Monday, April 27, 2009

Lots of news

Lots of great things happening at the moment... Hard to know where to begin!

Starting in central Vietnam, Blue Dragon has just 'officially' opened a new house for a family whose 14 year old son was trafficked to a garment factory but returned home with our help late last year.

I first wrote about this family last year (see this entry here - the family in question is in the 2nd photo). They've gone from a tent to living in the house pictured below... and both of the kids are now studying again. A great result. And I must say a BIG thanks to the Australia / New Zealand Community Group in Hanoi who funded this.

Back in Hanoi, the United Nations International School (UNIS) has allowed us to use their swimming pool for therapy with our disabled kids. Our staff, Phuong, is pictured below with one of the children who has cerebral palsy. (Thank you, UNIS).

And while I'm saying thanks, I should also mention our volunteer Issy who has been doing the most amazing therapy work with several of the Blue Dragon children. That's her below. If only we could keep her with us forever...

In northern Bac Ninh province, where Blue Dragon already supports about 350 school students, we've now made a commitment to extend our work to at least 70 more children in another very poor area of the countryside. I went to meet the principal of one of the schools on Friday, and we went about meeting some families who are really in need of help, fast. In some cases, young teens were living in the care of very elderly grandparents who were struggling to put enough food on the table. Some terribly sad cases.

Given the state of the world's economy, expanding our work to a new area might not be the obvious thing to do - but how could we say no to these kids?

Finally, over the weekend we had a visit from a wonderful group of students at the Hanoi Music Conservatorium. As some of our staff and kids alike are really into music, we decided to throw together a 'music gala' for the children - including a stringed quartet, a drummer, a couple of guitarists and a flautist. What a brilliant Sunday morning it turned out to be! About 15 of our children joined in, with plenty of chances to participate throughout the event.

It's kinda nice having so much good news to report...


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Full circle

One of our 'oldest' kids, a 22 year old boy named Toan, has just started his first part time job outside Blue Dragon.

Toan is the 'oldest' not only because of his age - although he is the oldest of all our beneficiaries. But he's also 'oldest' because he's been in our care longer than any other kid has.

When I first met Toan about 6 years ago, he was living a really tough life. He'd been arrested twice for shining shoes on the streets of Hanoi, but each time had made his way out of the detention centre and back to the city where he was working so that he could go to school.

It was an unusual circumstance: at age 16, Toan had never been to school, and his parents wouldn't let him go - so he ran away to the city, enrolled in a school, and worked on the streets shining shoes to pay for his studies and accommodation.

Now aged 22, Toan is in Grade 7 (he's been studying a compacted curriculum) and determined to get right through High School. Although it's more common for organisations like ours to end support when beneficairies turn 18, we've continued to support Toan because he genuinely wants to go through school, and without support he can't do it. However, he is taking steps to independence and although he's been doing some administrative jobs for us at Blue Dragon, it's time for him to take the next step of working for somebody else.

So this week he has started a part time job, and it's not just any job. Toan is working for another charity: the Australian Charity for Children of Vietnam, or ACCV for short.

ACCV is a fairly small organisation, still getting started in fact, but its founder Alison Vidotto is an absolute dynamo. She's the 'real deal': there's no pretence, no fluff, just a hard working woman with a dream to make life better for blind kids in Vietnam. Simple as that. Check out their website. (They're almost as good as Blue Dragon! Truly!!)

Alison and her daughter Rose have been coming to and from Vietnam a couple of times a year for about 4 years now, and they always drop in at Blue Dragon to see how we are. On their very first visit, they met Toan and were deeply impressed by his passion to be educated. So now that they're growing, and need some on-the-ground support, they have decided to employ Toan as their support staff.

He's still going to school, but has a couple of free mornings each week which he'll now use to arrange deliveries, visit families, and run errands around town.

There's no doubt that Toan is passionate about education. But he has another passion, too: he wants to help other disadvantaged kids so that they can have the chance to go to school, which he missed out on when he was younger. This job gives him exactly that opportunity. He's not only earning some money; he's also helping out people who are more disadvantaged than he is.

I meet a lot of young people who have endured difficult circumstances, but I am not exaggerating to say that Toan's story is one of the most inspiring I have come across. I'm grateful to Alison for giving Toan this chance, and I know that this is just the start of a great new chapter in his life.

Go get 'em, Toan.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Sustain this

Sustainability is one of the buzz words in the world of development organisations - which used to call themselves charities until that word became unfashionable.

The great thing about the word sustainability is that it can mean so many things that in the end, it often means nothing. Blue Dragon recently received a flogging with a very damp kleenex on a public website because, the critic said, our results are unsustainable. And what does that mean? Well, there lies the mystery.

To be a sustainable organisation is often taken to mean that you somehow can pay for your work without having to ask anyone for help. So, for example, a training restaurant is sustainable because (in theory, at least) the income from the restaurant should support all the costs and training expenses needed to run the organisation.

This is a great concept, but how can you apply it to organisations that rescue teenage girls from brothels... or provide heart surgeries for impoverished children... or give a home to abandoned infants? How can they be expected to develop an income stream to pay for themselves?

So being financially sustainable is great, but it by no means should be the measure of how good an organisation is.

And then there's the other common meaning of sustainability: that when your organisation packs up and disappears, the results of your work live on.

Training restaurants again provide a good example of this. Once trainees, who are usually from disadvantaged backgrounds, have completed their training, they can be fully independent and no longer need any support.

Of course, that's a great goal to aim for. But again, not for everyone. What about organisations that care for the elderly? Or people with severe disabilities? Should these groups of people be expected to somehow show a sustainable result?

Last Friday one of our teen boys, Truong, was sprawled out on a sofa in our centre. He's recently dropped out of school and has been doing work experience in the Blue Dragon kitchen. He's 17 years old, and has no idea what he wants to do with his life. So I had a chat with him, and it went something like this (except in Vietnamese, of course):

Me: Do you want to get a proper job in a restaurant?

Truong: No.

Me: What sort of job would you like to have?

Truong: Dunno.

Me: What about a job selling clothes, or working in a shop?

Truong: Yeah, maybe. But I don't really like talking to people.

Me: What about joining a vocational training course?

Truong: I don't know.

... and so on.

We're hardly heading for a sustainable result with this kid, are we?

But then it hit me: millions of parents around the world must have had conversations exactly like this one with their own teens.

Maybe, just maybe, I was once Truong, with no strong passions, no career plans - just an interest in hanging out with friends and listening to music.

So who says that Truong has to somehow fit into the currently-fashionable mold of sustainability? Is it just because he's an abandoned, neglected, impoverished Vietnamese teen that he is expected to be different to any other teenager around the world? Seems to me that he's a perfectly normal teenage boy. And I, for one, have no problem with that.

Could it be that the development consultants, experts and critics around the world would really have such double standards - allowing their own kids to behave like normal people, while demanding that poor kids in developing countries deliver a sustainable result?


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Day One - Cut!

Some great news today about one of our teen boys, Ly, who is 16 and has been living in a Blue Dragon home for over 2 years. Up until recently, Ly was studying in school, but he didn't start Grade 1 until he was 14, so he's quite a bit behind his peers and not so interested in pursuing an academic career.

So today, after a lot of thought and preparation, Ly started in a training course to become a hairdresser.

Day One has been a great success. He's just come back in, all smiles and thrilled to be in a class with just 2 other students. Seems perfect!

This is a 6 month course, so there's a long road to travel, but we're off to the best start we could hope for.


Sunday, April 12, 2009


Hanoi doesn't have many grassroots charities, so Blue Dragon is quite often in a position where we have to deal with every problem that comes our way - whether or not it's strictly part of our mission, or we have staff to deal with it.

An issue we have faced over the past few years has been how to help very young children whose families are in messy situations. Children aged as young as 5 or 6 have been turning up at our drop-in centre because their parents have died, or are sick, or are in prison, and they've been left in the care of a widowed elderly grandparent who has to work on the streets in order to survive.

Having preschoolers at the centre takes us away from providing a safe place for street kids; the little guys need a very different type of care and supervision. And our usual goals of leading the kids to greater independence, and encouraging self-motivation, just don't apply!

However, providing care to these children is still a terrific thing to do. Turning them away just isn't an option.

During 2008, we had a husband and wife team volunteering with us through VSO (the English volunteer program). Elaine was a school teacher, with a long history of caring for kids with special needs. She personally put in a huge effort with one little boy named Hai who was coming to our centre every day. Hai was so tiny that he looked much more like a 4 year old than a 6 year old; and he so badly lacked social skills that for the first 6 months of him coming to us, he had virtually no communication at all, with anyone. He wouldn't say a word, and he wouldn't look any of us in the eye.

Thanks in very large part to Elaine's efforts, Hai is a completely different child now. He runs about the centre, chattering and playing with stuffed animals like any normal child. And, also thanks to Elaine, our staff are well trained in working with Hai and know how to get through to other children with similar difficulties.

More recently, a little girl has also been coming to the centre every day: Hong, also just 6 years old. She had a wild gleam in her eyes when she first turned up. Her hair was tangled and her clothes were filthy, and her two main emotions were "disengaged" and "angry". The way she lectured and spanked the stuffed toys gave us a fairly good idea of what her home life was like.

But she, too, has undergone something of a transformation. She now smiles widely when she sees the staff; she wants to be picked up and hugged, and she treats the toys now with child-like concern for their welfare. Just like any little girl of the same age.

Having Hong and Hai at the centre made the place much noisier, and the staff have definitely been kept on their toes. But during this last week, our centre suddenly became much quieter.

Hong and Hai have both improved so much in their social skills that they are ready now for preschool. Until recently, no preschool would accept them. They couldn't interact with other children, and needed too much care and attention to fit in.

Remarkably, though, their first week at preschool has been fine, even though the school year is nearing the end. It's still early days, of course, but some early intervention seems to have had a pretty good result.

This might not be what Blue Dragon was set up for, but helping out these two preschoolers has undoubtedly been the right thing to do.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Fame and fortune

Well, OK, maybe not really. But here's an article that's just come out in East&West Magazine:


Sunday, April 05, 2009

New heights

Blue Dragon's soccer team started in early 2003, long before "Blue Dragon" was even a legal entity. At the time, some of my friends and I were teaching English, maths and art to street kids and the rooms we were using just wouldn't hold any more students. So someone came up with the idea of taking it to the soccer field.

Our very first game was not spectacular: just 3 kids turned up. We played on a dirt field, in bare feet, and had a great time.

Since then, we've played 600 games. Yes, 600! - at least 2 games each week, and in the last 6 years there have only ever been a few weeks that we didn't play at all.

The original idea of the soccer was to offer some recreation to street kids, who don't have many safe or legal avenues to have fun. That's still one of our goals, but today the soccer serves as an outreach to street kids and young people around Hanoi's Phuc Tan area - one of the most socially disadvantaged areas of the city. Some weeks we have to sweep aside the discarded syringes before the kids can play; the area around the field is something of a hot spot for heroin users, some of whom come and join in the games.

From our first Sunday game with 3 kids, we've grown quite a bit. For a long time our record number of players was 64, but last week 75 kids turned up and today the number was around 65. We still play on a dirt field, but these days the kids wear shoes thanks to sponsorship we've had from a couple of organisations, including Catholic Relief Services and Asia Pacific Sports Management in Singapore.

Asking the Blue Dragon staff to turn up at a football field at 7.30am every Sunday hasn't been as much of a problem as you might expect. There's a trio who organise and run the games - Tho, Tung, and Diep - and usually a couple of volunteers turn up to help too. Tho and Diep have even received some training by the British Council's Premier League coaching program, so now the games start with a fun warm up and basic training.

As simple as it all is, the soccer games are fantastic: they let street kids come and meet us on familiar turf, and give working kids an hour of no-strings-attached fun. And if only it was held at a more reasonable hour, I might even get down there more often myself!


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

A birthday first

On Monday, we had a real cause for celebration: the very first birthday of Dong, one of the teenage boys living in our Hanoi shelter.

Dong has never had a birthday before. Until late last year, he never had a birth certificate, so our staff member Van travelled around the countryside to work with the police and government officials in order to do the impossible: obtain a birth certificate for a 14 year old boy who has no close relatives in existence.

To settle on the actual date, Dong just had to take a guess. He did have a fairly good idea of the year, though.

And so, what should have been his 15th birthday was actually his first. At last, Dong has an annual milestone to look forward to (or, as those of us on the wrong side of our 20s would say: dread).

It might not seem like such a big thing, but imagine a childhood with no birthdays. Imagine not really being sure of your age, and of having nobody notice that you're another year older.

Dong's party was like all the rest: some terrible singing, some corny speeches, loads of food, and some presents. What a terrific event in the life of this wonderful kid.