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UCSD Students Volunteer in Vietnam

Frank Tran, Donate For Children's V.P. of Communications, led a group of students from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and colleges/universities in the Asia region on a volunteer project to Vietnam during Summer 2007. They visited a number of orphanages and children centers, delivering food, gifts, and supplies to children.  The following is a letter written by Jackie Shibata, a recent graduate of UCSD, describing her trip and thanking Donate For Children for providing her with an "amazing" experience.    

Dear Donate For Children’s Board of Directors & Officers,

I just wanted to write a little about Donate For Children (DFC) while the thoughts were still somewhat fresh in my mind (some of this stuff is taken right out of my journal).  I was really impressed with the work and organization being put in by DFC over on that side.  The volunteers are hard workers and really had our trips to the orphanages planned perfectly.  We took bags full of school supplies and snacks to each orphanage, they were in bags with the DFC logo and passed out by the volunteers, all wearing DFC shirts and hats, it all looked and felt very structured and official. Our first trip was to Hoc Mon which is a orphanage/vocational school in the outskirts of Saigon. All the volunteers and supplies were loaded up into two large vans, on the way everyone was talking and singing (even though it was early). The volunteers were all very friendly and helpful loading and unloading the car. The facility was really nice, much nicer than what I was expecting. There was a classroom, some offices, a small library, the dorms, and a couple workshops where the kids made crafts. We were told that there was a school to train the kids with the proper skills needed to obtain all kinds of different jobs in the “real world.” The facility was fairly new, I think they said it’d been open for about a year, but already they had trained and graduated 150+ kids! Everyone there was handicapped and many were orphans.  Many of these kids, though missing feet or having crooked limbs, were very active, happy and inspirational.  For example, we were greeted by, and shook the foot of a girl in a wheelchair who was able to paint and write with her feet because she had little use of her arms. Anyhow, Frank, Kevin and I talked to the coordinator for awhile, she was very friendly, showed us around and was extremely appreciative of us being there.  The kids all sat in a classroom-like assembly hall and most were teenagers, you’ll see this in the pictures. Frank made a speech, then the coordinator presented us with some of the handmade crafts that they sell there, it was really sweet.  Then we all sang, and Mai made me sing alone!! I was taken by surprise, I thought we’d all sing together, and being my second day in Vietnam I was a little shy, but it was fun. 

Then we played a game sort of like Simon Says, but you touch your head, chin and ear; anyway I wasn’t very good at it since I’d just learned the words and since I kept messing up, I was “punished” along with three of the kids. We had to stand in the front of the room and they got to name us household items, I was named Banh Mi and had to answer that to anything they asked me.  For example one kid yelled out, “What do you hold onto when you’re scared” and I had to reply, “Banh Mi.”  It was fun and the kids were really into it. Then we passed out balloons and the kids went crazy, they loved them! We had a contest to see what balloon creations they could come up with, I worked with a group of girls, it was really fun to work with them and connect with them, we would laugh as our faces turned blue trying to blow up these Vietnamese balloons (our balloon animal wasn’t very good, but it was fun working on it). It was so funny to see and hear balloons popping every couple seconds, everyone was talking and laughing and working away, it was great.  They made everything from balloon hats and uniforms, to pigs and a replication of their logo.  Some were very creative, all were colorful and fun and the kids really enjoyed it.  The MC, Kang (or something similar to that, sorry I was so bad with names) had each kid talk about the invention into the microphone, everyone was cracking up and clapping, it was just a really good time.  Then we passed out lunch, banh mi (ironically haha) and milk boxes and lichi (the fruit); at this time frank set up the projector, dvd player, etc. and played a comedy sketch for them; they seemed to enjoy it, but I couldn’t understand it. After lunch, we took pictures and then toured the grounds. We watched the girl students make artificial flowers using nylon and wire; they were really beautiful. Then we saw the boys working on these handsome wooden crafts.  Some were using electric saw to carve pieces that others had drawn on, others were gluing the pieces together, while others added the finish.  We talked to a couple of the kids, they said they really enjoyed making these. We were told about one kid who was sick, but every chance he had, he would run to the workshop and work on his wooden projects because he loved it so much.  All these kids were handicapped, but seemed happy and were very good at what they were doing.  They sold these handicrafts as a way to raise money for the orphanage/school.  I wonder if these items can be sold on the DFC website or something to help raise money?  We then moved to a large porch area where most of the kids were hanging out; we just sat and talked to them a little and took pictures with them; at this time I felt very uplifted. I sat there looking at all of these handicapped kids sitting around in groups laughing and chatting and singing, and it was really refreshing.  Most of my developing world experiences, especially in India, but in Ecuador too, involved handicapped kids like these ones tugging at my shirt or standing outside the car window on a crowded street, lifelessly asking for food or money; they usually look starved, dirty and defeated. But here, these kids were alive and happy! It was a wonderful thing to see that there was a place where these kids could go and get the proper food and have clothing and make friends and learn skills so that they didn’t have to live the life of a beggar.  DFC also donated enough flip-flops or shoes (I forget which was given to each orphanage) to go around. Also a lot of food was donated.  I asked Mai if there were any orphanages in the city, and she explained that we went to these ones because the ones in the city get attention and funding, but it’s these ones that really need the help. I think its great that DFC is helping this particular institution because it seemed like a great environment, it was already helping many disabled youths and it was young and growing.

Our second visit was to Thien Duyen orphanage. We ate and then packed up all the electronics and gifts for our day at the orphanage.  This time we went even further outside the city.  It was in a Buddhist temple and was not as nice as the first one we went to.  The beds were wooden with a single sheet, no kind of mattress or pillows and they were only surrounded by two walls, meaning one side of the building was exposed to the outdoors.  The kids here were much younger and most were mentally disabled in some way.  One woman looked like a 5 year old child, acted like an infant, but was 36 years old! Mai translated that some of the kids had parents who had been poisoned during the war; I learned later that millions of kids were born birth defects because their fathers had been exposed to Agent Orange during the American-Vietnam war.  Its sad to see the effects of war on a country; decades after the war ended, many are still suffering from the aftermath.  We started the day by showing them pictures on a projector, some were ones I had just taken and the kids were excited to see themselves.  Then we passed out large poster paper and helped them draw.  One girl laughed hysterically as her friend drew pictures, but was very shy and would angrily say no when I asked her if she wanted to draw.  But eventually after I drew some pictures and we laughed together, she was willing to take the pen and really seemed to enjoy it.  She couldn’t speak so we got along really well signing to each other (since I can’t speak Vietnamese, it was perfect).  Later she would always smile when we saw each other and grab my arm and sit next to me, I felt like I’d made a connection.  Also, there was another room with mats on the floor where some severely disabled kids just laid.  I sat with one for awhile, he or she just rocked and hit a pile of crackers she had in her hand over and over. She didn’t seem like she could communicate but later offered me her crackers for my digital camera.  I wondered how much these kids knew and couldn’t communicate, anyway they were fun to be around.

After the drawings, Kang (khan?) the MC read the kids Hansel and Gretle, pictures were up on the projector.  Many of the kids were pretty into the story, thanks to Kang’s great MC skills.  We also handed out gift bags to them (pencils, food, candy, box milk, etc).  They all seemed very happy.  Then we had some of the orphans sing karaoke, one blind man was sang very beautifully to the music played by the organist (I think he was blind too, but he played all kinds of songs, throughout the day he played music that went with the mood of what was going on, haha even during the telling of Hansel and grettle, he played, it was great).  Later Frank presented the head monk with a washing machine that DFC had purchased for the orphanage, which the monk said in his thank you speech that they were very in need of. The monk seemed very genuine and thankful. Before we left he showed us these vases and other grand sculptures that the kids made by tying buttons together, it was very unique.  He then gave each of us one of these handmade vases!!! It doesn’t sound like a lot, but there were at least ten volunteers, and when he ran out of all the small sized ones that he had, he started giving us the larger sized ones!! He was really sweet.  Then he showed us the spot where he hoped to build a school for the kids.  The construction had started, but was halted due to lack of funding.  I hope that DFC will be able to help them build that school because some of those kids were very bright and energetic; some were doing math problems on the posters we were making earlier, others wrote poems.  Anyway, I hope they get the education that we all deserve.  This day was a little more sad than the first (seeing the struggles of some severely disabled children), but again a very rewarding experience.  All the volunteers at DFC work so hard and seem to care so much and the kids really seem to enjoy the program.  I hope that others see the legitimacy of the organization and will want to contribute because they need the help and small amounts of money go a long way.  For less than a dollar we could put shoes on their feet and food in their mouths.

Overall, I had a great time going to the orphanages, I wish I could do it all the time.  They were so appreciative and it was just so inspiring.  The volunteers were all really hard working and so cute with the kids.  Mai and Loc, DFC’s officers in Saigon region, are incredibly organized and really helped everything run smoothly, Minh got some great footage, Kang is super charismatic and just great and making the kids laugh and keeping their attention and energizing them for the activities, the other volunteers were very sweet and did a great job, even our drivers were drawing pictures, holding the kids and helping us pass out food, etc; it was a great team. This is really a great program and I hope that I can help it grow because it has already done so much and I see that there is a lot of good to come that is very much needed and appreciated.  I’m so glad I was able to be a part of this. Thank you DFC for this opportunity. Please let me know if there is any way that I can continue to help out.



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