Tuesday, October 11, 2016

From One School District to Another Far Away

Our friend Lydia Dean (founder of GoPhilanthropic, a successful philanthropic travel organization and charitable foundation) told us some years ago "It is all a matter of connecting the dots." I think she says the same thing in her memoir, Jumping the Picket Fence, when discussing getting things done in developing countries by supporting local, grassroots organizations. If one invests the time for deep listening to ascertain core values, operational integrity and current and longer-term needs, one discovers the most appropriate and engaging ways to encourage local groups. Soon the right people are in the right place, at the right time, with the right funds! Concern for education, the rights of women and girls and most recently anti-child trafficking efforts have kept us in close touch with Lydia and our networks which are growing in size and strength.

My story this week is about how one of those miraculous networks, with paths of connecting dots, helped to build another school in the Highlands of Central Vietnam.

Here was the challenge. This, believe it or not, is the former functioning school in a remote mountain village.

DOT #1 A few years ago I noticed, in the town of Hoi An, often on a Sunday, a gang of young people dressed in t-shirts which read "Same Same But Different." I was intrigued by their energy and laughter as they assembled on a street corner. I remember asking one young woman what they were all about. Of course, I asked in English and got a shrug in response. Once again I wished that I could get my tongue around the Vietnamese language. 

DOT #2 It took months of patching information together, but with the help of Quyen and our Vietnamese family we got it sorted. "SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT" is the slogan of a local group of volunteers with an organization called ONG VANG. www.ongvangcharity.org. 

I liked the idea of local, young Vietnamese working on a volunteer basis to help their less advantaged countrymen. Unbeknownst to me, Quyen and Binh and their staff at Reaching Out, www.reachingoutvieetnam.com, were supporting Ong Van!

DOT #3 Then we met Thanh Huynh. 

Thanh Huynh spearheads many Ong Vang charitable events in Hoi An, but what interested me most was what I was beginning to learn about the living conditions of the mountain people in Central Vietnam, the appalling conditions of their schools and the herculean tasks that Thanh and his crews were faced with in building new schools. Just look at the muck, the live electrical cords in the muck, the sandaled feet. And, all of the materials are hauled up the mountain by hand.

DOT #4 My sister and her husband are retired teachers in Ontario. Of course, they too were riveted by the pictures and stories that I have been posting about what these young people are doing to provide weatherproof shelter in which mountain children could learn. 

DOT #5 District 26 Kenora RTO/ ERO. The local Kenora chapter of the Retired Teachers organization of Ontario has recently, once again, responded to our plea for funds to build another school. This vital and active organization helps retired educators to remain engaged in the world and our projects in Vietnam fit the bill!!! Lured by a delicious basket of goodies as a raffle prize, put together by my sister, the group raised significant funds to sponsor school #9 in the highlands.

And so, despite foul weather the SAME SAME gang set off up the mountain to once again, against all odds, build a school and playground. Thank you!  District 26 Kenora RTO/ERO

 The children were fed. Looks like someone donated jackets this time as well.

You, your organization, your family, your class, your network could be DOT # 6, 7, 8, 9, 10!!! Let's help ONG VANG build more schools.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Taking Care of Ut

We first met Ms. Ut at the Hoi An Home for the Aged and Disabled in 2006 while on a tour with TOP  Vietnam Veterans, our first trip to Vietnam. As the name implies, the home is a pretty basic care facility for "orphans": people of disability or the aged who do not have family to care for them. Staff do their best to provide nourishment, shelter and personal care under difficult conditions and with inadequate funding.

However, Ut and many of the residents showed the resilience we find so admirable in the Vietnamese.   Our group in 2006 was greeted with welcoming smiles and those who were able came forward to shake our hands, to show us their rooms, to share small stories which because of our lack of skill in the Vietnamese language were short, often befuddled and funny. But we did make friends and over the subsequent 9 years, Ut became a very special friend indeed.

We visited annually with TOP and witnessed a special bond grow between Ut, Jess Devaney, TOP's founder and Vu Duc Anh our guide. Ut seemed to be the center's Ambassador of cheer. She embraced all of the TOP trippers and had a great fondness for Bruce.

 When we first met Ut she used blocks of wood to get around. A double amputee, she lost her lower limbs to a landmine when she was fifteen during the war. Since then she has resided at the home. Thanks to TOP, Ut was given a wheelchair which opened up her world. During our subsequent visits and long stays in Hoi An, Bruce and I would often see Ut as we rode by on our bicycles, visiting with her friends the street vendors across the road. She always waved, flashed her big smile and shouted greetings to us.

Sadly, on our visit in September 2015 we learned that Ut has liver cancer. Here she is though, with Anh, Marsha Devaney and Jess Devaney on that day, still smiling.

But there were tears after the smiles. Ut knew that her cancer was terminal and some of our group members knew that this would probably be the last time they would see Ut. 

When Bruce and I returned to Hoi An in early 2016 a visit to Ut was high on the list. Ut had failed dramatically. She was very thin and confined to her bed and in severe pain.

It was time to set the wheels in motion. Anh, our TOP guide and dear friend in Ho Chi Minh City helped us (as did the staff and our family at Reaching Out) with coming to understanding with the Director of the home and his Head Nurse what medications Ut needed to supplement her nutrition and to ease her pain. Anh, the Director and Head Nurse worked out with the Doctor how the medications might be procured. Bruce and I sent the word to our network of TOP tour participants to generate the necessary funds. The team at Reaching Out provided us with translators for our visits with Ut and they also added funds from their own charitable foundation.

 It is worthy to note that Reaching Out, a social enterprise which we began to serve in 2006, has grown to 70 staff and because of their success are now at a point where the staff themselves volunteer in community outreach to persons of disability and they are able to support others financially.

The network responded and Ut has had medications since March. Miraculously she lives on, although our friends in Hoi An were deeply saddened on their last visit to see her distended abdomen and her frailty. This picture was a clarion call and more donations were sent to ensure that these last days will be as comfortable as possible for dear Ut.

Ut has been a great teacher. By example, she has shown us all how life can be rich and full of laughter. She has shown us grace despite her humble life and her painful ending.

  Thank you Ut. And thank you to TOP trip participants, Anh, the Reaching Out staff and the Director of the Hoi An Home for facilitating our gift giving and delivering the medications that Ut has needed. Blessings to all.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Up the Mountain Once Again

Whenever I hear that our friend Thanhhuynh Huynh and his stalwart group of volunteers, the gang from Yellow Bee (or in Vietnamese Ong Vang) are headed up into the mountains again, I pray for good weather in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. This rugged territory is unfriendly at the best of times, but in a downpour, it becomes a treacherous climb, especially if you are carrying a cooler full of fresh vegetables and fruit.

Deep in the jungles transportation is often limited to feet and/or water craft to ford the rivers. Look at the free board here..about six inches I think and the oarsman is all of 10 years old!

These pictures were taken on the most recent (mid-May, 2016) reconnaissance trip to a remote village. There is often skepticism along with the curiosity of the villagers. Visitors are rare and as many ethnic tribes converse in their native dialect there are communication hurdles to be overcome.

Once in the village, the first priority is to feed the children. All ingredients have been packed in; including fresh chickens and vegetables for a hearty soup. I think that the prep-cooks are sitting in front of the building currently used as a school. The fire builders have gathered the wood and are building the fire for the huge soup pot. 

Ah....delicious soup. Not a spec is wasted. Bruce and I have not been in villages this remote, but we have on occasion been part of a team offering lunch to poor kids in schools and I can attest to the fact that the parents looking on are grateful, whilst masking their own hunger.

While the kids are fed, the crew are scouting out what needs to be done to build a proper school. And this time, they are also setting up for the evening's treat. Somehow this group of intrepid volunteers has hauled in a screen and a way of showing cartoons!

Journeys of the Heart donors have been generous in the past supporting the building of schools in these villages.

If I am following the often poor translation on Thanhhuynh's Facebook, this village will get a school in February. Wouldn't it be great if it could be a Journeys of the Heart school?

E-mail us at elainehead43@gmail if you can help!!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

One More Delivery!!!

It is time to say goodbye to all of our friends in Vietnam for another year, but we were able, thanks to the help of a team of people, to deliver much-needed medicine to the Quang Nam Home for the Elderly and Disabled yesterday.This was a special delivery from the Tours of Peace Vietnam Veterans (TOP) Legacy Fund.

The tireless Vu Duc Anh in Saigon managed all of the ordering and delivery to Hoi An, not only of the medicines, but also a new water filter which will be located in the home in a more accessible spot for those whose disabilities make it difficult for them to make the trip to the dining room where the current and only filter resides.

It was an adventure going to the depot where the box of medicines had been delivered. Our taxi driver was very confused, as were we when we got to the first but wrong place. Things are delivered by bus and end up in one of many little passenger pick up places throughout the town. At last, we got to the right location. We had been told that there would be a long wait as hundreds of packages arrive daily. We would have to show our Passport as ID. Bruce was busy dismissing the confused driver, when I yelled across the street, "No...have him wait...she has found it". When I had walked into the tiny dark office, the young woman asked, "Who for the package?" I said "Bruce Logan." "Oh, I know" was the reply and from behind the iron grid she carried the rather large box...no signature, nothing...off we went again with the now very befuddled taxi driver who kept wanting to take us back to An Bang Beach. The Home was only another six blocks...but when I gave him a 50,000 VND tip he was all smiles!

The Director and Head Nurse ushered us into the main meeting room where we exchanged pleasantries and we proffered the box of medicines for the general populace of the home and a sum of money for the end-of-life care for a very special lady.

Ut has been a friend of TOP, its Founder Jess Devaney, Anh our fearless guide and all of the TOP participants over the years. A double amputee, the result of a land mine in the war when she 15 years old, she has lived since that time in the centre. Ut always greeted our group with huge smiles of recognition. Sadly, Ut has liver cancer and is failing quickly. Our cash donation will ensure that she has the medicine she needs for as much comfort as possible in her last months.

The smile in this picture is because we are showing her a photo of Jess, his wife Marsha and the TOP guide Anh on our last visit in October 2015.

Ut also managed a smile when I kissed her "night, night" and covered her up for her afternoon nap.

Thank goodness our friends at Reaching Out were able to send along a translator and a photographer. We could tell Ut about our sorrow, our love for her and that she would have the medicine she needed to help her digest her food and to relieve pain.

Thank you, to everyone, the TOP legacy group, Anh our master tactician, Reaching Out for translation and photos and to one taxi driver who hung in there!!! 

Hen gap lai nam sau!   See you next year!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

We Deliver

We have been working with the Reaching Out Vietnam team again, of course, this year. As usual, there are a number of things going on, the most exciting of which is the launching of the new website. Have a look at www.reachingoutvietnam.com. In addition, we have discussed packaging, signage, and the new on-line catalogue which will be up and running in a couple of months. With the catalogue, we are hoping to reach a much broader audience of customers around the world.  "Strengthening the Brand" is one of the terms that we have become familiar with. We want our slogan to be top of mind for people in the know about authentically made crafts and social enterprises gaining popularity with travellers to SE Asia. As strong as Nike's Just Do It ! We have big dreams at Reaching Out.

"Gifts That Give Twice", refers to the "social" aspect of the business. While our customers and their friends receive beautifully made memories of Hoi An, our disabled artisans and servers are given the gift of opportunity, training and meaningful employment which enables them to live independent lives.

All of this marketing and advertising has made us think....maybe Journeys of the Heart should also have a slogan or tagline. This week  "We Deliver" sounds good!!!

Bruce and I consider ourselves the delivery people for all of our supporters and donors. And what a joy it is to deliver your love, your kindness and your generous gifts.

Here is an e-mail that we got just the other day from Linda at Children's Education Foundation.

I just wanted you to know that we still have money left from V 's donation and attached are some photos related to the spending of her money on books so far. 

The money was spent for book boxes and books for the boxes. They have gone to a pagoda in Thang Binh. Children from three surrounding communities will come there to borrow books. 

The remaining money will be spent on more book boxes and books also. 

Love and thanks for your help for us to get this wonderful donation, and big thanks to V.

CEF takes such good care of the books. Each one is covered and then bagged to protect it against the unrelenting moisture in this tropical environment. The girls whose education is sponsored by donors to CEF have the privilege of signing out books and they even sign a contract about how they will care for the books until they are returned to the "library"....big plastic buckets at this pagoda.The library shelves are at the CEF office in Hoi An. There is such excitement when the girls choose their books and the smiles let us know that they will enjoy reading.

We feel useful and gratified when we receive notes like the following from donors who entrust us to get their dollars to the people "on the ground" who can directly put the funds to work. The following note came from the benefactor of these library books.

Such news and comments always move me to tears…that a gift of $$ that I do not need, could mean and do so much for girls far away. Thank you for all you do in the sharing our many blessings.

Journeys of the Heart has been a principle donor to this program, started a few years ago, in memory of a dear friend by her book club members who provided the early funds. Since then, Canadian friends who support literacy have been faithful donors and our friend V has just made another considerable contribution. 

For three years in a row now we have been "couriers" for a friend in California who sponsors a student living in a nearby fishing village of Cua Dai. L sends us letters and gifts for Van before we leave for Vietnam. Once here we are her emissaries, mounting up on motorbikes with CEF staff to wind our way down the lanes to Van's house. Just look at the smile as she, with Granny paying close attention, opens L's letter. L always sends pictures of her young family. Van's English is improving to the point where she can read L's letters from start to finish. Van is maturing and becoming a very beautiful teenager. She is taking advanced physics and chemistry this year...a very promising scholar who spends six days a week in school.We can talk together through the skillful translation of CEF staff and on every visit we are endeared by this lovely young woman, whose family is grateful for the educational assistance for Van. They are VERY proud of her, especially Granny.

Sometimes we deliver both donors and their gifts to the right places!!! Recently we accompanied Ann Wittmeyer, from Buffalo, to Nha Trang where her father served during the war. Ann made the trip to walk in her father's footsteps. She would have come with TOP Tours of Peace Vietnam Veterans had they had a scheduled trip this year, but as they did not Bruce, an experienced deputy leader for TOP took on the job. Ann, in TOP and Journeys of the Heart tradition, collected a huge suitcase full of goodies from family and friends  which we helped her deliver to the Hoi An Home for the Elderly and Disabled and the Kianh Foundation. There were also generous cash gifts.

Buffalo and Ann's friends there, gave from the heart and we were so happy to be able to share "our" Vietnam with her.

Every year, it is, as the expression goes here "Same, Same but Different".

So, let us know what you think of our slogan..."WE DELIVER"....we hope to be delivering for years to come!!!!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

International Women's Day, March 8th 2016

How lovely to be in Vietnam once again on International Women's Day! As with every holiday, celebration or anniversary, the Vietnamese create a very festive day to honour their women. Women are honoured in their homes by husbands, sons, fathers, uncles and at work by co-workers, bosses and each other!! Flowers, the expected and most usual gift, appear everywhere on the streets. Vendors peddle everything from single roses to elaborate assorted bunches and breathtaking arrangements.

I spent time on Women's Day and over the days since, in reflection, grateful for all the women in my life, and in particular,  all the strong, creative, dedicated women whom I have met through my work and adventures here in Vietnam.

Etched in my heart is the brief time that I spent with women in a brick-making facility. The women work from 7 am until 2 pm daily with no breaks. They earn the equivalent of about $150 dollars a month. But they were proud, cheerful and very welcoming. Quyen and I were invited into the facility where we were enticed to "haul bricks" with them. They laughed when I grabbed small piles of wet clay bricks and added them to the carts heading for the kiln. I gasped as I watched them shove the trolley weighing at least a ton, by hand into the furnace. Such big smiles of accomplishment when we praised their work and we laughed together about their strong muscles and my flaccid old ones.

Another image from that day remains with me. The woman pictured below is about 65 years old. She was our hostess on a visit to Dai Loc. Wife of our host, she was not introduced, but smiled in welcome. While we went to view their considerable holdings outside of the town, she stayed home to cook and not until we were all seated and served did she shyly join us at the table. The house was large and airy accommodating our hosts, their son, his wife and three boys. But she cooked as her mother and grandmother had cooked, outside, preparing and chopping the food on a banana leaf and using a charcoal burner.

Not only are they trojans when it comes to physical work, many women in Vietnam are now also very astute business women, buying and selling real estate and running large factories and companies.

Yes, no doubt about the strength of these women who in a very real way are the backbone of the country.  But it is in the end, family, which is the focus for most Vietnamese women. Grandmothers, mothers, daughters, sisters all caring for one another from one generation to the next.

I have also been proud of the young women who have joined us on this Journey of the Heart. Bruce's granddaughter Keryn shared her knowledge of nutrition with staff of both Reaching Out and Children's Education Foundation. It warmed my heart to see her reaching across the gap of language and culture to promote healthy lifestyles for young girls and the disabled.

Most recently Bruce and I have been hosting Ann Wittmeyer, the daughter of a US Army Veteran. She came to Vietnam to walk in her father's footsteps. Denny Wittmeyer served in Nha Trang in 1966 and 1967. Not only did we visit his sites there but here in Hoi An, Ann joined us on visits to the home of a disabled child, Reaching Out Craft Shop and Tea House, the Hoi An Home for the Aged and the Kianh Foundation ... a school and rehabilitation center for disabled children. Everywhere we went, Ann brought her wide smile, gifts and financial donations.

Yesterday I was reminded of the grace and elegance of Vietnamese women as I watched a small troupe of Cham dancers at the Cham Towers in Nha Trang. These relics remain from the 1000 year era of Cham domination. An ethnic group, whose religion is a hybrid of both Hindu and Islam, is endeavouring to maintain their culture.

And so my dear women, I salute you, my sisters, my soul sisters, my daughters, my friends, my colleagues. I am grateful for your companionship, your generosity and your grace. I thank you for making me smile!

And perhaps I can make you smile....this is a typical Vietnamese male. After a brief introduction on his drum, he switched on some recorded music and attentively supported the dance troupe.