Friday, August 25, 2006

Children teaching children

It has been two weeks...or maybe three since Michael left. He only set sail from San Francisco two days ago so we don't expect him home any time soon. We are working hard to compensate for his absence especially with the kids. There is extra love flying around everywhere here. This week I have been blown away by the care and responsibily of our kids.

Michael has mentioned before our Internal swimming program, teaching Blue Dragon children how to swim. We are now on our second program and currently teaching 16 kids. On Tuesday I took one of my students, Nhan, to the pool along with an extra child, Thuy, as my other student, La, had to stay home and look after his baby nephew. I have been here 5 months and my Vietnamese is pretty basic even though I practise very day with the kids, a language with 6 tones ain't the easiest language to learn. I am sure you can imagine my swimming lessons now!!!

My heart was so warmed when Thuy began to help me teach Nhan how to do freestyle breathing. Thuy showed so much patience and compassion, gently correcting Nhan to improve his stroke. I am so impressed with the children over the last couple of months, a real sense of brotherhood and unconditional love has grown amongst every one.

Here is a little background on 14 year old Thuy to help you paint a picture in your mind. Thuy's father abandoned him and his mother when he was one year old. Thuy quit school many times due to lack of money and used to work around the Old Quarter of Hanoi, his mother selling postcards to tourists and Thuy selling lottery ticket results. Thuy's mother died from a drug overdose over one year ago. Thuy then came to live with his 72 year old Grandmother who sells tea all night at one of the busiest markets in Hanoi. He and his Grandmother used to live in very poor accomodation with only one bag of possessions and a small light.

Blue Dragon met Thuy a month after his mother passed away as he stayed with his Grandmother on the same street as our centre. Thuys grandmother is unable to care for Thuy anymore as the burden of providing for two mouths is too much for this 72 year old woman. Thuy has been living in one of our Residency houses with 5 other boys for three months now and is provided with daily meals. He is now studying grade 2 at school and participates in various extra classes at our centre; drama, drumming, swimming and Music Club. He is a ray of sunshine and always brings laughter with his natural sense of humour and acting abilities.

Another incident this week was in our second Drama class. Two of the older girls who had participated the day before came again...must be because I design SUCH WONDERFUL CLASSES!!! he he he. We encouraged the girls to co- facilitate the class with us, and they did such a wonderful job. It is so powerful to see children lead and help other children. And this genuine care and mentorship seems to be happening everywhere around me at the moment. And so the family grows!

Last Saturday we had a very successful opening ceremony for our "Stay in School" kids School in Bac Ninh Province. A team of staff have been working very hard over the past three weeks preparing school books, bags and stationery, planning logistics of transporting 350 school bags laiden with stationery, counting and re-counting to make sure they had the right number "was that 211 or 215??? Oh count again". The ceremony ran smoothly and all the kids were so well behaved and very happy to receive their schoolbags and books. They began their school year last Monday.

All in all, Blue Dragon life is flowing along with full strength. This Sunday some of the kids from the Product Design team are heading out to the pottery village to learn how to make pottery. We never stop learning!

Have a great weekend

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The ship hasn't sunk...yet

Well we are all still alive in Hanoi. Michael has been gone a week and things are still as busy as usual, even without him around to give us new projects to manifest and implement. On the weekend a few of us were fortunate enough to attend the first guitar recital of three of our kids; Ha, Nam and Ngoc. These three boys have been taking Classical guitar lessons since my arrival here in March. The guitar lessons were a part of our weekly music program which finished 2 months ago. However we decided to continue the lessons for our budding guitar players.

Ha, Nam, Ngoc, myself and two other volunteers all met beforehand, huddled in the dry of our house while the summer storm passed. We then rode together to the venue, the boys on bicycles and the three of us putting along behind them on our Minsks (big smoky Russian motorbikes that lots of foreigners ride in Hanoi). Our boys were the first to perform. We were so proud and they played so well together.

(Ha, Nam, girl, Ngoc)

We also had the pleasure of celebrating Diep's 18th Birthday this week. A Special day! Some of you may have already heard of Diep. Diep is one of the reasons why Blue Dragon is here today. Michael met Diep when he was a shoe shine boy 4 years ago, befriended him and Vi and began sharing breakfast with them daily. Watching Diep grow up has been a pleasure for all that have know him. Diep has been working as a trainee social worker for Blue Dragon for over six months now. The kids all love him, his soft nature and huge smile warms everyones hearts.

Michael was very sorry he was missing his baby boys 18th birthday so we prepared a filmed message before Michael left. The film featured a motorbike which was supposed to be Dieps gift which is then stolen by our local Xeom driver ( all staged of course) whilst Michael is talking to the camera ( the kids were hysterical when watching it). After the bike was "stolen" Michael was left with a white envelope in his hands with Diep's name on it which I was able to give him after watching the film. The contents of that envelope will buy Diep a bicycle so he can get around alot easier.

(Diep enjoying his Blue Dragon Party)

We had a lovely party at the Blue Dragon Centre with alot of the kids and all the staff. Later three of us joined Diep, the other Boys who live in the BIG ROOM and some more older Blue Dragon kids ( all 18 and older ) to sing Karaoke and share a couple of beers in true Birthday style. Tarah, Eric and I were so impressed with how considerate and respectful all of the boys are, and full of such positive, fun energy. Once again we were so proud of the boys, they are growing into such wonderful young men!

Michael mentioned in his last update that Chinh, Can and Hue were starting at a new school, well they have been studying there for a week and a half now and they are LOVING IT!!! Chinh and Can live in Blue Dragon houses and they are always beaming when they return from School.

Well friends, its over and out for this Wednesday afternoon. Tomorrow we have another fantastic morning of Drumming!!! Hopefully the sun is shining.


Saturday, August 12, 2006

From the streets of San Fransisco

Today I am in another world.

San Fransisco - the weather is gorgeous, the streets are wide and the shops open at lunch time.

The flight over here was interrupted because of the latest conspiracy out of England... I lost my toothpaste in Hong Kong, lest that Colgate be used for evil.

I am now with two of my best friends: Hugh Adams, who invited me on this trip, and Pham Sy Chung from Vietnam. Back in the very earliest days of Blue Dragon, Chung was working with me - before there was even an intention to start an NGO (Non-Government Organisation), Chung was working alongside me to help street kids in Hanoi. (That's Chung in the photo. He won't be happy when he sees I've stolen his university photo).

And, by coincidence, it was Chung who introduced me to Hugh. Since then, Hugh has relocated to Fiji, and Chung has moved to Santa Monica where he studies at Rand. But today we are together again. Just like before, except in a different country. And the street kids here have MP3 players.

Back in Vietnam, as I sat waiting for the taxi to pick me up from our street kids' center, a new development arose that is playing on my mind.

Anyone who knows Blue Dragon - anyone who reads this blog - will know that our kids go through a lot. They are at the bottom of the social ladder. Everyone is out to get them.

We've been working hard to change that, though. Our local policeman, Mr Thang, is even about to start coming around to the center to have some informal workshops with the kids on how to stay out of trouble with the law. That kind of thing is extremely rare in Vietnam.

But on Wednesday, as I was about to leave, I learned something truly shocking. A new, all-time low, I think.

Some of our kids have reported being locked in a room and beaten, quite savagely, and they have the bruises, scars, and witnesses to prove it.

Why were they beaten? Somebody had been robbed, and they were beating the children in the hope that one of them would know who had stolen the money, and would confess the information.

So, the big question: Who was this? The police? No.

A local householder, a private citizen? No.

It was another NGO. That's right, another charity. A charity that's fully foreign funded, and claims to help street children.

Now, the NGO community tends to stay closed-lipped about each other's dirty laundry. Some pretty awful deeds are done in the name of charity, but usually nobody says anything.

But this action goes right against everything I believe in, and everything my staff and I have worked for over the past few years.

We won't stay quiet about this.

Van, our lawyer, has started talking to the kids to find out the details and verify if this is all true. While my first instinct is to believe the kids - or at least believe that there is SOME element of truth in what they say - we do need to confirm, to be sure, before we take action.

Of course, I am about to get on a boat and sail to Hawaii, so I won't be writing any more about this for a while. But if these kids are telling the truth, then there will certainly be some follow up to come.

As always, stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

It's time

... Time to go!

I plan to pack my bags this afternoon, at the last minute as usual, while the taxi is outside beeping for me.

Tonight I go to Saigon, and then on to San Fransisco. And then on to the sail boat!

While I am away, Blue Dragon's Arts and Theatre coordinator, Skye, will keep this blog alive by posting news of the kids. It may be a couple of weeks before I have internet access again.

Saying farewell to all the kids is incredibly difficult, but it's a selfish sorrow that I am feeling. Right now the kids at our center are doing amazingly well. And they will continue to do well while I am away - it's just that I won't be there to see them...

We've had some good news about funding in the last week or so.

World Vision is looking quite likely to continue the support of our Step Ahead program, and they have also offered a small grant to pay for school text books for over 300 kids.

And the New Zealand Embassy has offered to support our legal advocacy work - which means we can really make our work more professional and organised, and so reach many more children in need.

The NZ Embassy has also confirmed that it will fund a proposal by the Disability Forum to develop training packages and resources for staff involved with disabled youth. Blue Dragon will work with the Forum on the implementation of some parts of that proposal, as we have a HUGE need to develop our abilities in that area.

This is all exciting news, but there's more...

On Monday of this week, three of our kids started at a new school.

Most Blue Dragon kids attend a local charity school, which is OK, but as time goes by more and more of the children are aspiring to go to university. The charity school just doesn't have a high enough standard to get them there.

So Chinh, Hue and Can have started studying at a private school, a few kilometers away but only 20 minutes by bus.

Chinh and Hue are brother and sister; they were both forced to leave home in the countryside after their mother died and their father remarried. Chinh was shining shoes when we met him. He's one of the smartest, funniest, most likable kids I have met... And his sister, although much more shy, is a beautiful soul too.

Can is only 12 years old, and he is one of the kids we rescued from child traffickers a few months back. He's another very bright boy - after just a few days, he's thriving in his new school environment already.

Every now and then I meet somebody who tells me that I am wasting my time with Blue Dragon: street kids are lazy, dishonest, sneaky, stupid.

But as I set off on my sailing adventure I am already thinking about my return to Vietnam, and to the children's center. I am already filled with excited anticipation - what news will await me?

What progress will Hue, Chinh, and Can have made?

Which university will Hoang be enrolled in?

How many more children will have their births registered, so they can be officially recognised by the government?

But first, I have an ocean to cross.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Trailer Trash sets sail

From time to time, people (including my own sister!) tell me that I should include more personal info on my blog and in the Blue Dragon newsletters.

I don't write about myself, because - well, I don't aspire to being a celebrity. I am here for the kids, not for my own glorification.

But today I will tell you something that not many people have known up until now:

I used to live in a caravan. On a vacant block of land on a dirt road. With no electricity, telephone, or running water.

That's right - I'm trailer trash!

This was back when I was a teenager, and my family thought it would be a great idea to leave the city behind (I lived in Sydney for my first 12 years) and go rural.

They were tough times. Teenagers like to have - well, electricity and telephones, for example.

So why this sudden outburst of personal revelation?

In a way, I offer this insight into my own history as something of an apology, or at least an explanation. Because I am about to do something that, by my own standards, is incredibly self indulgent. Yes, I would say that I even feel a little guilty about it.

I am going sailing.

On Thursday morning, I will fly to America to meet Hugh Adams, a very good friend who used to live in Hanoi, along with his wife Susan. Hugh and Susan were among the very first supporters of Blue Dragon - even before we officially existed.

Hugh has bought a sailing boat, moored in San Fransisco, and must sail it to his home in Fiji, travelling via Hawaii.

He has asked me to accompany him on this journey.

I have never done anything like this before - unless you count a day trip on Halong Bay. I am under no illusion that this will be an easy trip, but I do expect it to be amazing.

The Pacific Ocean... peace and quiet... the sound of the waves slapping against the boat...

(To those of you thinking "Seasickness... storms... sharks..." CUT IT OUT).

Artist's impression

Believe it or not, this is not a simple decision for me to make. I'll be away from the kids for at least 2 or 3 weeks! We're a family now, how can I leave them like this?

And what about Wheels, my dog? She hates it when I go away!

And what about all the admin that I have to take care of? (Oh wait, that was one of the reasons I decided to take the trip).

But I am going. I've never done anything like this before, and most likely I never will have this chance again.

I'm going. I'm going. But I will be back.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The kids are taking over

Another week, another change at Blue Dragon.

Many of our friends will know our staff member Huong, coordinator of the Stay In School program. This week, Huong finished up with Blue Dragon, to move on to a teaching career in a university.

Stay In School is a fantastically successful program. From next month, there will be 350 children in rural districts supported through the program to (as the name suggests) stay in school. Our success rate is huge - in the past 2 years, only 2 or 3 kids have dropped out of school.

But staff-wise, SIS has not been so successful. Huong was our 4th coordinator in two years!

The problem is that Blue Dragon hires young people - mostly due to budget - and once they are with us, they learn so much that they are quickly snapped up by other organisations.

So I am not hiring another coordinator - four is enough!

I'm handing the job over to the kids.

Here in Hanoi, we work with well over 100 street kids, and a few are perfectly capable of learning the basics of the Stay In School administration.

The kids tend to be here for years, too. Many of the kids in the program have been around longer than any staff member (excluding myself).

We have already started the process of teaming up kids with admin staff to work together on Stay In School. Of course, the kids can't do all of the job themselves...

Not yet, anyway.


A brief post to let everybody know that the Blue Dragon newsletter, Friends, is finished and can be downloaded here.

And while you're downloading...

The whole Blue Dragon website has been refurbished - take a look!

The new site has been designed by a volunteer, Iain Purdie. We owe you big time, Iain.