Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A new drama unfolds

Two amazing events took place at Blue Dragon on Tuesday.

First, I worked out how to download photos from our new digital camera! (And a big thanks to Chu Hung in Australia for giving us that).

Second - and rather more importantly - Blue Dragon's AYAD volunteer, Skye, started our first ever drama club for street kids. Oops, that deserves an exclamation mark - !

Skye is working with our psychology team to introduce drama as a means of therapy as well as self expression. Yesterday really was the first time that ANY of our kids had ever done such activities. And you know what? They looked just like a typical bunch of teens in a drama class that you would see anywhere in the world. Beautiful.

So, to celebrate Tuesday's dual achievements... some photos for your viewing pleasure.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Around the next corner

One of the great things about living in Vietnam is never knowing what awaits you down the road.

Sometimes I get emails from people who want to visit us in 6 or 12 months time, and they ask what we'll be doing when they come. Frankly, I have no idea.

And so this week comes to a close, differently to every other week I have lived here. The one constant is the usual mix of highs and lows.

Hung, our young guy in hospital with TB meningitis, seems to be OK. (Anybody who knows about TB or meningitis will understand what a subjective term "OK" is. He's alive, and that in itself borders on miraculous).

The United Nations International School (UNIS) held a Bake Sale for us on Friday, raising over $1300! That was a huge effort. And all down to the hard work that the students put in. They deserve a BIG thanks for that: the funds will help us pay for Hung's treatment.

Also on Friday morning was the end-of-year Stay In School ceremony, where we got all of the 230 or so sponsored children in Bac Ninh province together to hand them certificates for completing their grade. It's just one of the small ways that we try to encourage children and families to stick with education. Vietnamese people generally do value school, but it occurred to me during the meeting that every single one of the 230 children in that room would probably be on the streets of Hanoi, or in garment factories in southern Vietnam, if not for our program. I have to confess that I am damn proud of keeping them in school. (And as soon as I work out how, I'll post some photos of Friday's ceremony).

Our kids had another trip to UNIS on Saturday, with a soccer match arranged by some Dutch friends. Our kids played last Saturday and didn't fare too well, but both teams won their games today. Well done, guys! The Blue Dragon soccer team is made up of street kids, and teens who used to work on the streets, so it really is a great thing for them to win a game of sport every now and then.

With school holidays coming up, some of the young people we have helped over the past few years to return to their countryside are coming back in to Hanoi to visit. It's simply amazing to see how they've grown and matured; another reminder of how worthwhile our work is.

There was one sad farewell, too: Dung, a young guy we met as a shoeshine boy and who went on to enrol in the KOTO training course, has headed south to Saigon to work in a pub that's opening soon. Dung has had a tough life, and was lucky to get a placement in KOTO. This next stage of his life takes him far from his mother and brother, and all his friends in Hanoi; but he still has good support and I'll be seeing him soon myself. (I'm hoping to go to Saigon next weekend to check up on some of the street kids we are working with down there).

So, what does the coming week hold? I can only guess. But I am sure it will be something great.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

No time to catch a breath

I'm back in Viet Nam, and already it seems like months since I was in Australia. People keep asking me what it was like to go home, but after 4 years in Nam, well, this is my home.

My first week back has been hectic and insane - which is nothing unusual, and certainly no complaint, but wow, was I dead by Friday afternoon.

The Blue Dragon staff and vols did incredibly well while I was away. They dealt with some extremely difficult events, and as always they came up with spectacular results.

(Try this for a challenging task: At one point, the staff had to recover a computer that was stolen. The thief took it and sold it to a computer store which promptly dismantled it and sold everything in individual parts to different buyers. But the staff got it back!! All of it! Data included! They really are an amazing team).

They did have some difficulties, too: one foreign volunteer suffered a knee injury and was hospitalised in a local hospital - which meant that she needed Vietnamese colleagues to stay with her almost round-the-clock; and another had some terrible news about her mother's health and has had to return to Australia, a full year before her assignment was due to be completed.

And what of the kids? Again, some massive challenges for everyone. One of our boys was caught walking down the street with, umm, a part of somebody's house, and received the beating of his life for it. (Read: boot prints all over his face and body). Obviously that gives us a few issues to deal with.

Another one of the boys has come down with TB meningitis, and the tuberculosis hospital refused to accept him until the fourth time our staff took him there. (Sorry, doctor, but more exercise and iron tablets are NOT a cure for TB meninigitis).

One of the great things that happened in my absence was an art exhibition at L'Espace, a French art gallery near Hanoi's Opera House. An art teacher from UNIS School, Panni Varadi, has been organising weekly art sessions in the evenings with a group of about 12 children, including 4 Blue Dragon children. The sessions have been taught by artists who live in Hanoi, and the kids' work has been so inspiring that L'Espace wanted to exhibit some of the work. Only problem is, I can't find out much about what happened, because when I ask the kids they just laugh, and when I ask the staff they simply say "It was sooo amazing!"

And finally, we had some great news that funding has come through from an organisation in Germany, called, Schmitz Stiftung. This grant will enable us to build a library for a primary school in Bac Ninh province, where there aren't very many libraries at all... We've built houses for families before, but this is the first time that we will construct facilities for a school - a good step forward, I think.

In coming weeks, there's plenty more happening. The Australian Embassy is providing funds for us to improve the safety of our children's center and set up a room that will then be used for a daily lunch hour with our most malnourished children - so first some building and maintenance, and then a new program to feed 20 or 30 kids.

We're also increasing the frequency of our football matches; a new team of older players is about to start (Thursday mornings at 7 o'clock!), and running a drama program during the summer holidays.

No time to rest, that's for sure. But it's all good...

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The highest of accolades

My staff in Vietnam are under strict instructions: If I start behaving like a celebrity, they are to shoot me immediately.

I have seen some charity leaders go down the celebrity road. At first their intentions are purely to help the poor, but eventually the media spotlight, and the admiration of supporters, distracts them. Programs are devised based more on their media potential than on their benefit to needy people.

The last 4 years working in Vietnam have taught me to beware people who name their charity after themself, and charity workers who can more often be found on TV than in the field.

While I sound critical - maybe even cynical - I know that I am always in danger of going down that celebrity road myself.

The reason I have been in Australia these last few weeks was to take care of some Blue Dragon business here, and particularly to prepare for and attend a dinner being held to raise funds.

The event was not organised by Blue Dragon Children's Foundation, but by friends in the Vietnamese Australian community.

I could never have anticipated the outpouring of support from the community. Men and women, and whole families, turned up at Friday night's dinner - more than 570 people in all. There were business people, media representatives, grandparents, kids, students... People from every imaginable walk of life.

In the lead up to the dinner, and during the dinner, and in the short time since the dinner, people who I have never met before have come up to thank me, congratulate me, for the work of Blue Dragon. And people are digging deep, so that their actions more than match their words.

One of the many surprises has been seeing how much support I have received from people who have their own charities! The founder of a Veteran's Support Group... a Buddhist monk... and a newspaper, Van Nghe, which has a very active charitable arm, have been among Blue Dragon's biggest supporters. Despite what you might expect, people who run charities rarely want to help other charitable causes.

And so the last few weeks have been a whirlwind of meeting people, hugging people, shaking hands and then, finally, the big event itself on Friday night.

My heart is with the street kids back in Vietnam; I am counting down the hours until I am home again. I have been deeply, profoundly moved by the support that has been extended to me on this trip to Australia, but I am no celebrity. All the attention has been appreciated, but it's not why I am here.

And yet, having said that, I have to acknowledge that the support of the Vietnamese Australian community is the highest accolade that I have ever received. I am flattered that they so appreciate my work - and the work of the Blue Dragon staff and volunteers.

There is an overwhelming sense of gratitude; people are actually thanking me for what I do. I never expected this.

On the night, there were countless dancers, singers, and performers of all types - all totally for free. A small army of volunteers helped with selling raffle tickets, organising the stage show, setting up tables, greeting people at reception, and everything else that it takes to pull off an event for almost 600 people.

So in return, I have to do something. I can't let them do so much for Blue Dragon and not give something back!

All of this means that, when I return to Vietnam next week, I have to work even harder. I have to prove that the time and money that people committed to Blue Dragon was not a waste, that it really will change the lives of children who have no other hope.

If I do start acting like a celebrity, it means I've lost the plot and outlived my usefulness to the street kids of Vietnam. But I think that, for now, I've got way too much to do to even worry about that.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Waiting for dinner

Time is flying by on my visit to Australia - just 10 days more and I'll be back home in Hanoi.

My days have been packed with meetings... sometimes with friends, sometimes with groups and organisations that I hope will become my friends!

The main focus of this trip - the whole reason for me coming here - is a fundraising dinner on May 12, at Canley Heights in Sydney. The event is being organised not by any associations or foundations, but by a couple of Vietnamese Australians with huge hearts, who really want to support the work of Blue Dragon.

In the lead up to the dinner, we are going out to meet with members of the community, inviting their participation and support. In addition, I have been meeting groups such as Rotary to talk about Blue Dragon's work and needs.

While I don't particularly enjoy this side of my work - I would much rather be back in Vietnam at the Blue Dragon center - it's exciting to know that this trip will bring in some funds for our work with the kids. We know so many families in need of support - living on boats (like the one below), or letting traffickers take their children because it's the best of all the rotten options. It can seem overwhelming, but I have no doubt that we CAN make a powerful difference if we have the resources.

I'm a long way from knowing how successful this trip will finally be, but I am greatly encouraged by the support of so many people.