Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dai Loc Orphanage Report by CEF Volunteer Ms Cheryl - December 2009

Project 2009

We are two Australian women who came to Vietnam on a holiday in April 2009 and decided that we wanted to return to do some volunteer work with organisations who were assisting children and their families. We returned at the end of August 2009 and began working with the Children’s Education Foundation – Vietnam and CHIA. One our priorities while working in Hoi An was to spend some time at an orphanage where we could give something to children who were more disadvantaged than most.

Linda Hutchinson – Burn, the Founder of Children’s Education Foundation - Vietnam, organised for us to visit Dai Loc Orphanage about an hour’s drive by car north-west of
Hoi An. The orphanage is set on the outskirts of a village in Dai Loc Province. There
are 42 boys and girls at the orphanage and four mothers who look after them. Only one
mother lives at the orphanage, the others come there each day and these women have
an enormous task catering and caring for the kids on a daily basis with limited funds
and resources. The children range in age from 6 years to 19 years old. We were
excited and unsure of what to expect.

Our first visit took place on the 13th September 2009. Our goal was to try to teach the children some English using games, songs and visual aids. Many of our friends and work colleagues had donated books, pencils, games and other educational resources for us to give to the children so we loaded up our resources and headed off with our driver Mr Bah and Miss Linda in tow. Duyen, CEF’s assistant and translator, met us at the orphanage.

We arrived around 8 am and were met by a very large group of local people who had swarmed to the orphanage to meet people from a few different charities who were visiting the orphanage that day. We were a little overwhelmed and were met by hoards of children, some laughing and smiling, some very shy and distant – most very curious about why we were there.

As we were shown around the orphanage, we noticed that their personal possessions were limited to a few items of clothing. There were a number of dorms and each child had their own bed and a small cupboard for their clothing. We had been told that another charity had recently painted the dorms for the children and had given them beds and cupboards – we wondered what they had slept on before this. The beds were timber and had no mattress, only a straw mat to cover the timber slats. We wondered how they kept warm in the winter when the walls had openings to let the hot air out in the summer but would also let the cold air in throughout the winter. Apparently the temperature can get down to about 16 degrees in the middle of winter! It certainly can’t be comfortable for them and we could only imagine how cold it could get.

Through the CEF translator, Duyen, we divided the children into two groups - those that could speak a little English and those who could speak more. We used a couple of the dorms for classrooms and headed off with children hanging off us and wrapped around our legs to begin our English classes. We were surprised at how well some of the children could speak English but were soon to discover that their comprehension was very limited and their reading and writing skills were almost non-existent. The children were very curious and excited about the things we had brought with us and were more interested in discovering what treasures were in our bags than learning. At times there was an air of pandemonium as pick up sticks, balloons, jacks, pencils and other items quickly vanished from our sight and we were left wondering where it had all gone. We found it difficult to hold their attention for more than about 15 minutes so, as the children became restless we moved to the central courtyard to look for an appropriate spot for a sandpit. We had thought that we could build a sandpit as a legacy of our visits over the coming three months and this would give the young ones something to play with. The only toy we saw our whole visit was a small well loved plastic tug boat with a long piece of string attached that was being dragged around and around the tiled corridor by a small thin boy with a big smile. The one thing that stood out for us this day was that there was no laughter and playing as there was nothing to play with – a sandpit and some buckets and spades would get them outdoors and give them something creative to do as a group.

We all went and surveyed the central courtyard keeping in mind that the sun would beat down on the open dirt in summer and make the sandpit an unbearable place to play. There was a largish tree located centrally - it wouldn’t provide much shade but it would provide some. The children watched and listened curiously, faces smiling and looking up at us searchingly and wit anticipation for any hint of what we were planning.

We consulted with Mr Duc the Director and selected a spot we thought would be good for the sandpit and organised with Duyen’s help to meet with a local builder on our visit the next week to organise sand, bricks and a bricklayer.

We said our goodbye’s after home cooked meal and headed for Hoi An exhausted from the day’s events and the heat. As we drove off, the children were waving and pressing their faces against the windows unsure if they would see us again, I am sure. They followed us down the drive running playfully and calling out “See you next week!!” Part of our discussion on the way home was that the children were thin and needed some protein in their diet. We had brought some donation money with us and volunteered to give some of it for Linda to buy dried protein for the children to supplement their diet. That week Linda purchased a variety of protein foods which the mothers gratefully received the following week when we arrived.

We had heard some rather sad stories from the children about how they had ended up in the orphanage. We were surprised to hear that not all of the children were orphans in the term as we know it. Some had been surrendered by their parents simply because they were too poor, others had been surrendered because their parents were poor and had to chose between a son and a daughter (son’s are given preference in Vietnam), some only had one parent and there were of course, those whose parents had either abandoned them or died. It tore at our heartstrings and yet the children we spoke to seemed very philosophical about it all. How they deal with feelings of abandonment and isolation, we cannot fathom. One girl had told us that it had been her birthday the week before and was sad because no-one had known and therefore the day passed unnoticed. Another girl justified her being there by saying that at least she now had lots of brothers and sisters and many mothers, has somewhere to sleep and can go to school. What a price to pay.

20th September 2009
We returned to the orphanage and were greeted by the children who ran to meet us, smiling and chattering noisily – “Hello, Miss Cheryl”, “Hello, Miss Lyn” they called as we pulled up in the car. We were quickly taken by the hand and led to the rooms to start our English classes. They are eager to learn and seemed to understand that learning English will benefit them in the future. Once again, we find we can only keep their attention for only short periods and so we try to include games and singing in the sessions. This makes it a fun way to learn. Some of the older children have taken on the role of parent and scold and supervise the younger children. Today we discover that drawing is a way to spend some quiet time with them and we are amazed at the talent some of the children show. Those that are not interested in drawing are captivated by the balloons and stickers we have brought with us and we watch as the play with each other and seem very happy and excited. The mothers watch on, enjoying the moment as well.

The children also enjoy showing us their hip ho dancing skills and we are amazed that they have learnt from watching TV. We learn that there is no music at the orphanage nor a CD player to play it on. We decide to try to buy a player in Hoi An to donate to the orphanage so the children can practice and use some of their unspent energy on a fun activity that they can all enjoy. We also discover that some of the older girls have beautiful voices and Trang sings us a very moving song about learning to fly…… she lets me video her and I am extremely touched by it.

Miss Linda and Duyen meet with some local builders to organise the construction of the sandpit and by the time we are ready to leave, building supplies and a builder have been organised for next week. The children are keen to load up the well used wheelbarrow with a flat tyre to bring some bricks to the site and help to lay them out as a guide for the workers.

When it is time to go, they gather around the car calling out their goodbyes and run after us as we head down the drive.

27th September 2009
This week we go to the orphanage on our own as is Linda and Miss Duyen are not available. We are sure this will test our communication and supervisory skills and take on the challenge with gusto. On our arrival we are pleased to find that the sand and bricks have been delivered and the children are excited and keen to learn what we plan on making a start with the sandpit with them. They are keen to get the old dilapidated wheelbarrow and load it up with more bricks to bring to the site we have selected in the central courtyard. While they are moving the bricks, we get the CD player we have bought and put on some Hip Hop music we have managed to download. The children swarm around and immediately start performing. We are amazed at the organisation and fair play as they take it turns to show off their skills. As we adjourn to the courtyard, we hear the music getting louder and louder amongst the laughter and are pleased that they now have something they enjoy and can have fun with.

While the bricks are being lugged across we try to ask for a shovel so we can start to dig the foundations. One of the boys returns with a machete and starts hacking at the ground. We guess there are no proper tools and so look for alternatives. The older boys are quick to come to our aid and as we dig with an old broken chair leg and a stick. They pitch in with anything they can find that they could use as a makeshift tool. After a while, one of the boys appears with a shovel – ah, ha – there are some tools we can use. The boys take charge and frantically dig around the outskirts of the soon to be sandpit, proud of their accomplishments. Next another shovel and a hoe appear! Now we are getting excited as it is hot and the children are now gathering around, crouched on the courtyard walls watching with curiosity and anticipation.

While we are busy with the sandpit, we notice the older girls sitting in the corridor outside the kitchen, cutting up vegetables for their lunch. We are impressed that they pitch in and help the mothers and are setting an example to the younger children. The girls chatter away as they work and all seems normal and relaxed. The girls tell us that they do all their own washing and help the younger children with theirs. It is a lot of responsibility for these older children, but they take it in their stride and are grateful that they at least have somewhere to live and food on their plate.

We are interrupted by an invitation by the orphanage’s Director, to attend the Mid August festival in the hall. Local bank staff have arrived at the orphanage laden with gifts of food and sweets for the children. The children are excited that they are sharing this very special occasion with us and the bank staff are curious as to why we are there. We share the experience with them and after a few group photos, we leave feeling good that a start has been made on our sandpit project.

Little did we know that Typhoon Ketsana was looming off the Philippines and was gathering force as it heads straight for Danang. The next day we hear of the typhoon and escape to Saigon. The typhoon causes extensive damage and flooding and claims over a hundred lives in Vietnam alone. We are trapped in Saigon and cannot return to Hoi An. Another super typhoon is following Ketsana’s path and I decide to return to Australia for a short time. Lyn goes to Cambodia and returns to Hoi An the following week.

We do not get back to the orphanage until the 1st November 2009.

1st November 2009
Linda, Lyn and I arrive to find that Typhoon Ketsana has washed away half the sand and all our foundations we had worked so hard to dig but the children aren’t phased and are quick to find the wheelbarrow and shovels and start digging again. We are amazed at their enthusiasm and watch as one of the older boys (who we later learn is not from the orphanage) takes charge and meticulously digs and scrapes out the foundations in readiness for the laying of the bricks. A small pile of sand has been moved to the area and some of the other boys have brought around a bag of cement and are eager to start mixing it. It is hot and try to share the digging but the boys are very keen to do it on their own and we watch as they lay out the bricks and begin mixing the cement and laying them. We are amazed at their skills and how they seem to know what to do. The younger boys joined in and watched attentively, eager to learn and help wherever they could.

We have also brought along a tarp that some visiting friends from Australia brought with them. The tarp will be used to make a cover so the pet dogs don’t use it and to keep the sand clean. The mothers have also found another tarp that can be used to cover the bottom of the sandpit to stop the dirt leeching into the sand. We ask where we can get the tarp sewn to make seams along the side so pipe can be inserted to weigh down the cover to stop it blowing away. Before we know it, the mother- in – charge returns with a bundle of plastic thread, a rather large needle and 2 bamboo poles and begins sewing the seams for us. It never ceases to amaze us how resourceful these people are and how keen they are to help in any way they can.

The sandpit construction is in capable hands so we head off to the hall to layout the learning resources, games and treats we have brought with us today. Today we will give them to the children and ask the house mothers to supervise their use to ensure they are shared. We wander back and forwards to the check on the progress of the sandpit while also playing with the children. They like to take our cameras and play with them and this has become the norm each time we visit. Some of the children are very creative and their photos reflect their sense of adventure and fun.

We have again brought a bag of balloons and they soon learn to fill them with water and have fun chasing each other to throwing their newly discovered water bombs. It is fun in the heat and their laughter rings in our ears. There is a sense of accomplishment for us to know that if nothing else, we have made some fun for them and the sound of laughter lightens our hearts.

As the day wears on, we are offered lunch and enjoy noodles and salad. We are pleased to see that the protein we have bought is being used. It will certainly enrich their diets and help them to put on some weight.

After lunch we see that the brickwork around the sandpit is almost complete so we gather the children together in the hall and handover the books, stickers, balloons, games, pencils, music, CD player, balls, learning books, colouring-in books, games, jacks, dominoes, chalk, barrel of monkeys, educational posters, treats and other bits and pieces to the children and their “mothers”. We have also bought a toothbrush and toothpaste for each one and hand them out. They accept them politely and thank us. As we leave we are given resounding “Goodbyes” and a group wave and our hearts are full – we know the sandpit is well on the way to being completed. This week, as we leave we are only fare welled by one girl and a house mother as the sounds of laughter echo from inside the hall.

Thursday 12th November 2009
Our trusty driver Mr Bah wasn’t able to take us to the orphanage today but instead kindly arranged for his friend to do the honours. Lyn is also unable to come as she has work commitments so just Linda and I will be visiting today. We leave Hoang Trinh Hotel about 10.00 am after buying a cake to take with us for the children. With sandpit toys in tow we head off hoping that today we could finish the sandpit – our legacy to the children at Dai Loc as this would be the last time we will visit before returning home to Australia.

When we arrive, we are greeted by the children who are home from school for lunch. They run to give us cuddles and help us take our bags into the hall. We have also brought more colouring pencils and paper in the hope that we can get them to draw some pictures for us that we can keep as mementoes of our time at Dai Loc. The children are eager to draw lotus flowers and some of the work they produce is just beautiful. From the very youngest to the very oldest, they sit along the long table in the centre of the room, intent on their works of art. As each one is finished they proudly bring them to us with their names on them.

We carefully pack the pictures away and when they have all eaten lunch, we bring out the cake – so beautifully decorated. Like bees to a honey pot, they swarm around anxiously waiting for their piece. Before I have cut more than a few slices, the decorations have all disappeared from off the top and around the edges.

After the cake has been devoured, we head out to the courtyard to check on the sandpit and find that the edges have been meticulously completed. The sand we had arranged to be delivered is still not here so we get the House Mums to ring and try to get it delivered today. While we are waiting for the delivery we lay out a tarp on the floor of the sandpit to stop the dirt leeching through. The children run off to get the wheelbarrow, bags, dishes and anything they can find to carry what is left of the sand to the sandpit. I am amazed at there ability to problem solve and be resourceful.

We also lay out the tarp that has been sewn into a cover and watch as one of the mothers gets a machete to cut off the ends of bamboo they have gathered to use as poles down each side to weigh down the cover.

By the time the pile of sand is depleted, it has only covered a few inches of the base but is enough to lay in so we give them the sandpit toys we have brought with us. They look at them inquisitively but it only takes a few moments for them to work out what to do with the buckets, spades, moulds and trucks. Before we know it they are all in the sandpit, having taken there shoes off first and are the quietest we have heard them. The mothers watch with smiles on their faces and it isn’t long before they also have their shoes off and are in the sandpit too.

It is not long before the new sand is delivered and before it has time to be tipped out of the truck, the children and mothers are dragging bags, carrying dishes and pushing the wheelbarrow to take the sand to the sandpit. By now the weather is hot and very humid but it doesn’t deter them and even the little ones struggle with a wheelbarrow load of sand up the ramp and into the courtyard. They all pitch in and there is a sense of excitement to get it finished so play can begin.

In no time at the entire sandpit is full and the children can’t wait to get in and start playing again. Suddenly sand castles emerge and then moats and tunnels and they are all working together quietly to build sandcastle cities. There is no fighting or bickering and the older children are playing with the younger ones. The hours of play the toys give and the smiles on the children’s faces make the whole project a success. We take photo after photo to capture the moment and find it hard to take ourselves away from the fun and frivolity that the children are enjoying. Mum Xiam, Mum Ham, Mum Lien and the two mothers, whose names I have forgotten gather around for photos and are sad that we will not be back. They thank us for giving the sandpit to the children and as we leave, they follow us to the car and we have one last group photo at the front of the orphanage before leaving. The children wave goodbye and run back to the sandpit to finish their castles, smiles on their faces – a memory I will always treasure.

As we drive down the driveway, we are greeted by some of the older children who are just now returning home from school. We think their introduction to the sandpit will be a happy one and we picture the children all playing together, constructing castles out of sand and wish them all magical moments in their life that will be special to them. We are glad we have been able to finish it and are pleased that the children and mothers were so eager to join in and help make it happen. The sandpit will stay at Dai Loc for many years, and hopefully, many children will be able to play in it – giving them some respite from life’s reality even if for just a few minutes, to build something from their imaginations, something that can be fun, something they can share and something that will make them smile.

When we first came to Dai Loc, there was no laughter, just shy curious faces staring at us through steel barred windows and now as we leave we remember the laughter as they ran beside the care as we drove down the driveway one last time…

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Dai Loc Orphanage Project

~Some of the children
playing in the sandpit~

~Filling the sandpit~

As is normal in the rainy season in Vietnam with its torrential rains and winds and occassional flooding, we expect it to be a challenge to carry out all our goals.

Our goals for Dai Loc Orphanage did have to be scaled down significantly due to one terrible storm, a typhoon and its resultant flooding. CEF's project volunteers, Cheryl and Lyn. both wanted to help the orphanage children but also needed to care for themselves and their safety, so there was an essential long gap in the project while we waited for conditions to stabilize.

What we did accomplish which is the important thing to concentrate on is that the two 'girls' and the children had a great deal of fun together as well as a wonderful educational opportunity. They had a party, play time, drawing time, painting time, they were given English classes as well as being provided with many games and toys and learning materials from Lyn and Cheryl and their friends in Australia. We jointly dug the hole for the sandpit and built the wall(meaning we paid the eldest boys to do the hard work and many of the young ones dived into the digging and filling free of charge!) The result was a large sandpit with those essential pieces of equipment needed to have fun in sandpits, such as moulds for castles and cakes, rakes, sieves, spades and buckets.

It was a very sweet and touching scene immediately after completion of the pit as all the children and their carers who were there at the time (people from 6 for 50 years old), got into the sandpit and played. There was total silence as they worked on their own creations or their group creation. As some of their structures took over meters of the pit, others abandoned the enjoyable and relaxing experience and just watched the creators.

It all was possible because of Cheryl and Lyn's love for children less fortunate than their own and a desire to add a good dollop of love and happiness to these children's lives. Thank you Cheryl and Lyn for all you gave and did.

Please see the wonderful and full story of the project that Cheryl, our CEF volunteer wrote in another blog story.

Goals for the future of the Dai Loc children:
We will make sure they have sand refills and sandpit supplies for ongoing play!

CEF would love them to have ongoing volunteers for 2-3 month periods at a time, who could teach English and provide their own transport to get out to the country, to Dai Loc Orphanage.

CEF would love a volunteer to help us create a small reading library with both English and Vietnamese books for them.

In Vietnam call me, Linda on 0904317163 or email me on if you think you can help.

Follow up - Two of Our Families & Their Home Situations

This mother needs medicine for her heart condition
and funds for materials to build a temporary shelter

The typhoon season, the heavy autumnal and winter rains and the worst of the winter's cold are now over.

Children's Education Foundation - Vietnam concentrates on providing the support and the required funds needed for girls from very poor families to receive an education. Sometimes we find that they can't do their homework or get the necessary support at home if they don't have help with other aspects, such as housing and medical care. We try to find others to help us with these costs as we don't have funds to do these things ourselves. That is one of the reason I share these stories in case anyone reading them can offer some help.

One family I have talked about - the family with straw mat walls on an island near Hoi An now have a new home and the final stages of construction are about to take place - the addition of windows, doors and eaves. This has been possible due the help of relatives and other kind people and not just through CEF. This is wonderful for this family and as you can imagine they are thrilled.

Another of the families we help, the family who were living under sheets of corrugated iron, have now come to the end of their winter let which CEF arranged to shelter them from the worst of the winds, rains and cold and now they have to vacate as their landlady wants to prepare the house for Tet - the Vietnamese New Year. Generous friends of CEF have helped to keep them dry and warm through the winter which they have greatly appreciated.

Now they need to move out. The government has promised them land some time; they say sometimes after new year, but in the meantime they have permission to build a temporary shelter but they have no funds for building even that as they lost all their building materials in the terrible flood we had in Hoi An in September.

The mother is weak and ill too, as she has heart disease. Evidently her case is not urgent enough to put her near the top of the waiting list yet. She has had appointments and has been promised 50% of the the funds needed for heart surgery, meaning she still needs approximately $3,000 AUS / AUD (yes the exchange rate at present is almost the same) for her surgery. On top of that there will be costs related to post operative recovery. This family struggle to eat let alone afford schooling, medicine or surgery.

In the meantime she can't afford her medications which cost about $100 AUD / USD a month. Donations for her medicine have provided her with medicine until now, but now we need more funds to keep her in as good health as possible without the surgery so she can care for her children and help little P who CEF has put into school. Thoa the mother is so tired that she struggles to look after her two children while her husband is out looking for work or working.

Some further help related to the story above would be appreciated:
1. Donations towards building materials for little P and her family
2. Donations for monthly medicines for Thoa, little P's mother at around $100 USD / AUD a month.
3.Perhaps someone knows of an organization that may be able to fund the remainder of her surgical costs and post operative care.