Sunday, October 28, 2012

These are a few of my favourite things

I realised something important this week: I really, really love the new Blue Dragon centre, Dragon House.

It's still a work in progress, and many things are yet to be done. There's no roof over the front yard to protect the kids from the rain (which is pretty important right now, as Vietnam is being battered by a typhoon!). We need to install safety railings on the rooftop before the kids can use it. The electricity in many parts of the building doesn't work right. And so on.

But all of that is insignificant compared to how brilliantly usable the whole centre is. So I thought I'd commit the literary sin of compiling a list of 'a few of my favourite things' about Dragon House.

1. It has SPACE!

The kids can spread out through the drop-in centre, classrooms, art room, meeting rooms, and open areas. They can chat with their social workers and psychologists, have private meetings, play table tennis, exercise... there are so many new opportunities for the children that they haven't had before.

And an unexpected advantage of all this new space? Staff are reporting less incidence of fighting and arguing among our sometimes-volatile teens. There's now plenty of room to chill out without getting in each other's way!

2.  It has ACCESS!

In Hanoi, the Blue Dragon family includes over 50 kids with all kinds of disabilities; and anyone who has been to the city knows how rare it is to find buildings with disability access.

To enter Dragon House, there are no steps. There's an easy-access bathroom with hand rails  on the ground floor. And there's an elevator to get up to the classrooms and offices. All of which means that kids in wheelchairs can get to just about every room in the building as easily as anyone else.

3. It has PRIVACY!

The week after we moved in, Blue Dragon's anti-trafficking team dealt with 2 separate cases of teenage girls being trafficked into China. There were 2 girls each time, and 1 of them had a baby. However, apart from the staff who were working with them, nobody knew that they were even in the building.

Dragon House includes a room set aside specifically for our anti-trafficking team: the lawyers and psychologist who have so far rescued more than 230 children. Access to the room is fairly discrete; nobody needs to walk through the busy children's areas, or past the offices and meeting rooms.

4. It's huge, but it's humble.

Dragon House looks out over a main road towards Hanoi's Opera House; it's highly visible, which means street kids can find us easily; and it's 6 storeys high.

But this is no luxurious office tower: some floors are bumpy, most walls are still in need of paint, and a lot of the windows and doors really should be replaced. Because we couldn't afford to do that, we brought with us the old windows from our last centre and reused them to save money. Even though they were 5 years old, they were still better than the windows and doors throughout the building!

In my mind that humility is important. Blue Dragon isn't all about a building. We're about helping kids in need. A luxurious building would just be... wrong. And unnecessary.

5. It all happened because of the community.

We knew for almost 2 years that we needed to open a new centre for Hanoi's street kids. While searching for potential land and buildings, we were also talking to potential donors who could provide the funding. A few in particular were quite large organisations which have helped other charities in the region purchase property or build new facilities; and they could easily have helped us achieve our dream of opening this new centre.

But they didn't. They wanted us to remould ourselves to fit into their preconceived ideas of what we should do and how we should look, based mostly on their experience in Cambodia.

We weren't willing to do that, so instead we turned to the international Blue Dragon community for help.

Our friends around the world dug deep. Someone gave $5. Someone gave $30,000. A community group in Australia sent money for kitchen and dining utensils. One foundation in the USA, and another in Germany, sent money for furniture. Everyone gave what they could. We put it all together and it was enough to create something fantastic.

Here in Hanoi, the community helped out in many ways. One company, Uma, painted the classrooms and offices for free, and gave a huge discount on furniture. Ford sent a team of volunteers to assist with the thankless task of cleaning the place. Another company, which doesn't want to be named,  donated about $2000 worth of roofing. The Hanoi Hotel donated enough equipment for an entire kitchen, then paid for a team to come and install it, along with an industrial grade exhaust fan. Several local restaurants and cafes are pitching in with food and drinks for our opening party in a few weeks time.

It feels like all of our friends have joined in to make Dragon House what it is. And that's a beautiful feeling.

Blue Dragon isn't a building. The relationships we build with young Vietnamese people are far more valuable than the bricks and mortar of Dragon House. But it sure is great having a beautiful space where the kids can come to learn, play, and be safe.

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