Saigon: Part III – The Kiss Goodbye

It became clear to me as my two weeks petered down to two days, that good things were not going to be borne from my presence. Small donations from friends and family, and trips to the hypermarket to stock up on crayons and paper were not sustainable; and neither were they in my mind, conducive to learning anyway.
I suspected my drawings of fruit and animals in all letters of the alphabet, would eventually be torn down from the walls, replaced with new drawings from new volunteers. That wasn’t the issue for me. I never really believed that my attempts at teaching would make a difference to the centre or the kids.
But frustration grappled at me.

VPV and LTK were not interested in the bigger picture. As long as they continued receiving funds to keep the centre open, no-one was going to pitch for physiotherapy equipment, wheelchairs, books and computers – standard equipment found in special needs schools back at home.
Physiotherapists, speech therapists, cognitive specialists… none of these came during my two weeks at the volunteer program… I fear there never will be a desire to support these children; no intention to help them develop critical communication skills, to offer them a future where they can support themselves should the day their parents or carers pass on.

I understood that the more severely un-abled had vast limitations but what of the likes of Tringh and Hai? What will become of them? Are they sanctioned to a life at the centre, watching repeats of Tom and Jerry, and eating puréed food that must impede their growth? Is there a future for them beyond going to the day care centre? What would happen to them after they turn 18?

I inundated the VPV representatives with my questions, but I felt like I was in my own rhetoric, faced with a wall of blank stares and red faces. No one had answers and no one seemed to care.
As far as I could gather, my volunteer organisation were a money making business, concerned with lining their own pockets than the care of the children. My co-volunteers who were assigned to the orphanage even reported cases of corruption where individuals of the management were digging in to the charity box. Indeed, the two rocking horses I and a co-volunteer had purchased as a departure gift to the children, had suddenly disappeared over night. My co-volunteers and I suspected it was one of the nurses who took it as a gift for her own child, but we didn’t have evidence to support this. It spoke volumes that IVHQ (International Volunteer HQ) who I had initially signed up with, suddenly pulled out of their relationship with VPV.

The Vietnamese’s General attitude is that these kids do not know better, that they should be grateful they have a centre to come to every day. Perhaps that is the case for some of the kids. But I knew this in my short time at the centre – that some of these kids are bright, capable of so much more than they’re given credit for.

My heart was breaking when I gave the children a kiss goodbye on my last day. I hugged Tringh close to me, praying that her love of flicking through bridal magazines would become her own reality, not limited for just the perfectly abled. She can’t speak but she can sign and god knows, she has so much love to give. And Hai… I hope with all of my heart that he can one day sign a heart with his fingers to show his undying devotion to someone who deserves it. Love after all is an entitlement for all human souls.

I don’t know if they understood it would be the last time they would see me… I felt like a deserter, not someone who made an ounce of difference to their lives. Reading, playing and making friends with the children may have made a life changing impact on me, but I go away knowing I have added little value to their lives.

If you’re thinking about volunteer vacations and are looking to make a real difference, here are some tell tale signs an organisation is not legitimate (extracted from the Go Overseas website) –

– They openly solicit tourists; any orphanage that allows tourists to visit immediately and unplanned isn’t likely a well run or trustworthy establishment.
– They don’t request a CV, references, and police reports in advance. Well run orphanages should have steps in place to protect the orphans from predators, which means knowing as much as possible about the volunteers they put the orphans in contact with. The more information you are asked to provide, the better.
– They ask volunteers to work directly with children rather than supporting staff. Although it may be more emotionally fulfilling to work directly with the children than support the staff with daily tasks, an orphanage that requires volunteers to work only with the staff are demonstrating that they have the children’s best interest in mind.
– They ask volunteers to pay fees in advance with no mention of how a portion of it is being passed on to help run the organisation. Any program that you volunteer for should be transparent about why they ask volunteers to pay fees and what they are being used for.
– They allow volunteers to work for just a couple of days. To make a real impact in volunteering with orphanages, travellers should expect to commit for a couple of weeks or longer rather than to just drop by and play with the kids for the afternoon.
– They ask for large donations of food. One of the most common ways of scamming tourists is to re-sell bulk food donations for a profit, then redistributing the money amongst the orphanage owners. However, donating goods rather than money (after checking the legitimacy of the organisation and consulting them of their needs is a great way of giving support.
– Unfortunately greedy organisations who take advantage of the booming ‘Volunteer-Tourism’ concept is a reality that we can’t change. However, volunteering with children has the potential to make a huge impact on volunteers AND the children under the right organisation. The need for volunteers is real, so don’t let the fear of being scammed stop you from trying. Put in the research and everyone will come away fulfilled.

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