On this trip, I met families living on an island some distance from the mainland who were in need of help. To get to the island to visit these families, I took a half-hour motorbike ride to a little rickety jetty where a small boat was waiting.
One of the volunteers looked dubiously at the small boat and commented on the absence of any seating. I jokingly reassured her that the crew would bring out the deck chairs for us at any minute, which put her at ease only until she realized I was joking! After the motorbikes were loaded onto the tiny boat, we sat where we could find a space and it was off to the island.
The boat trip was slow and noisy, and it took a half hour or so to reach the island. It would be another half-hour motorbike ride to our final destination that day.
Many islands dot the coastline of Vietnam. The one I visited has very sandy soil, making it difficult to grow anything; most island inhabitants rely on fishing to survive. Tourists rarely venture over to this island. Consequently, my arrival always sparks a lot of curiosity from the
locals. Especially this trip, as I had three volunteers in tow.
School ends at year ten on this island, limiting educational opportunities. Although I dare say many would have left school earlier than that in order to work and help support their families. Students who wish to continue their education beyond year ten find it very difficult, and for the majority, it is most likely impossible.
Hoi is a student who, against the odds, had made it to the end of year ten. This is his story.
Abandoned by his mother at age two, and not long after by his father, Hoi’s grandmother took him in and has cared for him ever since. For the past 15 years, they have lived together in a tiny shack made of bamboo and banana leaves that also doubles as a little supply store.
Hoi did not have a bedroom, just a bed made out of bamboo covered with a thin mat. He slept in the shop next to the shelving that holds the supplies his grandmother sells.
A diligent student, Hoi was desperate to continue studying beyond year ten. On this island, students like Hoi face the reality
that to continue their education, they must leave and find accommodation on the mainland. This is financially prohibitive for most, as they would not only need to have enough money for their accommodation but also for food, electricity, and water. On top of all that are the fees for school, books, and uniforms!
I was introduced to Hoi because everyone knew the lengths he was prepared to go to continue his education. Hoi worked every day of his holidays as a labourer doing hard, back-breaking work to try to save enough money for a room on the mainland. He had managed to earn enough money to pay for a room but, unfortunately, for nothing else.
When I first met Hoi, he looked sad, serious, and almost defeated; he was a young person carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. I sat next to him on a little plastic stool so that our knees touched, and it was then that I realised he was shaking from head to toe. He was so nervous. He certainly knew this could be the last opportunity he had to turn his dream of further education into reality.
The three volunteers
and I could see how anxious and stressed he was. We sensed he thought this was one of the most important moments in his life and that a lot rested on the outcome of our interview. Hoi was trembling, on the verge of tears. We all were. Getting through these assessments is not easy; it is always emotional and heart-wrenching to hear each person’s story.
Hoi's grandmother expressed her concern that she was not getting any younger and was deeply worried about his future, about the fact that he would, one day, be alone. We all managed to hold it together and get through the assessment. It was successful.
Lifestart Foundation was able to assist Hoi in several ways. His school fees, uniform, books, accommodation, food, water, and electricity have been paid for one year. With the financial pressure taken off his shoulders, all Hoi has to do now is to concentrate on his classes.
Hoi stared at me in disbelief as I explained the help he would receive. It was only the next day, when he saw me pay his school fees for the year, that he dared to smile with what I am sure was
relief. He knows that his education scholarship depends on him maintaining his dedication to study.
Hoi's grandmother was so thrilled. I am sure it has not been easy to raise her grandson alone. To her credit, she has raised quite an exceptional young boy who I am sure will do her proud.
Hoi now attends year eleven during the daytime and has joined one of Lifestart Foundation's evening English classes. He is shy, quiet, and well mannered. It took me weeks to get a real smile out of him. That will be a little side project for me: get him to have a laugh and hopefully, in time, to feel truly happy.
When I first met Hoi, he had no clothes; no anything, for that matter. His only possessions were second-hand schoolbooks, which he had his head buried in every time I saw him. The room that he had rented on the mainland had a thin mattress and a plastic bowl to wash in. Nothing else, not even a blanket or pillow.
Hoi has now had a good dose of "mothering" and the basics to make life a little more comfortable. He has a decent mattress,
blanket, pillow, toiletries, clothes, stationary for school, etc. Each small item (and they really were just the basics) he received produced an elated, even overwhelmed, reaction.
When I see this, I can't help but wonder what these kids would think if they walked into a bedroom of a typical teenager back home, or visa-versa. A room that would probably have a thick and comfortable mattress with as many blankets as one could possibly need, perhaps topped off with a television and maybe even a computer and, of course, a good supply of toys and games.
Sponsorship has given Hoi much more than the material items mentioned above. Of equal importance, he now has a sense of security and the knowledge that he is not alone, but part of a growing group of Lifestart kids who support each other.
Lots of Love from Karen.
For more information on Lifestart Foundation, visit www.lifestartfoundation.org.au
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