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.