Saturday, December 31, 2005

A year of change

At the end of 2004, the coming year was looking very uncertain for Blue Dragon.

The Vietnamese government had just issued us with an official licence, granting us permission to run projects for street kids. This was a major step forward, providing our work with greater legitimacy and much greater security.

At the time, we had a very small office, and I was working with just two staff members - Thuy, a law graduate, and Vuong, a former shoe shine boy.

Our programs were small but yielding strong results. A few of the young guys we had helped escape the streets were now in jobs, and we were supporting about 100 rural kids, mostly girls, through the Stay In School sponsorship program.

But some challenges lay ahead.

We planned to turn our informal work with street kids into an official program: only that we lacked two major ingredients - money, and a local government partner (compulsory for foreign charities working in Vietnam). As 2005 commenced, we had no idea how we would find enough money to run the program, or which government partner we could work with to implement our rather left-of-field approach. By March, both issues were sorted out, and the street children's program, "Step Ahead," was launched in May.

But even with all of this, we still faced the challenge of finding acceptance in the local community. Our office was in a very conservative neighbourhood that did not want a street children's center. On one occasion, two of our boys were physically attacked by business people while walking to the office. On several occasions, our building was attacked by thugs, usually at night, and was the target of theft several times.

So we decided that the simplest solution was to leave - and we found a larger building in a less aggressive area. The move also brought us much closer to the homes and communities of the kids in our programs. (The photo below is taken in our new building shortly after we moved in).

Now as 2005 draws to an end, Blue Dragon staff and volunteers are proud of the progress we've made. In the countryside, we are working with close to 250 children, all of whom would have quit school by now if not for the many individual and group sponsors providing financial support.

Here in Hanoi, we have 60 kids on Individual Plans - meaning that we provide comprehensive support for their education, health, accommodation, and social needs. There are at least 100 kids more who come to our football games and drop into the center when they need some help.

More kids have quit the streets to return to school; more teens are in good jobs and earning steady incomes. We have built five houses for desperately poor families, and helped one child escape from the people who trafficked him to Saigon.

Our list of achievements in 2005 is a long one!

But what about 2006?

We do face some immediate challenges. One of our young guys, an orphan, is in hospital with a lung disease; six weeks ago doctors doubted that he could survive. Now we are looking at rehabilitation and recovery over at least the next nine or ten months.

Another of the kids has committed himself to quitting heroin - he's homeless and totally illiterate at age 16, so he's going to need a lot of support.

My last blog told the news of Mrs Tat's sudden death; we are half way through building her new house, and her sons, aged 14 and 17, are now in desperate need of help. This will require a lot of tact and care, as we need to ensure that the children are the sole beneficiaries of their mother's estate, in accordance with her will. They'll also need some significant emotional and material help to get them through the year.

For our street children project, we plan to double the number of kids on individual plans, and we intend to start supporting a center in Hoian, with over 30 street kids who love in a residential setting.

Blue Dragon has no plans to take over the world - building an empire for ourselves is not what we're about. But growth and development in the coming year will mean more children and teenagers off the streets and on the path to a life without poverty.

I look forward to sharing the highs and lows with you as the year unfolds.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A tribute to Mrs Tat

Amidst the happiness of Christmas, some very sad news: someone close to Blue Dragon staff has died.

Mrs Tat, whose son Hieu is sponsored through our Stay In School program, passed away in the early hours of Tuesday, December 27 in her house in Bac Ninh province.

In our November newsletter, we appealed for funds to rebuild her family home. She had come to ask us for help, as she wanted to know that her two sons would have a good place to live when she was gone.

Our staff brought Mrs Tat to Hanoi to visit a hospital, and the doctors were quite sure that she would be OK with the right treatment. And her health did improve considerably; but in recent weeks Mrs Tat's illnesses returned, stronger than ever, and she was too weak to cope.

Life for single mothers is very difficult in Vietnam; but Mrs Tat coped admirably and cared for her sons as best she could. She was determined that Hieu would stay enrolled in school, and wanted to be sure that her sons would be well cared for even after she had died.

We have already started rebuilding Mrs Tat's home; the work is almost half done. We now intend to finish the house and to ensure that her sons will inherit it, as she wished.

As this has happened quite suddenly, we are not yet sure what will develop in the coming days: how the relatives will respond, and which of them will offer to care for Hieu and his older brother. Blue Dragon staff will attend the funeral on Wednesday morning, and we hope to know more by the end of the week. Anybody with a particular interest in this case is welcome to contact me at

Monday, December 26, 2005

A Hanoi Christmas

The big question on everyone’s lips at the moment is: Do you miss being home for Christmas?

Of course, the answer isn’t as simple as a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. After all, my home is in Hanoi. I don’t have a home in Australia.

And as nice as it is to see my family when I go back, there is a very real sense in which I have a family here in Vietnam – albeit a very large, diverse family...

With Christmas on a Sunday this year, we took the opportunity to turn our regular events into special events. Soccer, which kicks off at 8am every Sunday, was played as normal, but at the end all the kids received an armload of presents donated by the United Nations International School. ( Big thanks to Julian Carey for initiating this, and to her husband David and son William, who drove out with her to the field on Christmas morning to make the Big Delivery!

Getting our kids organized is always a challenge, but when it came time for gift giving they all sat down in rows and our volunteers distributed 3 or 4 presents to every one of the 74 street kids. That’s a LOT of presents!

Our good friends Jennifer Davoli from the US, and Catherine DeVrye from Australia ( were there along with all of us from Blue Dragon to help with giving out the gifts… and to share in the tremendous excitement of the event. The kids were HUGELY thrilled with it all, and the parcels they received were really something. There were toys, books, soccer balls, shampoo, clothes, watches, hats… even a canned wombat (which, I believe, was not a real wombat…)

Once the wrapping paper was discarded and the field was deserted, we were all off to more parties for the kids. A couple of dozen came by the Blue Dragon HQ to watch Tom and Jerry DVDs, and then at 11am our volunteer Tarah hosted a lunch for all of the kids who attend our weekly drumming circle. Lots of singing, eating, and making funny faces out of sweets!

I then headed to the home of Robert Gordon, the British Ambassador to Vietnam. His family has been exceptionally kind and supportive over the last year or so, and invited me to join their Christmas lunch. 24 hours on and I still feel full…

And finally, a quiet evening with just a handful of kids – I wanted to spend some time with the young guys I have known through 4 Christmases, and who are now in full time employment. It was quite special, to share our memories of the last few years and look back on all that’s changed…

After all the excitement, Blue Dragon HQ was closed today (Boxing Day), although there were still a few kids about needing a hand with this or that. One of the Social Workers and I spent the afternoon at a hospital visiting Hung, one of the kids, who has been seriously ill with a lung disease but is starting to recover. He was even able to walk downstairs to sit outside with us, which is a huge leap from where he was just a month ago.

More on Hung in the next blog! For now, a big THANK YOU to everyone who has been emailing me about Ngoc, the young boy who was trafficked – your concern is appreciated.

And a happy Christmas to all!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The long hard slog beyond the fuzzies

(Christmas 2002 - the very early days of Blue Dragon.
Half the kids at the party are now in school or full time jobs)

In our November 2005 Newsletter, Blue Dragon made an appeal for two separate needs.

First, we asked our supporters for $2000 to help Mrs Tat and her sons build a new house in Bac Ninh province. We had some AMAZING responses, and so the house is under construction right now - more on that in the next week or two.

And second, we asked for donations to buy warm winter clothes for the street kids in time for Christmas. And again, we've had a lot of support come through, from all corners of the globe - a huge THANK YOU to everyone who has sent us some money to help out.

Over the last few weeks we've been taking kids out shopping, making sure they get what they need, but there's a real sense of festivity in the air - making the trips feel more like 'Christmas shopping' than about providing for basic needs.

And there's much more Christmas joy to come. Next Sunday, on Christmas Day, our staff and volunteers will spend time with the kids, and of course there will be some gift giving and parties.

Julian Carey, one of our strong supporters who happens to be a mum with a child at the United Nations International School (UNIS), will be coming to our weekly football match (yep, even on Christmas Day!) with a car load of presents that grade 1 and 5 UNIS kids have donated and wrapped.

She did the same last year, and our kids were filled with the most incredible excitement when they got to open the gifts. We'll have some pics to post after the event next Sunday morning - should be a blast.

It will be a fun Christmas, and our kids will be delighted, but I'm not going to pretend that some presents and balloons will change their world. There are some other charities about at the moment that are throwing massive parties for the poor - parties which just happen to also be terrific photo opportunities for their expat staff and directors to be snapped standing beside big donors.

There's something awfully hypocritical about westerners running charities who want to use Christmas parties as the focus of their year. It's easy to feel warm and fuzzy by inviting an impoverished family to join in a Christmas lunch. But what about the rest of the year? And what matters more - the 364 days of regular life, or the one day of Christmas?

When I think about the street kids that Blue Dragon works with, I know that they appreciate the gifts and fun that come with Christmas - they have in the past, and they will again this year. I also know that, in decades to come, it will be the 'long haul' of caring and commitment that they will most value.

Take Quyen, for example. In the two years that he's been a part of the 'Blue Dragon family,' he's had a tough time. Quyen was in hospital for two weeks with a head injury after being hit by a motorbike - my staff and I took turns visiting him so we could sit by his bed and hold his hand through that ordeal. Then we took up his case to make the motorbike driver who hit him cough up the money to cover the hospital bill.

Since then, Quyen has been expelled twice from his school, and on each occasion we've been there to work out a solution. The first time, we had to help him find a new school. The second time, one of the Blue Dragon social workers took him back to the teacher to mediate a peace treaty (and so far, so good). Apart from all that, Quyen comes to our soccer games and social outings, he's enrolled in one of our computer classes, and we're working with him to get a birth certificate, as so far his birth is unregistered - even though he's 16 years old!

Thanks to the UNIS kids, Quyen will be receiving a big Christmas present on the 25th, and he'll be invited to join us in a party after the soccer. He's going to love it all.

But forget the cheesy photo opportunities, thank you very much - the work that I take the most pride in is the daily slog that's mostly behind the scenes. Our kids know this. And so do our friends and supporters.

Julian, the UNIS parent who has organised the Christmas gifts, asked me last week, "What about rabies shots and all the regular innoculations - do the street kids have those already, or do they need to have them?"

Now, rabies shots don't give you the same warm fuzzies and cute photos that come with Christmas parties. Like most of our supporters, Julian knows the truth:

It's the long hard slog that counts.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The winter woolies

One thing I was not expecting when I moved to Vietnam - winter.

Isn't Vietnam supposed to have a tropical climate? Well, Ho Chi Minh City does. But Hanoi has a fair-dinkum, brass-monkey-beware, genuine winter (apologies for the Australianisms there. But it's really, really cold). The temperature doesn't get too low - usually it's around 10-12 degrees... But it stays humid, and so everything is damp and icy cold. You have to be here to believe it.

For street kids, the winter is a particularly bad time. Even in the day, nobody should be out in this weather, but children who have no family to support them have no choice. They have to go out every morning to collect scrap paper, or shine shoes, regardless of the season.

So Blue Dragon is turning its attention for a while to some basic needs. We prefer not to devote our resources to handouts, but when it comes to the Hanoi winter, the kids need help to stay warm and healthy.

Our social workers have been taking kids down to the local market to buy jackets and jeans; Julian, who is running a music club, gave all the kids winter beanies and gloves. Jennifer, another volunteer, took three boys out during the week to get them jackets and shoes. We always let the kids choose their own clothes - just one little part of our philosophy that happens to be very important.

And to top it all off, the International Women's Club has helped us buy 100 blankets! On Thursday and Friday, the social workers played Santa Claus (and LOVED it), as all the families and carers of our kids came around to collect their early Christmas present.

Such a simple thing, giving out blankets... but there weren't many dry eyes by the end of the day. For most of the kids and families, this was the first time they had ever owned such a warm, beautiful blanket. Wow, were they appreciative!

It's great to know that at least some families will be so much warmer this Christmas.