Saturday, October 31, 2015

Celebrating a Milestone

We have been volunteering at Reaching Out Vietnam since 2008. But long before we crossed the threshold of this amazing social enterprise Mr. Binh and his wife Quyen established the business with three employees and a grand vision.

Last night, along with their now 70 employees we celebrated the 15th Anniversary of Reaching Out.

The gala was catered, but in concert with the core values of the organization, it was catered by a local charity, Ong Van, (Yellow Bee, or Same Same but Different, depending on who is speaking). This is the group who make the arduous journey up into the mountains to build schools for very poor villages.  It was a huge win-win. Reaching Out got a great party and Ong Van raised funds for yet another school.

Our new friend Thanhhuynh Huynh spearheaded the organization of the event. With a crew of about 30 people, they provided the entire setup, seating, food, music and lights (even fireworks at the right moments!) There were dancers and singers and the crowd of about 100 people loved it!

Even Gao, at 3 years old took up his ukelele to perform with a guitarist. How cute was this!

Everyone was honoured, the long term employees, the sales team, the artisans, the teahouse servers, the volunteers (yes, Bruce and I too) There were gifts and surprises galore.

Binh and Quyen chose the occasion to announce some new benefits including a new Child Care Allowance for all employees with children and an Early Retirement package for employees whose health may prevent them from working until age 60 or 65 years old. We all had a few tears, when Quyen, much to Binh's surprise, included him in the small group. He was touched as we all were by the thoughtfulness and recognition that her husband has toiled for many years in his pursuit to provide better lives for people of disability in Hoi An and beyond. His tireless dedication seems daunting and we are in awe of his accomplishments.

Every employee regardless of length of service received a commemorative plate, a gift certificate and a cactus (symbolic of sustainability)

The gift giving was so well orchestrated. Senior employees had all the gifts organized and recipients names appeared on the screen, along with the names of the presenters. This crew was also on hand to help Bruce and I present the gifts graciously. Photos were fast!

A special guest was Hien, who travelled down from Da Nang. We attended Hien's wedding five years ago. A talented painter, whose work is showcased at Reaching Out, he now has two children.

And then the food! What a spread! And the beer flowed with many Mot Hai Ba's...the traditional toast  ( loosely, two, three drink!)

There were so many photos....these are two of my favourites. The Tea House staff are so very beautiful and gracious and although speech and hearing impaired felt very much a part of all the goings on...every speech and presentation was simultaneously signed....and they too celebrated!

We have learned so much from our Reaching Out family about loving and caring for one another. As the evening wore on and the music lulled into a quiet tune, we just needed to hang on to each other, the amusement of all, we danced on the lawn.

Never did we imagine in 2008 that we would still be working with this wonderful group of people in 2015 and be present for their 15th Anniversary party. 

Donors to Journeys of the Heart through the years have sponsored many of the young people with whom we celebrated last night. They have become skilled artisans, loving people and fully integrated into their communities. Thank you for helping to launch them. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Heroes in Profile

While travelling with Tours of Peace Vietnam Veterans there are many moments of bravery.

Veterans who have survived a war and perhaps years of rehabilitation and healing confront the memories which they have carried for many years.

Each veteran's story is one of courage, either on the battle field or in revisiting the sites where their youthful innocence was lost.

Jess is the Founder and CEO of TOP. He has provided the opportunity for countless veterans to return to Vietnam over the last twenty years. Each trip is planned so that the veterans under his guidance can  return to the exact site (or close to it) where vivid memories were etched in their young hearts so many years ago. Quiet and contemplative, Jess honours each veteran today as he has for so many trips.

Doug on the left and Elliot on the right have both returned to Vietnam twice with TOP. Both are  kind and sensitive to the experiences of all the men on the trip and openly share their feelings and reactions.

Bruce on the left has travelled with TOP 8 times and is now the expert at map reading, research and navigating for all significant sites. Steve on the right has travelled with TOP 4 years in succession, and is now the "glue" for all of the humanitarian project goods.

This is Chuck, another TOP returnee. As you can see he embodies the goodwill and spirit of our humanitarian projects and is the first man in on the fun at orphanages and care homes. He also is an armchair scholar of the Vietnam war and shares valuable data to help us all understand many of the tactical events of the war.

This is Anh. He is a veteran from the Vietnamese side of the conflict. A survivor, as a child of a New Economic zone and labour as a rice farmer, he has grown from an uneducated rural child to become a university graduate, excellent translator and a "miracle" worker in keeping us on track and on time through some precarious travel. Without Anh's resourcefulness, we would not get through all of the regulatory red tape and find the individuals and communities who benefit from our donations.

Heroes all!

Hen gap lai! (See you again!)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Hearts across the Ocean

It is one of our greatest joys while here in Hoi An to witness the impact of sponsorships through Children's Education Foundation.  As many of you know from reading our blogs and from our stories, the mission of this organization is to keep girls from poor families in school so that "they grow to be women with choices."

Our association with CEF has been two fold. We encourage our donors to Journeys of the Heart to direct their funds to this NGO and we work with Linda and her staff on development and organizational issues.

Over the years we have visited many of the girls whose education has been supported by our friends and family and we are so pleased when we see the progress and maturation of these eager girls and young women who treasure their opportunities to stay in school. They see their futures as full of promise, away from early marriage, the back breaking work of growing rice or servitude of other kinds. They do not comprehend their vulnerability to trafficking, but we do.

So when it is possible we leap at the chance to visit the girls in their homes.

This year, as last, we visited Van and her family who live in the fishing village of Cua Dai near the mouth of the Thu Bon river. Meeting Linda and two of her staff at a hotel, we hopped on motorbikes to get to Van's house. What fun it is to mount up and ride in the breeze behind capable drivers like Thuy and Ngoc.

The lanes in the village were a challenge but eventually we arrived at Van's house. They were expecting us and the tea was ready! We were warmly greeted by Van, her Mom and her sweet Grandma.

What makes this visit special is that Van's sponsor who lives in California always makes a special effort to send to us, well in advance of our departure from Salt Spring Island, a gift for Van, pictures of her family and a letter.

Van could read her sponsor's letter in English which delighted us all.

To add poignancy,  Van's sponsor sent a shell from the beaches of Hawaii. The symbolism of the shell was that it had come from a Pacific shore thousands of miles away. We were all connected over the expanse of this great water. Van and CEF staffers, Ngoc and Thuy were mesmerized to hear the ocean sounds in the shell.

Van's sponsor's parents landed in Hawaii after fleeing Vietnam after the war. Here we were, presenting  a shell from Hawaii to Van, who shares a heritage with her sponsor. I was close to tears.

And, as you can see, I was also suffering the heat!! The wet look hairdo is the style that I sport often here in this humid and hot place.

Thank you to Van's sponsor and all of our friends who have committed to keeping a young Vietnamese girl in school.