Since the year 2000, I have been sponsoring Thi-Lan Nguyen (Lan) through World Vision as part of their child sponsorship program. Having been involved with World Vision before as a volunteer and later as a youth representative, I knew the program benefited the entire community where my sponsored child lives, and as I read the improvements on the communities, I grew curious of what the actual project was like. So in 2004, I hopped on a plane and paid the community a visit.
Lan lives in a town called Ming Tien within the Phuc Cu district, located in northern Vietnam some 80 KMs out of Hanoi. With a population of 88,164, most families are farmers. World Vision started the project in 1999, working with the community to achieve better health and nutrition, education resources, and food security by providing training for better farming knowledge, better quality teaching and nutritional education to families to prevent malnutrition and diseases.
World Vision came to pick me up in Hanoi. On the way to our destination, I was already confronted by the poor living conditions of this area. Roads were narrow and in some parts, muddy and slippery when wet; the mud brick houses were old, dirty and some falling apart. We visited the school first. It was a Monday afternoon and I saw that Lan and her classmates were scribbling down simple maths equations in their notebooks. The headmaster, aware of my arrival, stepped out of his office to welcome me with open arms.
After a few rounds of hand shaking and exchange of greetings with various staff members, we were offered tea while the headmaster informed me on the current status of the school (through an interpreter). The school has years 1 to 5 for primary school and 6 to 9 for junior high. There are around 550 enrolled students; however attendance is usually poor. The school used to be overcrowded with only 4 class rooms and a small toilet lacking proper hygiene. The project had since helped build a new building for classes as well as a new toilet. I was accompanied by the headmaster on a stroll through the school grounds – which were only as big as an average block of land back home; visiting classes and school storage rooms.
As I watched the children, I saw happiness. These children were happy to be at school, they were eager to learn and participate. The headmaster told to me that some of the children sometimes have to miss school for a few weeks to help their family with farm work and some children can’t afford to come to school. That’s why these children in school were happy to be there, to be learning something new, something exciting. Before World Vision’s involvement, teaching quality had been poor as most of the teachers have not had formal teaching training. World Vision has provided training, improving teaching quality and hence the school now has the ability to teach more advanced subjects.
I scanned my surroundings: the school grounds were small, and equipment used was old, yet, they all seemed so happy, so satisfied that at least they were getting an education. It makes one ponder: what have we got to complain about, when we have so much of everything and they have so little? Why did I ever complain that I had to go to school, when there are kids who are so eager to learn and wanting to exceed?
During a class break, a shy Lan appeared at the door way to the office. I was glad to finally be meeting her. She is a timid and quiet girl who smiled a beautiful smile. I brought some little gifts for her and her brother, some Aussie t-shirt and pencils and soft toys, all of which she accepted gracefully; I also had with me a box full of school supplies such as notebooks and colouring pencils for the rest of the school. Looking back, these gifts probably wouldn’t have been as valuable to a child who simply needed life’s basic supplies. I looked around me and wished that I could donate a small soccer field or something, or a piano for musical education, or better school grounds. As if reading my mind, she took me hands and smiled, expressing her gratitude.
After the school, we visited the community medical centre, which was a small building with chipped cement walls and fading paint equipped with a small medicine cabinet with supplies donated by various charities, and a room with four beds – iron bed frame rusty with age, fitted with thin wood boards. The community suffers from a particular eye condition mainly caused by cooking with hay in a poorly ventilated room. The medical centre, with the aid of World Vision, conducts hygiene and medical education to prevent the spread of this eye disease. They also have been educating families on malnutrition and AIDS. There is only one doctor available for this region, however having to juggle three communities the doctor only comes by twice a week.
As part of the World Vision project, families in this area also receive individual aid from World Vision to assist with their living conditions. We visited two such families. The first family had borrowed money from World Vision to purchase a cow for future investment. The house they live in, (as with all other houses here) is a cement house resembling a box. In here, they had fitted 2 large beds for 5 people, and in a corner, a coffee table and some low stools used for meals as well as guest seating with no tab water and no TV; behind the house were their stock houses where they had pigs, chickens and cats. The family was extremely positive about this cow. They were confident the cow would help them to have a better life condition and be able to repay World Vision sometime next year when the cow could have a baby. The kids were so fascinated by my camera they all wanted to look through the screen. They all seemed so happy, happier than many who have much more in our own societies.
The second family received assistance from World Vision to build a well. Previously they had been drinking water from their pond and with obvious reasons their children were often sick with stomach infections. After this well had been built they were able to use this water for drinking purposes and the pond water for agricultural purposes. When I arrived at this house, I saw them cooking. They were cooking in this very small, hay stacked, poorly ventilated room. All they had to cook with is a small brick stove on the ground with hay-burnt fire, and the room has already been blackened by the soot generated by this fire. A girl knelt in front of the fire contently cooking fish cakes, and I thought once again, how lucky of us to have gas to cook with.
I cannot say I have expressed my emotions and my feelings very well here. It’s all quite built up in me, a mixture of gladness, sadness, and all other little feelings that I do not have names for. I feel happy to have had the opportunity to visit this community, to see charity at work, to hear first hand, how my sponsorship has made a difference. I have always known that I am very lucky and in fact, probably even luckier in comparison to the other people in the same society as me. I never had to worry about education, jobs, and my next meal. Somehow, all through my life, I have always gotten the education I required, the jobs I wanted and never once did I have major difficulty in getting some money together for food and other little life’s luxuries. This visit to Phuc Cu has confirmed this, and made the feeling ever more etched into me. The opportunities I had in life, the opportunity to learn, to see, to develop, were never a question. I have people to support me, people to love me and friends to be my shoulders to lean on when things don’t go well.
Sometimes I wish I could do so much more for the people in this world, who do not have what I have.
This article is not an advertisement for World Vision. It is an advertisement for works of the NGO around the world. For myself personally, it was through World Vision that I had the opportunity to visit the community in Vietnam.
Postscript: Thi-Lan’s project finished in 2005 when World Vision declared the community to be self-sufficient and sustainable.