finding it hard to get sponsors for the 'unattractive' looking children I am wondering if I should just allocate children and not show any pictures until they are sponsored. Would the sponsor of an unattractive looking child stop once they saw the picture or after two or three years like I did? Would they ask for a replacement? Do we only feel endearment with attractiveness? Do we bond with our friends babies when they are unattractive? Do we like strange looking cats with unattractive markings and bent tails? Someone even suggested I don't take on any children unless they were attractive so I could easily get sponsors. We have criteria for sponsorships, but how they look is not one of the criteria.

We help girls predominently but we do help a few boys too, boys whose parents have died or come from a dire situation, from a marginalized community or are from a severly impoverished family. But as we help girls mainly and that is what we encourage it then becomes hard to get sponsors for the boys. The nicest looking boys always get sponsors first. We even have one boy who has remained on our books for three years unsponsored. He has been classified as ugly by quite a few people now.

I think this classifying of how attractive someone is, is all very deep in our subconscious. I have rescued many cats here in Vietnam and have found homes for all of them except the last one. She is cute, not beautiful. Did I make less effort to find her a home due to her being cute? I wanted a watchdog. I chose a dog that is cute, not unattractive. I sponsor some of the children CEF has on their books, but two of the four children are cute. Why didn't I choose all the unattractive ones? I wouldn't even be surprised if it is so deep it is in our DNA as even people I consider quite evolved, people who live consciously and caringly; they still are choosing attractive over unattractive children to sponsor or help me find sponsors for them.

If anyone feels inclined to sponsor I do have some new and long term children who have been classified 'unattractive' and need a sponsor. These 'unattractive' children would love an education and a future with more opportunities just as much as the attractive children we sponsor. And if you are less evolved like me, we also have some attractive children in need of sponsors.

Poverty Vs Poverty

We started with helping three children whose parents had abandoned them due to poverty. Two relatives were struggling to care for them. We helped by taking on the costs of their education.

Then we helped a minority tribe community. They had poor health and very few children went to school. Their poor health was due to their poverty and inability to afford medical examinations, treatment or medicine. We helped by building a medical centre and providing free medical care and medicine. We also helped by providing school supplies for the school. (I am going there soon and if anyone wants to make a donation for school supplies that would be appreciated.)

Then we were asked to help the poorest in a northern farming community where they had incomes from $7-$30 a month....and so CEF grew and grew...

All those we helped were poor or very poor with no income or a small income. But now I am rather challenged in keeping a sense of what poverty is and who is very poor, or very, very poor and who we should help of all those very poor we are asked to help.

Now I am looking more at the subtleties. What do they own, what is the furniture made from, what do they wear, has anyone in the family got any gold jewelry on, do they own a house or have a temporary shelter, what is the house made from and was it donated, or did they save for it and build it.

A family we visited last week had a hut made from bamboo and matting and it was about 6 ft by 10 ft, had one bed only, no table or chairs, no kitchen, no bathroom, no lean-to, no bike, no motorbike and no birth certificates for their childen which meant their children were no allowed to enter school. Five family members lived there. The mother looks after the little ones and the father goes around doing odd jobs for people and earning very little money. I knew for sure they were poor. They were amongst the poorest familes we have helped.

Another family we visited had a small house with a toilet area and a kitchen area. The house had been built for them by the Red Cross. They had a bed, some boxes for storage some plastic bowls for washing, plastic table and chairs and some clothes. The mother was a garbage collector, the husband had left and the young daughter had to look after her little brother as the mother couldn't get home very often. A kind old lady slept with them at night time. I knew for sure they were poor.

We met a mother who was deaf and dumb, but very bright. We had been asked to help her daughter go to school. The mother supported her daughter and mother with difficulty as she rarely could find any employment and there was no father. They were definitely poor and we are helping the girl with school costs.

In another family the siblings were struggling to get one of their sisters through school. Both parents had died and all the siblings had stopped school except this one as they all wanted her to complete school. But still they couldn't manage to support themselves and keep her in school with the rising costs of her education. She lives in a space 8ftx8ft with two other girls. I know for sure she needs help with her education.

We have a mother who is dying of brain cancer. Her husband is ill and can earn very little and what he earns mainly goes on paid killers for the mother. The Red Cross gave them a house, but they own very little. Their daughter is bright and without help has to leave school. They are definitely poor and we help with the daughters schooling expenses.

Sometimes it's hard to decide if someone needs help and how much help. Everyone we are introduced to meets our criteria. But who do we help and not help and how much help do we give.

Are they poor when the father can earn $7 a day, which is a good salary here? Based on that no they aren't. He can't work consistently as his wife died and he has to look after the two young children and often the baby gets ill. When that happens it's four or five days before he can get back to work. He has no relatives to help. As the baby is still young it is on a formula, which is expensive here. When he works the child goes into child care and costs him about half of that days salary. When the baby is ill he has doctors bills and medicine bills. He has managed to work about 2 week out of the last 6 weeks. We decided they do need some help and so we are paying for the little girls education costs.

Are they poor when they have the capacity to borrow a huge sum for paying for granny's major heart surgery? It usually means they have collateral such as a house. Now they haven't got enough money to send their daughter to school because of the high interest rate the ruthless money lenders charge. We need to interview them further and see their home before deciding if they need help.

There are the obvious cases that are easier to say no to. We were asked to help pay for school for one girl. Her father earns $5 a day has a wife and they have two children. They may be poor and struggling but that was one case that was clear. Even the person who introduced them agreed that this case wasn't urgent as they had seen some of the others we help.

I have friends working in areas of Vietnam that are even more poor than here and so it's hard sometimes to get everything in perspective. They tell me stories and it feels like the people I help are not very poor. When I visit some of those we have helped for some time they seem rich compared to some of those we have taken on more recently. They are poor, but just don't seem poor in comparison to the worst cases we help. It's hard not to make comparisons but I find it's crucial to try to take each case individually and see what is the reality. It's essential that I don't respond emotionally to dire situations as it just clouds my judgement and I always need to remember to trust my gut reactions. Then get the facts. Then see what our role needs to be with this family, if any.

In the process of knowing how to judge who is very poor, who really needs help and how it is best to help, it means I am on a sharp ongoing learning curve that is filled with challenges. It is also enlivening due to the ongoing changes and growth required on my part.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Can we really put ourselves in someone else's shoes?

I try to imagine what it's like it be in someone else's shoes, but can't really.

I am not deaf and dumb like a little girl I met yesterday. I can't know what her world is like as I have always had hearing and probably spoken too much. She was a bright little button. Fortunately I have been able to find help for her. I hope her future will be a better one than many of the others we do not get to meet.

I am not a wealthy westerner, but am not poor. I have a roof over my head, food to eat, clothes to wear, a big dog who eats ten times what most Vietnamese eat and a cat that eats about the same as most Vietnamese. I have more than a bed, a plastic table, chairs and set of drawers. I have too many possessions - well more than the 100 that is recommended for living a simple,non-material life.

I don't know what it's like to experience hunger regularly due to lack of food. I know what it's like when I have chosen to fast and have the choice to stop anytime I want. I don't live in fear of my matting home being blown away is a strong storm and having to deal with a flooded home each time of the 100 times (approximately) it rains heavily in our rainy season. I have never experienced having two sets clothes and having to wear one while the other dries and knowing that in rainy season they won't be dry when I need to put them on the next day. They don't have a tumble drier like me. I make efforts to imagine what it is like to be them so I can respond and help more appropriately and compassionately even though I will never truly know what their lives are really like.

We have had our first girl stop school and I felt devastated. She wants to hang out with her friends and maybe find a job and earn money. She started school this term but left after three weeks as all her good friends weren't in school anymore. I was trying to keep her in school long enough for her to have a little more maturity and less chance of the all too common teenage pregnancy and abortion here. Her sister is a university student and has tried to get her sister to continue her education but says we now have to give up and not feel bad about it. She asked us to help her brothers' youngest daughter instead as he is dying of cancer. When we agreed Chi said it was such a gigantic relief for him.

But I still wonder what I could have done to help her complete another year or the two to complete school. A couple of years ago we had a girl the same age make the same decision. She left school just for a few days and then went back as she was too bored. She is now about to start university! But the girl who has left school has now been out of school two weeks and they do not take children back who have missed that much school. I am sad that we didn't succeed at keeping her in school this year, but pleased we managed to keep her in school for three years. It's also good that we can help her brother who desperately needs help. It will be less stress for him in his last months to know that his youngest daughter will receive an education. We are to meet him and Vy his daughter next week.

I don't understand Phuong's thinking enough to know how to help in that situation. I understand a little as I was no lover of high school at that age. I had one atrocious teacher whose heart was not in teaching and I ended up not caring greatly about his subject and went 10 pin bowling and swimming instead of attending his classes for a few months and did the study and homework on my own instead. I understand how much fun it is hanging out with friends occasionally in school hours, but don't understand wanting to hang out a lot when my mother can't earn enough to feed me or clothe me as she can only earn money selling lottery tickets. Why would I choose a future like hers with little opportunity?

I feel I can only use my imagination and memory to have a little understanding. But how can I inspire and encourage them to complete school and have further education if they can't see that it makes a huge difference to their lives themselves? For a teenager a love of studying is unusual, a willingness to cycle 45 minutes to an hour to get to school is unusual, a love of getting up early and going through torrential rain to get to school and home again every day for about 3 months would be radical. So what gets them to school, stay in school and want a future with possibilities?

I may be wrong, but I think the desire to better their lives and that of their families has to come from within them and be based on the conclusions of what they see around them. At that age do they see that those without an education have few choices and a hard life. Of course there are the exceptional people who are uneducated and have worked very hard and done well for themselves but the majority are still severely impoverished. With a little encouragement and financial support I hope this will be enough to help many children at this challenging stage in their lives complete school, then receive further education and create a life for themselves and their families of possibility.

By the way little Vy will need a sponsor if anyone is interested and next week we will have photos and more information we can send.

Children from Hoa Van Leper Community

It's taken time for the Hoa Van community not to look at me as if I am an alien from a far away planet. Well I guess it's not surprising as I have blue eyes and arrive looking highly windswept after the motorbike trip to them. Now after a year of helping the children from the poorest families in the community to receive an education they are considering that I am a friend and not a foe. Their only contact with westerners up to this point was that they had turned up in their community, given some clothes, food or some money and gone. They had no association of any permanence with help from westerners. Several of them have commented that even though I said I would help them long-term they didn't believe it.

Yesterday it was another hot trip, but not a searingly hot one as it was the last time we met the children. On the last trip we lathered ourselves with sunscreen before the trip each way, but still got burnt. This time Duyen and I travelled the hour to meet them and their mothers or fathers to give them some money for uniforms, satchels, school supplies and 'fees' for this term. They had to produce a stamped receipt if they wanted to be reimbursed for any school expenses they had already paid out. This was a helpful strategy to get them to remember to get receipts.

We met in the home of the headman of the community. He is sweet. Well I think he is as he has this large lovely smile and smiles often. He is a good man and is always honest even at the risk of meeting with dissaproval.

Next time we are meeting in a government hall as the local government likes to be able to see what the westerners really are up to. I don't blame them as some years ago there were some riots incited by westerners. We will meet with government officals present to make the school related payments. As we have nothing to hide it all helps make things go more smoothly. Once they see we are not trouble-makers it makes it easier with any requests we make and with official paperwork.

The days of just helping out without any official permission are over and now we need permission from several authorities (national,provincial and local) to help those in need of some educational assistance. My job involves more and more time attached to a computer as we help more children. Everything is becoming more official here and this is good as paedophilia is not uncommon. Officialdom protects the children more which is crucial and so that helps me accept the computer-bound days as there couldn't be a better reason.

Back to the children from the community..... They have been the most resistent to making a connection of all the children we have helped over the years. But I feel due to them now believing there will be ongoing support I feel them opening up and relaxing more. They now know that we try to be reasonable with the help we give each of them too. Due to communism and the belief that everyone should be treated equally the parents complained initially that we didn't give everyone exactly the same amount of support. They now understand that everyone doesn't need exactly the same amount and know that we try to consider each family and support them appropriately. One mother wanted us to know she had a part-time job for the next three months and wanted to know if we needed to reduce the assistance we gave her and her children. She needs the extra money as she is a single parent and one of her children has epilepsy and is on permanent medication which she has to pay for.

I didn't expect this shift to take place, but to see them not look so worried and to see their beautiful smiling faces is a blessing worth waiting for. It's an amazingly warming experience to see the children and parents smiling more, being more relaxed with me and able to talk more honestly and openly.

This year we are committed to seeing fourteen lovely children from this community through school. If you would like to help be a part of this project and bring about the possibility of a better future for this community please do get in touch.

With many thanks to those who care about these children receiving an education and have been wonderful supporters over the last year.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Lives Touching Lives

I really am blessed to be able to connect lives to lives, hearts to hearts. Well that is how I see it as I feel that as we meet people we touch each others lives and hopefully hearts too. As I introduce children and families to sponsors they touch each others lives and hearts.

I was once told about this from an American Medicine Woman. She said that the Native Americans call it 'weaving the web', which meant that as we connect to each other we are weaving a delicate web. I feel this is true and in acknowledging that I feel so blessed to be a part of that process and yet at the same time feel a huge responsibility to take my part seriously, which I make efforts to do but sometimes feel I fall short in achieving that.

It is more than a full time job to connect people in the west with the little ones here and to do it well and responsibly is a huge thing. I am committed 100% to doing this and yet there just aren't enough hours in the day or money in the bank. It means I can only do the best I can and aim to do this better and learn to find ways to obtain more funds so that others can help me to do this work. Very recently several people have offered to help find sponsors and that is a true blessing as it is not always easy to connect lives with lives. If we want a sponsor for a young and pretty girl it's easy, if she is older or ugly it is harder. We help boys in dire situations occassionally to go to school and it is hard to get sponsors for them.

Then there are other challenges as I live in a country where we don't have electricity all the time and where many emails go astray more often than is convenient. I never know if people have received my latest updates or end of year reports on the child they are sponsoring.

Unfortunately education is not free here although Ho Chi Minh talked about the importance of free education for all in this nation, but it hasn't worked out that way. It's consequently a big challenge for families with very little income to give their children an education.

Each child that Children's Education Foundation has taken on needs a sponsor for them to receive an education. We agree on helping a child due to them meeting our criteria. Unfortunately there are many in dire situations that meet our criteria and we can't say yes to all. Right now we have some children in need of sponsors. Some of them have been without a sponsor for a year or two as they are either visually unattractive or their education is expensive. We have also just met 10 new children in the last few weeks in need of a sponsor. Some I personally am paying for as they need help right now and they don't have a sponsor yet and some we have said yes to if the parents find a way to borrow the money to keep them in school now and as soon as we have a sponsor we will take over.

Things work in a mysterious way. I have been thinking how hard it is to say no when a family is severely impoverished and sincerely want their child to have an education. I have trusted that if I pay now there will be someone who will take over shortly. In the last two days I have received 3 emails asking if I could send them a child to sponsor. I am also about to send out all the remaining children that we have today in need of a sponsor to the lovely ladies who offered to help find sponsors. That then leaves us free to meet the others we have heard about and be in a position to consider helping them.

It is actually each of you who sponsors a child that puts them through school,not CEF. I don't know if sponsors realize how they are the ones changing lives, the ones who make it possible for a child to have many more choices in their lives, many opportunities for a good income and a decent standard of living. We just coordinate to make it all happen, to make the connections, to be weavers of the web.

The challenges that impoverished families have to give their children an education is big. For many its just not feasible to do this when they have no income, or a miniscule one. They are struggling to figure out how to feed their children let alone educate them.

Many who care about their children's future give them up to an orphanage or pagoda where they know they will be fed and educated. This is hard ofr a family to do butit is an expression of care here when poverty means they can not feed thier children. We believe in doing what we can to keep children with their families so that this seperation and suffering doesn't have to take place. Sometimes it means we need to provide other support, such as food and accomodation for it to work for the family to stay together and for the children to be educated.

Others are suffering less but can not afford to educate their children and we step in and pay for that. Then there are those with limited funds and the boys are put into school first leaving the girls at home to help with domestic chores and farming or fishing. When we know of impoverished families who have girls out of school, or about to be removed from school, we step in and provide the means for them to go to school,or to continue their education.

Receiving outside help is the only way many children can be educated. There is often no family that is any better off than they are who they can ask for help from. If they have no collateral they can't borrow from the bank or any institutions. It is a hard situation for many families when they have a makeshift home and only the occassional job. Many of the parents and children can laugh and joke and yet they have a very challenging life. Children are amazing at coping. Unfortunately some we see have become hardened due to the severe hardships they have encountered, but it is rare. What has touched us is when uneducated parents who haven't work or enough to eat beg us to help their children, not to receive food, but receive an education because they don't want their child to be a garbage collector or clean up the fish guts at the market or do the back-breaking job of being a rice farmer.

Most of us born into the western world have had challenges to face whether it was our parents divorcing or being dyslexic in a world depending on the word, or having a disabled sibling, or being born black in a white world and having to live with having to prove oneself all the time. To be honest from my experience of the challenges I have had they seem tiny incomparison to what I see and hear. The strength, courage and determination that they have is an inspiration and certainly helps me to keep my challenges in persective.

I have been amazed to see how thrilled they are to be able to go to school or continue school. Some of them express this in letters they write to their sponsors and the words they say certainly have an impact. Some address their sponsors formally and some more intimately. Some can not express their gratitude enough and some are worried the sponsor will be disappointed if their grades aren't good enough and are embarassed that they didn't get excellent results. An advanced student will still say 'I will try harder so you are not disappointed with me, so that I don't abuse your trust'. I am amazed how much they try to please their sponsors. They see them as part of the extended family and feel a responsibility to them.

It's time to finish this post that has been done over one month. Today I will be completing some more biographies of the children and sending them off to those awaiting a child to sponsor.

With love and many thanks to all of you who support us, who sponsor a child or who help find sponsors as you are all making a difference in the world.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Fundraising in New York

August 2010 New York, USA

Until CEF has a fundraising team it's mainly up to me to do what I can to bring in funds and find sponsors. So feeling rested and enthused and knowing the necessity for money to help children in Vietnam to receive an education I ambitiously decided to organize some fundraising events over a fortnight.

New York summers are hot and humid and anyone who can escape to somewhere near the sea or somewhere cooler does. Some of those asked if they would like to attend were away and couldn't. But determination meant I would still forge ahead and just organize two small events.

Stephen, the USA manager-coordinator helped by inviting many friends as well as offering his beautiful spacious apartment which easily fitted everyone in. A meal was prepared and cooked with love for 14 people. Lynette a fellow Australian was able to help for some of the day which made it fun and an enjoyable experience. It was a small,but successful fundraiser for Chldren's Education Foundation.

Those who came were lovely and showed a serious interest and asked intelligent thoughtful questions, ate with gusto and enjoyed the evening. On this evening many who attended were lucky not to be in the war, but almost were due to their age, but some of their friends and family were involved. They had an interest in the results of the war and how it affected Vietnam, how its people and government now responded to Americans and the affects of Agent Orange.

Lynette gave a DVD to CEF to use to raise funds. This DVD is fascinating and would particularly be of interest to cyclists '16,000 Feet on A Friday' which is about biking the World's highest paved road 'Ticlio Pass' in Peru. It's scary just watching it as the shear drops are not small ones. Lynette's website is www.galfromdownunder.com

We had the new CEF calendar for 2011 available with the lovely shots Shanti took of the Phuc Le Education Project children, their homes and farmhouses. We still have some available.

Anne Parker gave a small but beautiful contemporary art quilt to CEF. This is still available if anyone is interested. A picture of it is included.

To purchase a 2011 Calendar, Anne's quilt or the '16,000 Feet on a Friday', please contact Stephen.

The next event was a wine, cheese and salad evening. Again a similar number of people attended who were mainly Stephen Jackel's friends but also some of those who have become my friends over the years in New York and all showed a very sincere interest. Many on this evening were in education and wanted to know about many aspects of Vietnamese education.

Some of those who came showed an interest to continue to help CEF in some way which was very touching and hugely appreciated. We now have three people committed to work on fundraising together in New York and to help find sponsors for the many children we are asked to help to receive an education. If anyone else is intersted in participating please do get in touch with Stephen or myself.

Stephen was most kind and generous in supporting our work and contributing the use of his apartment and sharing his friends to support children receive an education in Vietnam which was hugely appreciated as without his kindness and support these events would not have taken place even with my determination and enthusiasm to help the children!

Linda or Stephen can be contacted at cef.vn.usa@gmail.com