Monday, May 26, 2008

World's happiest cartoonist

We had a special treat this weekend: Peter Draw, the "world's happiest cartoonist", visited from Singapore. Peter and his crew, Herman and Damien, spent Sunday afternoon at the Blue Dragon center sketching and playing with a group of our kids.
Peter taught the kids some simple cartooning techniques, but he also had them laughing and smiling, and really enjoying themselves. Peter's visit was organised by World Vision Singapore - big thanks to everyone involved!
Peter with a sketch of one of our girls

The kids have a go at drawing...

Some finished products

Friday, May 23, 2008

The end is nigh

The end of the school year is almost upon us! Many Blue Dragon kids have already started their summer break. Woo hoo!

Last weekend, I headed out with a few of the staff and a group of about 8 kids to Bac Ninh province, a beautiful rural area not far from Hanoi where Blue Dragon supports 350 students to go to school.

Our gathering was not simply to celebrate the end of the school year; it was also to celebrate the fact that these kids have persevered with their studies, despite terrible difficulties in their lives. Many have done really well at school, but that's not even the main point: the fact that they have made a commitment to study, and followed it through, was the key theme of the day. We were very proud to be awarding certificates to 18 students who had graduated from Year 12 - what an achievement!

As always, a picture tells...

Here's the crowd, with teachers and officials at the front.

Some of the Year 12 students receiving an award for completing their studies.

Down in the crowd... the kids with the groovy hair are former street kids from Hanoi who came to help out as community service.

One of the Hanoi teens handing out gifts to the kids. Each bag contains items donated by Unilever Vietnam - shampoo, tootpaste, cleaning products, and a toothbrush. Worth a small fortune to these families.

A fruit snack before the kids head home. Man, did that fruit disappear quickly.

In coming days, all of the kids will be on holidays, and then we can turn our attention to the next challenge: how to make sure these kids, and others, can stay in school for another year.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Happy first birthday

Blue Dragon has a lot of birthdays to celebrate in the month of May!

Last week, two boys who both happen to live in our residences had a birthday on the same day. Hieu turned 15 and Cuong turned 17. So as is our custom, we threw a party (two parties, in fact) to celebrate.

What was really special, though, was that neither of these kids had ever had a birthday party before.

It's hard to imagine growing up without ever receiving gifts and singing the Happy Birthday song... Such a small event in the course of world events, and yet so important to these terrific young guys.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Where the streets have no shame

It's true, I tell you...

The more feather boas, butterflies, tinsel, electrical devices and umbrellas on your bike, the cooler you are.

Imagine the chaos when it rains...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Two shots a day

Last time I was in Hue, my colleague Van and I had a task to complete that ranks up there as among the most difficult things we've had to do.

We wanted to interview Chau, the 17 year old boy who is dying of cancer in his family home by the beach. Chau had been taken to Ho Chi Minh City to work in a garment factory in appalling conditions at the age of 14. He started to get ill a year later, and without any medical attention he was eventually far too sick to work any more. The boss sent him home, which is when we met him and found that he had advanced cancer. I've written about Chau here and here if you want more of the story.

Time is dwindling away now; pain management is all that's left for this boy and his family. After talking to his parents, Van and I decided to interview Chau on video to create a permanent record of what he has been through. He has something to say, so we gave him the chance to be heard.

As we spoke to Chau about his childhood, life in the village, and his time in the factory, we had to keep taking breaks as pain swept through his bones, then subsided long enough to let him talk. I couldn't help but feel like some kind of monster as I pressed Chau for information, asked for more detail, and then waited for him to be able to speak. I don't know how journos can do their job in situations like that.

The purpose of documenting Chau's pain is not just about keeping a record of events. Chau needs an advocate - someone to stand up for him when he cannot stand up for himself. He's been mistreated, and at the very least someone should listen to him.

There was also a very practical outcome of our interview. In this day of modern medicine, nobody needs to be in such pain. For some reason, though, the doctor overseeing his case had prescribed just two shots of morpheine per week. The afternoon that we interviewed Chau, he'd had one of his twice-weekly shots, and was already in agony again just hours later.

It doesn't take a medical degree to see that Chau needed serious relief - but convincing the doctor of that wasn't easy. It took some weeks. But now Chau has been prescribed two shots a day, which has helped enormously to reduce the pain.

Hand in hand with pain relief, of course, comes the morpheine haze and various uncomfortable side effects. Chau's mother and father wait on their son around the clock, massaging him when the pain comes and sitting by his side when they don't know what else to do. We bought the family a TV and DVD player just so that they'd all have something to take their minds off the relentless misery that they are living in.

Such a waste of a valuable life. I know our world is imperfect, but sometimes it's very hard to accept.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Ngoc, Ngoc, and Ngoc

Time for an update on some Blue Dragon kids who I've blogged about in the past...

Ngoc the First

Our "first Ngoc" came to us in late 2005 (see here for the first story); we had rescued Ngoc from child traffickers and, at age 13, sent him to school for the first time in his life. Ngoc's a bright kid - he took to school easily (although he certainly isn't passionate about academics!) and quickly mastered his lessons. Over the last couple of years he has been living in our residence, and growing taller every day... He's about as tall as me now, and he stands head and shoulders over most of our staff! (Brown rice is the secret - I swear it makes a difference).

As the school year draws to an end, Ngoc is doing his Grade 4 exams and planning to head home to Hue for the summer. In September, he'll start Grade 5, which is the final year of Primary School, and then has to decide whether he'll continue at school or switch to vocational training.

Ngoc the Second

In September 2007, Blue Dragon brought a 13 year old boy named Ngoc from Hue to Hanoi for cleft lip surgery. (See some earlier stories here). His family was so poor, and his parents illiterate, so nobody ever took Ngoc for the simple surgery that would have healed his lip. Instead, he was the village outcast. Whenever I visited his home on the sand, I would see adults and children alike mock him. Ngoc had learned to completely tune out - he was often unresponsive to questions and displayed few social skills. He'd never been to school so had no idea how to read and write.

After the surgery, we took Ngoc home to his village, and everything seemed much better. But several weeks later, Ngoc called us to ask if he could come back to Hanoi. He wanted to go to school, which was completely out of the question where he lived. And, although he was being treated much better, he still longed for the respect and care he received while he was with us.

So we agreed, and Ngoc has been living in the Blue Dragon residence ever since. He's about to finish first grade, and he often studies with tutors and social workers at our drop-in centre. I don't think Ngoc has ever been in a fight, and the staff have never had to discipline him for anything! He loves being here, and he's making the most of every opportunity.

Ngoc the Third

In early December 2007, one of our older teen boys, named Ngoc, was stabbed and left for dead by some thugs who had been paid to kill someone with a similar name. The original post is here, with follow up stories here and here. We were all terribly afraid for Ngoc, but he came through (minus a kidney) and is now finishing Grade 11. He seems even thinner than ever, but he's in good health now and looking forward to having a long break over summer.

Sometimes when I talk to Ngoc about his future, he says he'd like to become a lawyer. In just over a year, he'll be sitting exams and preparing to enter uni. Maybe we'll be employing him a s child rights advocate a few years down the track!

Friday, May 02, 2008

She's in!

Today's a big day of celebration for one of our wonderful girls, Duong - she's been accepted into the KOTO training program!

There aren't many programs or opportunities for disadvantaged kids here in Hanoi. One of the challenges for Blue Dragon is finding suitable placements for all the kids who come to us. We don't say no to anyone, so we really do serve a wide range of needs.

Duong has been with Blue Dragon for under a year. She lives with her very poor family on a boat that sits on the Red River; but despite their terrible poverty, Duong is highly motivated. She wants to have a better life, and she's prepared to do something about it.

So she's been coming every day to our centre and taking part in everything that she can: English classes, a cooking club, social activities, and she even completed a short external cooking course to see if she really does want to follow a career in cooking.

Now she's taken a huge step: she's applied for, and been accepted, into KOTO, which runs a 2 year hospitality course. Getting accepted ain't easy - dozens and dozens apply, but there are only about 25 places.

Duong is thrilled - and so are we! This is the start of such an amazing new phase of her life.

Good luck, Duong! The future is yours!

Duong with her acceptance letter

The Blue Dragon cooking club - held every Sunday

Duong's home