Hong Bang

Monday, 23 Oct 2017

Dung OVDung, 2010-2011

Volunteering for a non-profit overseas had always been on my to do list after college graduation. It was not until after five years of working as a special education teacher in California that I finally took the dive to apply. I applied to Hong Bang first because I wanted to come back to Vietnam to deepen my understanding of my roots. Second, the story of its formation and mission statement resonated with me. So began my one year volunteer journey in my native country, which was challenging, inspiring, exhausting and rewarding.

We knocked on a slightly closed door which was poorly attached to the cracking frame of a red clay house with straw roof. A girl, about 10, in school uniform, white shirt and blue pants, opened the door greeted us. We asked where her parents were to which she pointed towards a distant field. They had gone to work for the day harvesting almonds. She was home alone to watch her 13 year-old brother who paced back and forth spitting on the ground and flapping his hands in a pen of approximately 6ft x 6ft built for him in the back of the house. It smelled of urine and feces. This was one of my first family visits as a Hong Bang volunteer in Vietnam.

My main assignment in Vietnam directly related to my line of work in the U.S. as a special education teacher. I was fortunate to be working with Sister Mai Huong, one of the first few professionally trained special educators in the Vietnam. I joined Sister Mai Huong from Van Phong Xa Hoi in carrying out a newly funded project to help children with disabilities and their families in rural communities. The project was called, “Giao Duc Hoa Nhap Cong Dong”, which roughly translates to “Education and Inclusion of children with disabilities in the Community.”

We visited a total of 76 children with a variety of disabilities in three main rural regions: Central highlands, South West, and the Mekong Delta. The children we visited generally have intellectual disabilities or physical disabilities or both. Some families, like that of the siblings described above, have built a pen in the back of the house to contain their child, who would urinate and defecate in the same area. Others simply lock their kids inside the house while they go to harvest the seasonal crops. Some communities do not even see these children as fully human beings. Over the course of visiting these homes and listening to the parents, I realized that these parents had little choice but to do what they needed to do. In areas, such as My Hoi, near the Mekong Delta, children with disability must be kept locked up to prevent them from running outside and accidentally drowning in a waterway. In rural communities where resources are limited, it was difficult to convince parents to invest time, resources and effort to help the child with disability when they have four other able children to feed and worry about. How could you justify something like that in a practical sense other than that we need to develop compassion for those less able than we are. I felt hopeless at times and questioned whether the goal of the project was too idealistic.

Despite what seemed like insurmountable problems, I felt inspired by the sisters of the Daughter of Charity who seemed to work tirelessly to serve the poor and the disabled. It was as if the result does not matter. We just do our part to the best of our ability, and hope that life will turn out for the better. Change starts small. As a result of our project, a few of the children we worked with were able to write their names for the first time. Others learned to feed themselves and put on their own clothes. A few were provided with walkers so they could learn to walk. Those with visual and hearing impairment were referred to special boarding schools so they can learn to read and write. Parents were comforted to know that they are not alone and that there is hope for their child to develop if they just put in some time and effort.

My one year in Vietnam was short. Yet, it was enough time for me to realize the hardships and struggles of the Vietnamese living in rural areas, specifically those with disabilities. It was enough time for me to develop a deep sense of gratefulness for the abundance we have here in the states. It was enough time for me to be humbled by the selflessness of the sisters. In the near future, I hope to return to Vietnam and continue my work with other HB volunteers who share a similar passion for working with children with disabilities.