My first week!

**Regarding photographing the children, I have been very conscious of making them aware of my purpose here and that I am not just here for the day to snap a few photos to share with friends. I am here to plant seeds of hope into the hearts of all the children and to give and to love and to make a difference. I wanted to focus on getting to know them individually and have a story behind each photo I take.

Rising at 6:15am is new to me. I find myself energized by this sense of purpose and the village of people it took to get me here, sharing a similar desire, to be part of something beautiful. I haven’t had to set an alarm as the rooster is my first wake up call. If I snooze through that, the motorbikes, honking, dogs barking as well as locals selling things from their bicycles with an attached mega-phone constantly repeating something in Vietnamese gets my butt up! My breakfast is usually some tea and toast or cereal and by 7am, I start my 15 minute walk to the bus stop. I wait for bus #32 (locals busses) and then switch to bus #57 which takes me to the Friendship Village. I am the only non-Vietnamese person on the bus each morning and this sense of curiosity is very evident as they all stare in confusion. The journey takes roughly an hour each way and for the first few days, another volunteer would walk with me so I could learn the stops which are incredibly confusing and all look the same. My mental notes became, “After the bus crosses through the intersection and passes the petrol shop the village is the next stop.” You can’t afford to day-dream or even zone out with an ipod as you will EASILY miss your stop (which I did). In addition, the buses don’t really stop. They glide so when I get close to my stop, I make my way toward the back door and get ready to hop off as it will take off!

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I arrive to the village by 8am when classes begin. On Monday’s we go to an open/PE type room for some exercises and stretches that a teacher guides the children through. I am in class #1 which is the most “naughty” and “challenging” as Ms.Ha (assists the volunteers) warned me. I told her I am up for the challenge. I was surprised to observe that the children throughout the village barely spoke any English! It only meant that I had to find creative ways to communicate non-verbally with them and being aware of my facial expressions as so much can be read from the face. I wish I had learned a little sign-language before arriving as most sign to one another. The majority of the children make sounds and moan and few actually speak. The challenge of the class is the size (16 or so) and the nature and range of their disabilities. They are all literally mixed in one classroom with only 1 teacher (bless her heart) and ages range from 5-17. I asked my teacher for the “profiles” on the students but she only had a few. I would read through them at lunch to try to get a better idea of my students. The information was quite limited as there hasn’t been a true professional to diagnose/ give a clearer picture behind each child. The ages blew me away. Due to developmental challenges, many of the children look at least 5-8 years younger than they really are! Below is Thuong. She melted my heart from day 1. She was my tour guide and introduced me to everyone. Ban ten gi (ban thane zee) means “What’s your name” and I got pretty good at this one 🙂 I thought she was 5 or 6 considering how tiny she was and after reading her profile, I realized she is 11 and that she lost both her parents last year…



The teacher barely speaks English and I would just intuitively feel what she is trying to tell me/ how I can be helpful to her. Google translator, when the internet would work (rarely) was a gem! In addition, once a week, a student from a local university would meet me at the village and come to class with me to help me translate which was amazing. Some of the kids are in their own world, others have to be out of their seats and moving throughout the class, others work very well alone, some need something in their hands to be engaged, others write/draw. Linh, 14 (below) in particular I take outside from time to time to walk around and explore as she can get very aggressive and will hit others or just run outside. About half of the class can focus long enough so that the teacher can do some alphabet and other learning exercises and I do my best to keep the others engaged in some sort of activity to distract them from bothering the others.

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Classes end by 4:00 and the majority of the children live on site so they just walk home after or go play until dinner which is at 5pm. I found myself lingering and wanting to play with them after school. Catching the bus back at 4:45 would get me back by 5:45, just in time for dinner with everyone at the volunteer house at 6pm. Talk about a LONG day (6:15am-4:45pm) and I come home numb and overwhelmed as I try to soak up and process the day as it was quite mentally and emotionally challenging for me. In addition, trying to learn the names (which all sound the same), practice my Vietnamese (very challenging), keeping notes of my days so that I can write to you all, as well as try to decipher my role at the village and how to be of service to everyone. Honestly, just observing everything about the village and seeing things around here that culturally, is normal/ okay (a shock to myself and other volunteers and we were told to be aware of this) as well as seeing some of the conditions of the children broke my heart. At the end of the day, I realized my “purpose” here is not the change the culture and customs already in place nor do I have the power to make substantial changes regarding how the village is run, organized and where funds are going etc. I couldn’t let the things that are out of my control be in control of me or I would crumble to pieces. I had to rise above and see past all of that and give from the heart and that is something that should never be underestimated and it eventually created miracles and beautiful responses form the children.

**Scroll over photos for a description**             

Lastly, I definitely overexerted myself during week #1 and said “yes” to everyone and everything which only drained me even more. I would help some of the other volunteers teach the teachers English during break. I helped Ms.Ha edit some documents and organize/re-type proposals to send to the local government for fundraising ideas and updates about the village and their current needs as well as trying to get the overworked/underpaid teachers a raise. I would also go to meetings with other volunteers to discuss ideas on sustainability and ways to make the effects more lasting for future volunteers. Oh, and when visitors would arrive, she would frequently ask me to help translate and walk around with her. At the end of the week, I realized I needed to take better care of myself. If I wasn’t feeling balanced and energized, I couldn’t be of service/give to anyone. I decided to switch things up for week #2. More to come…