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Working with children in DaNang

Listed under Volunteering Opportunities in Da Nang, Vietnam.

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Kim was fourteen. Or maybe 20. Or possibly somewhere in between.

Kim was severely autistic. He weighed only 22kgs. No-one knew Kim’s real story. He couldn’t speak, and the only sounds he made were grunts. He had no birth certificate. There was no official record of where and when he was born.

Kim lived in the Social Support Centre for disadvantaged people in the city of DaNang in Central Vietnam. I was there to help him and others less fortunate than myself. I discovered that he was young man with an engaging personality and his own needs. But he wasn’t the only one who helped make my time as a volunteer stimulating and rewarding.

I spent a month in Vietnam with GVN, Global Volunteer Network, a New Zealand based NGO. I went with the expectation of spending most of my time working with babies and small children in an orphanage and helping teach English. I knew helping the disabled would be part of my duty as a volunteer, but I hadn’t been prepared for the emotional tug this would bring, nor how much pleasure I would get from working with these young people.

I saw malformed and ill babies, healthy babies, sad children, happy children, toddlers reaching out to new experiences as well as disabled young people. Our role as volunteers was to help feed and change the children, to stimulate and encourage them. We sang to them, played with them, read to them, laughed with them and cuddled them. We took them for walks, helped those with physical handicaps do simple exercises and generally helped wherever there was a need.

At 68 years old I was the oldest volunteer in our group – by a year. The remaining helpers ranged in age from eighteen to thirty-five. We came from a variety of countries, from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, England and one from Austria. Our backgrounds were all different – school leavers on a gap year, teachers, a retired librarian (me), a journalist, office workers, university students – we were all women, except one eighteen year old male, although there were other males working with GVN in other centres. One of the few requirements was that we were English speakers.

Those of us volunteers who worked in DaNang shared a house provided by the organisation. Our meals were provided – we had two lovely lady Vietnamese cooks who looked after us well – and the food was delicious. Each day we were transported to our place of work. We worked to a timetable so we had a variety of venues. And in the evenings some of us, even though we were not qualified teachers, taught English at a local University. The students there were very keen to learn conversational English – and that is something I excel at my family and friends say! It was a great chance to meet young Vietnamese students and to find out a little of their lives, so very different from our own.

And with free weekends we were able to explore the country – Hoi An, an ancient port with charming narrow alleys and delicious food - and China Beach just down the road. There were trips to Hue a wonderful historic city, Hanoi full of bustle, crazy traffic, charm and energy…

Volunteering in a foreign country has so many benefits, both for the recipients and the volunteers. It fosters an understanding and a respect for different cultures. It opens up opportunities to try things you might not have tried before. Age, gender and race is not a barrier. There are organisations that offer short or long term stints, different places and different experiences. If you have a leaning towards a different way of travel, why not consider volunteering? It opened up a new world for me. And I’m planning to do it again – and again – and again.

As for the highlights – there are almost too many to list. Living and working in a strange country was a highlight – getting to know the local people, eating the food, learning to negotiate the traffic (crossing the streets is an extreme sport) – exploring the surrounding countryside, swimming at China Beach… I loved working with the toddlers – to have a smiling child reach his arms out to be picked up, to see, a baby taking her first steps, to hear a small Vietnamese child say a few words in English, even if it was only “No” as he wagged his finger at me, or “Bye” as he waved goodbye. Seeing the joy on a disabled child’s face when she managed to crawl a short distance for the first time. Living in a houseful of young people was marvellous. I now have so many young friends scattered around the world to visit, or to be visited by.

But the biggest highlight of all was something that happened after I left Vietnam. Kim, who had been getting progressively thinner and more lethargic, was diagnosed with severe anaemia. The doctor, and two of the young volunteers who had taken a special interest in him donated blood. The last I heard he was thriving. A young volunteer took him to the beach, his first ever visit to the sea, and evidently the joy on his face was unbelievable. Now if that’s not rewarding, nothing is!

Global Volunteer Network organised the details of Bev's placement.

Written by  Bev Wood.

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