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Helping Haiti: Part 1 January 28, 2010

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 2:36 am
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The earthquake wreaked havoc on Haiti on Jan 12. I was in the air flying from Boston to San Fran. I didn’t hear Haitian news until I arrived in Saigon which was two days later. Needless to say, the support gang and OLPC/Sugar community reacted to the news in Haiti much quicker. As I was going through my email box, there was a flood of emails about initiatives trying to help Haiti in all possible ways:

     “Hey All, The site, now 30 hours old with zero sleep, is looking for help
     developing an API for getting input into their site, basically a POST.  They have an add page
     ( but want to be able to add using a POST.
     Anyone who might be able to help, or who has insomnia, should write to Tim Schwartz. C.”

“Adam is correct—we’re absolutely swamped at the moment. Lots of simultaneous efforts—both stateside and in Haiti—going on all at once. We’re preparing to deploy to Haiti early on Sunday and intend to bring three XOs with us. ..”

“Please now begin drafting a similar/careful public appeal for Haiti Relief Contributors who can _genuinely_ use XO’s for (post)disaster response, to be broadcast after midnight tonight. “

“Hi Adam, Given the much limited power and connectivity options in Haiti, I think a deployment of Sahana on the OLPCs would be valuable…. If we can get a team from OLPC to work on integrating Sahana on a LAMP stack on the new 1.5 version that would be great.  The sahana project is actively responding and you can find details (including the custom code for Haiti) here:
Join us on Freenode IRC at #sahana where we are gathering to respond to this.”

Adam summarized on-going efforts in a blog post

On Jan 15 several Contributor projects were presented during Friday meeting, two of them were created for Haiti:

1. XO Mobile and Lending Library for Haitians – Delray Beach, Florida
  Requests 3 XOs over 24 months

   Project Objectives:
   Immediate/Short term objective: help Haitian children in Delray Beach help
   their families make contact with people in Haiti due to the 2010 earth quake.

   Plan and Procedure for Achieving the Stated Objectives:
   Connect with the Haitian community here is Delray Beach thru organizations
   such as the Catholic church and schedule locations where the XOs can be taken
   and made available for use primarily as a means of finding friends and family
   via established web sites such as
   Once people are found the XOs can be used to communicate with those in Haiti.

2. Apex Communication aid for the earthquake victims of Haiti – Miami, Florida
   Requests 10 XOs over 2 months

   Project Objectives:
   We plan to provide a means of communication to the victims of the
   earthquake in Haiti. With their homes destroyed, we want to provide access
   to the internet so that they can give their loved ones abroad a sign of life.


Lesson plan and more

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 2:30 am
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On Friday we had half a day of teaching English to the boys at Leaf Pagoda. We covered numbers, days of the week, months, weather and counting. I taught two boys, the nerdy one with glasses “worked” as a translator to another boy. I felt great after the lesson as it seemed we achieved a lot in 1.5 hours.

Today Andy posted on the board an announcement that he is raising money for some poor families in the countryside for TET festival. There are 10 families in Tho An, Dong Nai that are in need of some food and cooking supplies for the New Year. For each family the aim is to buy :

5kg of rice, 2 litres of cooking oil, 1 bottle of fish source and 1 bag of food seasoning.

For one family the price will be 140,000 VND (Dong) or 8 US Dollars. Andy will be going on Sat 30th Jan to buy the stuff mentioned above. Several volunteers from our house made donations.

 On Saturday I created XO  lesson plan for 2 days. And Ken approved it! Girls will be divided into 2 groups and  I’ll teach each group twice a week. We are starting on Wednesday with help of local volunteers.

Several of us decided to go to Sesame restaurant. The concept of the place is that street kids learn to cook and are given jobs as cooks and servers. The restaurant has very good reviews on-line. Five of us got dressed up and took a cab. Guess where Sesame is? Next to the orphanage where we volunteered on Wednesday!

We entered the place and couldn’t believe our eyes – it looked very upscale inside like a high class restaurant! Waiters spoke English. Each of us had 4 meal course and juice, which cost $5 per person. Cab ride to the restaurant was $1 per person.


  • 153 D Xo Viet Nghe Tinh | Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
  • (08) 899 3378

Leaf Pagoda January 25, 2010

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 10:13 pm
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On Thursday I asked to go with another group of volunteers to Leaf Pagoda to teach English. It took us about one hour and half to get there by two buses. Leaf Pagoda has a temple and living quarters, which about 20 monks and 40 boys call home. Children show up here from different parts of Vietnam, and monks take care of them: feed, educate, teach household chores. When children grow up some of them become monks, others leave Pagoda. Here is the link to their website:

There were no children in the morning at Pagoda, as they went to the market help monks buy groceries. So we had to stay throughout lunch and mingle with local volunteers who accompanied us to help translate if needed. Volunteers told us about the upcoming holiday and New Year Celebration on Feb 14 (according to the Chinese calendar). There will be a big celebration this year, as New Year’s Day falls on Sunday and coincides with Saint Valentine’s Day. Monks gave us delicious lunch. It seemed like they gave us the best they had. Soup was with yummy vegetables and tofu.

After lunch we divided into groups. Peter and I taught boys football lingo, emotions, occupation and body parts. It was extremely hot. Boys were very polite and diligent, even though not all had the same level of English.

After we returned to Peace House 2 and had dinner, I walked to the VPV office. I had an appointment with Ken, who is in charge of teaching activities at VPV Saigon.  As it was very noisy in the living room, we went up 4 flights of stairs to the roof. I gave him a presentation about OLPC and demonstrated an XO. I asked him: what is the best school to teach children XOs? School, where there is no technology yet, but it will be welcomed so that children can learn a lot.

The decision was made – I’ll be teaching XOs four times a week at a shelter for girls near Peace House 2, which is about 10 min ride by bike. One local volunteer will assist me.

But first, I have to create curriculum and run it by Ken. I was so happy to finally start my Saigon OLPC deployment. Finally it is not just an idea anymore, but reality.


First Day at the Orphanage

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 2:15 am
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Today was our first day at the orphanage. Out of  25 volunteers between two VPV dorms, only five of us were going to Thi Nghe. The rest either went to other orphanages or to teach at shelters.

 The building looked modern outside, just like ordinary kindergarten. As we entered the first room, we saw a floor of mattresses covered with crippled helpless bodies in the same color pink striped PJs, as if it is a handicapped child’s prison. They hardly speak possibly due to never being given speech therapy.  You look at them and wonder why did they get those illnesses, what for? You can’t really guess their ages, as they look small and clueless.  Little bodies are sometimes sharing one crib. Heads are shaved so you can’t tell their gender. Their eyes are wandering with curiosity, some faces are smiling, you know that children are happy to get attention.

I am speechless, I want to cure them all and see them live independently and happily, but it’s impossible to do. What is the point in playing with them, making them happy for a moment, but then leaving them, knowing what kind of ending they are going to have either here or somewhere else?

Then we were told that children (about 60 of them)  are on the floor in two rooms temporarily, because other rooms are being renovated. Andy said that this orphanage is better run than some other ones he knows, because it is sponsored by the government and has more standardized procedures in place.

I was very impressed with how good food was. Carers were very efficient in feeding children and changing their nappies.  I also saw carers folding clean nappies and stacking them into big piles in the closet. It is a very smooth process of feeding children 5 times a day and bringing them to beds. Majority of the kids in these two rooms have cerebral palsy due to various reasons. Carers, busy with many duties, do not play with kids, which is not very educational or entertaining for the kids. Whenever carers have a free moment they sit in quiet or chat to each other.

Children and staff  sleep after lunch. We returned to Peace House for lunch and we went back:  feeding and playing again. We saw some other children who came for day care, almost all of them had Down syndrome. I fed about 5 children that day and when I looked into children’s eyes while feeding them, I saw their souls deep inside: pure and wonderous. What they need is love, which is not always available for them.



Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 2:15 am
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They warned us that it is going to be hard, but I didn’t get the full picture.  There was one volunteer recently who came from Europe. She went to the orphanage once and then stayed at the dorm for the rest of her stay in Saigon, not being able to get over cultural shock.

It  is a combination of several factors – extreme heat, sweating, dirty streets, loud unpleasant noise from bike’s horns, awful busy traffic and heavy fumes from the vehicles. Sometimes I feel like screaming on the street: “Shut up everyone, get lost”. We get exhausted from commuting to work place and back, especially during lunch. Walking to the bus, taking the bus, and walking again. It is hard to breathe. You have to wear a mask, which is not easy to wear as it gets hot in it and again hard to breathe. Bikes take over sidewalks, therefore making it dangerous to walk anywhere.

Then if you are not used to working with disabled children, you are for a big shock. As I was falling asleep that night there was a picture in my mind – children in pink pjs are moving their limbs and watching everything around, hardly making any sounds…

On top of everything else, my legs are still swollen from the flight. It is painful to walk. I’ve been here for more than a week, but legs don’t get better and I get tired quickly.

I was asking myself what am I doing here? Why did I sign up for it? Couldn’t I stay in Boston? I can’t go to the orphanage every day. What do I do now? Which kids will I teach XOs?

I decided to talk to other volunteers and see if they have any issues, or I am the only one having problems adjusting. I found out I wasn’t alone. Other volunteers were having similiar difficulties. Some said that they have hard time accepting what they can’t do for the disabled kids, because of lack of resources at the orphanages. Others had problems with local food, and got food poisoning. One volunteer was not able to be affectionate enough with kids and felt guilty. Another one was mad at the nurses/carers that they do not play with kids at all,  but just watch the volunteers entertain the children. There were personality clashes, and some people didn’t like their roommates or other volunteers’ behaviors. Several were mad they couldn’t use Facebook as it is blocked for use in Vietnam. During peak time, buses get overcrowded and stuffy, and we all miss having more personal space.


Thi Nghe (Formerly Pho My)

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 2:01 am
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About Thi Nghe

Thi Nghe is located in Binh Thanh District in Ho Chi Minh City. From 1875 to 1976 it was a refuge for the homeless, the elderly and those suffering from incurable illnesses. In 1976 the Social Welfare Department of Vietnam assumed control and is now exclusively for the care of abandoned, handicapped children. It is a large center which is currently caring for over 400 abandoned children. Nearly all of the children here have disabilities, with about 150 suffering from cerebral palsy. When arriving at the center most of the abandoned children are also malnourished.

There are around 230 staff working at Thi Nge, who welcome both local and international volunteers to help care and play with the children.

Thi Nghe Center facilities include a fully equipped physiotherapy area, an infirmary, laboratory, 12 classrooms, a sewing workshop and a domestic science class.

The aim of the center is to provide care for the children who have mental and physical disabilities. They provide physical and mental therapy to try and give them some skills to move them  as close as possible to independent living.

In 1994, a teaching farm was set up in Bao Loc, 200 km north of HCMC for young adults. It currently has 67 young people learning and receiving training in how to cultivate tea, coffee, vegetables and fruit, as well as working with farm animals. They also cook and do general house-keeping.

Working at Thi Nghe

Some of the children at Thi Nghe are severely disabled so you should be prepared for some changes. The children we work with are not capable of feeding themselves, so staff and volunteers main work at present is helping with this. Some are fed with feeding tubes. It can be  a slow process of feeding a small bowl of food so patience and perseverance is vital. Each bowl (also spoon and drinking bottle) is individually named and contains medication in the food. The staff will direct you to the correct child if you are unsure.

When feeding, most children should wear a bib and some need a large triangular pillow to support their head. Some children will move around  a lot so they need to be strapped to the pillow to make feeding possible. You will need to take a wet cloth to wipe the face during and after feeding. We are asked not to stir the food while feeding.

Work usually includes helping with: feeding, changing nappies, playing, decorating rooms. There is a small sensory room which you can take a few children in to, and strollers are also available downstairs to push around the grounds.


Saigon City Tour

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 1:50 am
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On Tuesday it rained and the air was cooler. We visited the War Remnants Museum, which was opened to the public 35 years ago and has many exhibits from the American War. It is hard to judge now how the war started and who exactly to blame but the fact that 3 mln. Vietnamese people died is undeniable. It was wrong. Every war is wrong, because people die. It was hard to see pictures, artifacts and read stories about the horrors caused by the Americans’ chemical warfare. Effects of Agent Orange are still present, as even today children have severe disabilities due to the chemicals in water, they and their mothers drink. Volunteers come to Vietnam to help work with these disabled kids.

After lunch, our group marched to the Reunification palace. In 1954, this was the palace of Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of the former South Vietnamese government after the liberation of the South; later its name was changed to the Reunification Palace.

We also visited Notre Dame Cathedral, which was designed by a French architect and built in 1877. Its length is 93m and width 35m. The brick used for construction was taken from Marseille, France. Last stop on the tour was the Post Office, which is in a spacious building with lots of shops.

Since my arrival, I met some amazing volunteers. Kris from Spokane, WA, a retired teacher, sponsors 6 children from Albania and 3 girls from Bangladesh to get education from middle school through high school. In Saigon Chris teaches English twice a week.

Marilyn was born in the US, but now lives in Geneva. She regularly volunteers in Asia; her prior experiences were building a dam in rural Thailand and caring for disabled children in Hanoi.  She told me that in the north of Thailand she found a shack full of computers, where one Dutch guy was working on building a website for the locals. He was there for a year and his project was sponsored by Microsoft. Marilyn argued whether locals really need that technology and can use it to their benefit?

Marilyn’s advice was to try to change the life of one or two individuals by taking sponsorship in them, not to try to change the whole world…

I also talked to Tuan, who lives in Virginia, but left his job in commercial advertising, and decided to volunteer for three months to work with disabled kids. He said it took him at least two weeks to get used to the environment/conditions as it is shocking in the beginning.

Matt, an English man, quit his job as an engineer, sold all his belongings on eBay and moved to Vietnam, where he plans to stay and work as a teacher.

I spoke to Andy, and he said that Phu My Orphanage has been reopened for foreign volunteers. Five of us, including me, will be going there tomorrow.


Working with disabled children: Part 2 January 24, 2010

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 7:49 am
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What to expect?

Despite the general attitude toward volunteers in Vietnam it is often the case that international volunteers are warmly welcomed by the directors of all centers and schools, as foreigners bring prestige and a perceived opportunity to gain contacts with potential sources of funds from abroad. The attitudes of the staff however are often markedly different, as the presence of a foreigner can be seen as an invasion of their environment. The staff is also rarely able to speak English and frequently resent what they may consider to do the additional responsibility of supervising a foreigner in the classroom.

Volunteers may witness children being disciplined in a way many from a broad would consider abhorrent. Hitting of children as well as general rough treatment is common. It is one of the many ways that volunteers can play a key role in improving the quality of care for children with disabilities in centers across Vietnam, as teachers and carers are reluctant to discipline children in such a way in front of a foreigner. It is also possible to show that love, attention and compassion can be more effective than attempts at discipline.

Despite all of the above volunteers should always be prepared for the warmth, happiness and generosity of the children. The excitement that a foreign visitor creates is infectious and volunteers are rarely left in any doubt about the value of their presence or how appreciated they are by the children.

Final Note

Please be prepared that this is a very slow process. As an individual volunteer you are part of a necessary and ongoing process of change in attitude and working practice that contributes to assuring the well-being of many lives in Vietnam. Progress is slow, and can often be extremely frustrating, but being a part of that process is in itself a tremendous help to the children and families living with disabilities throughout the country.

To be honest, all that information made me nervous. Would I be a good volunteer?


Working with disabled children: Part 1

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 7:40 am
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Possible Challenges:

  • Attitude to the disabled
  • Communication
  • Treatment by staff
  • Children’s conditions (cerebral palsy, Down’s Syndrome, epilepsy, hydrocephalus, blind)
  • Common practices and changing the practices
  • Behavior of children
  • What to do if you see something you don’t like

Attitudes toward the disabled in Vietnam

Often (but by no means always) the attitude toward those with mental and/physical disabilities in Vietnam can seem startlingly cruel to many of us. Some consider a disability to be a punishment for past crimes by the family or a sign that they represent bad luck for anyone connected to them. That can lead  to abandonment and isolation for the family of the disabled child  and with little or no education in caring for a child with disabilities the stress can be overwhelming for the family, as well as increasing the suffering of that child. Often a family will take their child to a disabled center as a last resort, when they do not know where else to go. Centers for care for children with disabilities are generally poorly funded by the government whereas disabled care NGO day care centers on the other hand tend to have a more positive and open attitude, being more focused on the welfare and education of the children, and direct funding for this purpose is often evident.

Background info about disabled care centers in Vietnam.

Often carers & staff are poorly motivated, poorly trained, poorly paid and grossly overworked. Staff in the centers often develops a coping strategy of negligent laziness; they let the children down together, to avoid individual blame or personal responsibility. The staff culture often operates almost as a “closed shop”, outside of the control or supervision of the directors. Staff is often trained heavily in the importance of discipline in classrooms, having been trained to teach regular school classes rather than specifically disabled children. As a result teachers can very easily become frustrated and often resort to violence to try to maintain order.

Due to the way the government centers are run, the directors are often forced to concentrate on administration tasks, budget and funding, which keeps them at a distance from the actual work of the carers or teachers and contributes to the ability of the isolationist culture of the staff to persist.



Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 5:54 am
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On Monday we finally gathered for orientation in Peace House One. There were about 17 fresh volunteers, ready to start. In the morning we were given all kinds of info about VPV, where to shop, house rules, specifics of work places and much more:  orientation presentation. We found out that there are more than 150 local Vietnamese volunteers, who are members of VPV club. They assist international volunteers in teaching English, give city tours and raise money for activities for children. Volunteers, mostly students from local Universities, gave us Vietnamese language lesson in the afternoon.

Road Safety.

Traffic accident is the highest cause of death in Vietnam. Side walks are actually not for pedestrians but for parking bikes, so please try to make your way around them. Crossing the road, main rules for survival among bikes and other vehicles are: look in every direction, do not stop ‘suddenly’, never run, cross slowly but confidently.

From our booklet: “The traffic in HCMC at first glance appears to have no rules, but it really is organized chaos. The biggest vehicle has the right of way, you must move out of its path. Flashing lights and continuous use of horn are mostly used instead of the brake. A red traffic light also means green for some drivers, but if police are present, red is red. If you wait to walk across the street you will be there forever, just walk slowly and be aware, motobikes will drive around you easily but pay attention to cars, trucks and especially city buses. City buses are very unforgiving. Try to cross on crosswalks.”

Attitudes toward volunteers in Vietnam.

“The idea of volunteering one’s time or energy toward a cause is still a new one for many in the adult generations in Vietnam, although many in the upcoming generation are working hard toward changing this. Feeling of suspicion from local government and police authorities often surrounds the idea of a foreigner engaging in anything other than tourist  or business activities.  The attitude often persists that “if you want to help, just give us money”. We believe that it is responsibility of every volunteer to help in the continuous and ongoing process to change this attitude, and to prove the volunteer can be a force of change and directly assist those in need”.


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