In January 2008, I had the privilege of accompanying Anh Chi Tu Chung, founders of the Houston-based charity Abandoned Little Angel (ALA), on their visit to the many institutions they help in Vietnam. ALA was set up to help the needy children of Vietnam: poor children, physically and mentally handicapped children, orphaned children, children of people suffering from leprosy, and the children of the minority people. I am very new to Vietnam and these visits allowed me to see what are the needs in the country and how we can do something to answer them. There is no shortage of needs in Vietnam and this is Anh Chi’s response to these needs, acting out of a spirit of human generosity and of Christian charity.
On the first day I spent with the group, we visited seven different orphanages in Saigon City. The orphanages are run by either Catholic sisters or Buddhist sisters and brothers. In each of the orphanages, the ALA presented sacks of rice, boxes of noodles, individual boxes of goodies for each child, and an amount of cash. It is a very generous gift and is a big help to each orphanages, which receives no government aid and is completely dependent on donations. On this one day alone, we met almost 1,000 children; there are many other orphanages in the city, run by church groups, aid agencies, and by the government. There is no single explanation as to why there are so many children in need and so many abandoned children in Vietnam, but the underlying cause has to be the widespread poverty in the country, low salaries, and widespread unemployment.
Despite their situation, most of the children in the orphanages seem to be happy. The standard of care is good with full time and part time staff and volunteers who take care of the children and show them love. Like all children, they are loving and need to be loved; some are outgoing, some are shy, but their needs are the same. A number of images from that day remain with me in a special way; the first is of the severely mentally handicapped children: all that can be done for them is to care for them and to love them, that in some way they may realize that God loves them. The second image comes from a school for the blind run by the Congregation of Don Bosco, the Salesians. At the school, the students have their own band and played and sang for us; despite their disability, they were happy and are receiving training to enable them to work and be independent when they leave the school. The director of the school is a Salesian brother who is himself blind. Another image comes from the very big orphanages run by Buddhist monks; there are 240 kids there, boys and girls of every age, some with disabilities. A group of Catholic girls, who are blind, have their own dormitory and are encouraged by the monks to go to church every Sunday.
Two days later, we set off for our visit to the central areas of the country. On the first day, we stopped at Loc Phat to visit a center for deaf and dumb children run by Sisters. The children were very lively and intelligent and anxious to communicate by sign language and by writing. Not far from there we stopped at a kindergarten school run by the Queen of Peace Sisters for the children of Minority people. This was my first encounter with the Minority or ethnic people of the country.
There are over fifty different ethnic groups and they live mostly in the mountainous and forested areas of the country. They do not always see the benefit of education Father Pat Palmer known Fr Phan Bá Thông visit 3 handicapped children Cha Pat Palmer giúp đem qùa cho các em mồ côi người dân tộc Sedan, Kontumbut in the modern word they cannot do without it. They have always tended to keep to themselves and are among the poorest people in the country. The children are shyer than the other children we have visited. They have their own language and often do not speak Vietnamese well; also they are not used to seeing foreigners.
We spent the next day in Da Lat the very attractive town situated in the middle of hills and forests. Our first visit was to a small center for blind boys run by the Holy Cross Sisters; the house itself is very simple and quite poor. The Salesians have a big seminary in Da Lat and run a program for street kids and for blind boys. About 60 street kids, those who live on the street and earn a living by begging and by small trading, come to the seminary for two hours every day to learn reading and writing. The Salesians try to give them some training in a trade which might help them in the future. These really are the abandoned ones, without family or home; they depend on each other.
After a number of other stops we set off through the mountains visiting centers for the Minority people. One center we visited is run by two Salesians and trains girls in traditional weaving methods. This is farming country, coffee growing area at first and then corn and bananas and rice in the lowlands. Housing is very simple but there seems to be electricity everywhere. We arrived in the town of Buon Ma Thuot that evening. Our first visit was to a school run by Sisters for the children of lepers; the children themselves do no have leprosy but their families have to live in a special part of the town. There are over 200 kids there and they are very poor. Their families who have been affected by leprosy live very poor and cut-off lives. Another school caters for kids who are deaf and dumb or blind; some have all three disabilities. The children make great efforts to communicate; they have their own band which played for us.
The next day brought us to the town of Pleiku where we visited a school for Minority girls and a large kindergarten run by Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres. There are 300 children here, 180 from Minority groups; some of the children are seriously mentally handicapped. This is a particularly poor part of the country and the different institutions need all the help they can get. From here we went to Kon Tum where we visited a number of centers looking after many children from the Minority people. Many of the Sisters looking after the children are themselves from the Minority people. In Dac Ruong a small Vincentian community serves the local Minority people. ALA donated money for the computers to help train local young people. That evening we ended up in Da Nang where I said goodbye to the group who would continue the journey for another week as far as Hanoi.
The week I spent with the “Abandoned Little Angels” group gave me an experience of what their work is about and what a voluntary group can do to help others. Every center and school we visited received some practical help from ALA; the practical help is very important and it all comes from fund-raising work in the US, particularly among the expatriate Vietnamese community. But ALA also brings more: it brings a genuine love and concern for these children, and an interest in them; many of them really are the abandoned people of our world, people who are forgotten and not important in many people’s eyes. ALA witnessed to the Christian belief that all people are loved by God and are equally important in His eyes. I would encourage everyone to support the “Abandoned Little Angels” charity which is doing so much to help the suffering children of Vietnam.
Fr. Pat Palmer, CSSp Cha Phan Ba Thong, CSSp January 2008