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October 28th 2013
Published: December 11th 2013
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Sheila on the Ho Chi Minh HighwaySheila on the Ho Chi Minh HighwaySheila on the Ho Chi Minh Highway

Not one to shy away from an adventure!

Recently I have written about a steady stream of amazing volunteers who have found their way to Vietnam to help us. I describe these hard working people as having hearts the size of a water buffalo!

Sheila is another of these selfless people with a heart the size of a water buffalo who came to volunteer for all of the right reasons. She had great enthusiasm and energy and applied herself to all of her volunteering roles with care and professionalism at all times. At my insistence Sheila and Carmen, another of our new volunteers started their integration into the LSF project work slowly. They were both itching to dive in head first but my many years of experience has led me to believe that a slow induction rather than diving into the deep end is best for all concerned. It gives the volunteer time to observe how we handle things and to learn what is culturally appropriate and what is not. It also gives us time to work out the best fit for the volunteer within the context of what we need help with at the time.

We are all very grateful for Sheilas volunteering across so many projects and very much look forward to her return to Vietnam in 2014. I personally have found a lovely friend in Sheila and look forward to seeing her again soon.

I asked Sheila to write about her volunteering with Lifestart Foundation as each volunteer has a different experience. Here is her blog...

"I’d Rather Not Teach English All Of The Time

These were my words in my final Skype with Karen before setting out from the UK to join Lifestart Foundation for a 6 month volunteering placement. How did this happen? October 2011 I did a north to south tour of Vietnam- this wasn’t a lifelong ambition. I was on my way to see my daughter in New Zealand and thought if I’m going all that way I shall stop off and visit somewhere in Asia, a continent I had never visited . Why Vietnam? –purely practical -the tour dates fitted best.

It proved to be a life changing decision. Vietnam captivated me. I was totally intrigued by what I saw as a mass of contradictions- political, religious, cultural- modern and traditional, the rapid economic development in some areas over last 20 years, the logical and illogical. I admired the inventiveness, tenacity and warmth of the Vietnamese
Volunteer Carmen - waiting to distribute rice to the poorVolunteer Carmen - waiting to distribute rice to the poorVolunteer Carmen - waiting to distribute rice to the poor

One of our volunteer days involved rice and cooking oil distribution to many poor families. A generous donation from a LSF sponsor made this possible.
and when I finished the tour I was left with a hunger to find out more .

As a retired teacher I felt I had skills that could be of use in a country where there is a huge difference in educational opportunities depending on financial situation.

Why Lifestart Foundation?

Having made the decision to use my skills in a volunteering role in Vietnam I decided that I wanted to find a charity to work with in Central Vietnam. Two reasons for this, firstly it seemed to me from reading that there was huge need for support in this location, secondly I could imagine myself feeling comfortable in Hue or Hoi An whereas I knew that Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, although interesting places to visit, would be too great a challenge to live in coming from a hamlet in the very rural Shropshire Hills. I trawled through a mass of websites and found Lifestart Foundation , whose ethos of creating sustainability and independence, something that I agreed strongly with, seemed the best fit. I then thought from reading the website that my best chance of obtaining a volunteering position was if I could offer ESL teaching so I did a CELTA course. I made contact with Karen and after several emails and Skypes it was decided that I would start a 6 month volunteer placement in December 2012 but that the actual roles I would play within Lifestart Foundation would be finally decided when Karen and I met and would depend on what was needed at the time but I had stated I’d Rather Not Teach English All Of The Time.


First week was an induction into all aspects of Lifestart Foundation starting with the Lifestart Foundation Workshop, outreach projects and the Free school whilst getting familiar with Hoi An and settling into a new home. As a married person with children, the youngest of whom had just left home to go to university in the UK, I had thought that the adjustment to living a single life would be one of the many challenges I would face. Actually it wasn’t so - largely down to the fact that I was so busy, the wonders of Skype and the company of Carmen, a German volunteer who started at the same time and lived in the same house.

Some of our volunteering overlapped but we also worked in different aspects of Lifestart Foundation.

End of the Lunar Year offerings to the gods and thank you to Buddha for what has been provided during the past year.
It made a huge difference having someone to discuss concerns with who knew exactly what you were talking about, also to be able to have a laugh with about the seemingly absurd and share weekend dinner treats with. When Carmen left, Emma a wonderful physio from New Zealand arrived and moved into the house.

So what were my roles in Lifestart Foundation?

Lifestart Workshop – supporting makers, customer service, brochure distribution around Hoi An promoting tours, knitting training and new product prototype design and English classes.

Lifestart Outreach

1 New project HAS Activities Group- Start- up, planning, resourcing, individual assessments of skills and knowledge, record keeping for an activities group at Hoi An Shelter for the Disabled and Homeless .

2 New project Da Nang Red Cross Centre for Disabled Youth English Class Start- up, planning ,resourcing, teaching, record keeping.

So not teaching English all of the time. It would take too long to describe everything I did in detail but is perhaps worth writing about some of the highlights and the challenges faced.


So far this has been all about me but now is the place to say that the highlights mostly involve other people.

I met so many wonderful courageous people at the
Music AcitvityMusic AcitvityMusic Acitvity

Sheila started a music activity session at one of the LSF Outreach projects. "The band" have a ball in these sessions.
Lifestart Foundation Workshop, at Hoi An Shelter and at Da Nang Red Cross. They were always positive, had beaming smiles, and really appreciated the work of volunteers. Many of them were in permanent discomfort from their broken bodies, many had really distressing life stories that had brought them to where they are now and yet there was always joy, warmth and laughter.

The Lifestart Foundation volunteers were all amazing people who had given up their ’normal’ lives to give time and expertise

For much of my time, we were a small group working independently of each other but no matter how tired we felt there always seemed to be time to be a sounding board for ideas or concerns and supportive of each other when times got tough either because of the work or things that were happening at home and for most of us that was a long way away.

I will remember many specific things- some of which sound like small things but they have huge significance to me and hopefully were meaningful to the people involved. I have been selective as the list is very long;

-A beaming smile from Be at praise for her colouring after 4 months of
Outreach Acitivity SessionOutreach Acitivity SessionOutreach Acitivity Session

Sheila, along with Karen and fellow volunteers also started up the Activity Session at one of our LSF Outreach Projects. This project continues and is a highlight of the week for the residents at this homeless shelter.
showing no reaction.

-The non verbal group at Hoi An Shelter singing to a ballad during music sessions.

-The English group lessons at the workshop- Lieu, Hanh, Nhung and Mai and the fun and laughs we had each session.

-Getting to know, working with and becoming friends with Karen who has to have the biggest heart and be one of the most open and honest people I have ever met.

-Learning so much about Vietnamese culture and beliefs during conversations with Sinh, while distributing brochures.

-The enthusiasm, competitiveness and delight during English games at Da Nang Red Cross Centre.

-The parties at the Lifestart Foundation Workshop which we had on special days, there seemed to be quite a lot of them!

-Being a guest at the wedding of Vinh, one of the makers from Lifestart Foundation Workshop.

-Making friends from different parts of the world who I won’t meet very often, if at all, but I know will stay in contact because of the depth of shared experiences.

-Outside of work- I loved Hoi An, such a beautiful town with so much of interest and everyone I met was really friendly and interested in what I was doing. I enjoyed cycling explorations of the surrounding area, finding quiet places off the tourist trail. Discovering the specialities of different restaurants- it’s a great place for foodies. I was lucky enough to take two fantastic motorbike trips, the first into the mountains and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.


The first and biggest challenge I faced was with the Activities Group at Hoi An Shelter. During the third session I started to discover that there were people who could read, write, match, pick odd one out and do simple calculations. I got quite excited and started to plan activities so I could do more assessments and then plan activities to extend skills and knowledge. Then BANG I hit a moral wall. These people had been living for years in an institution where they had very little stimulation, was it then right to proceed on a programme of activities designed to stimulate, develop skills and knowledge and increase interaction if it could not be sustained. It would be like ‘waking them up for a few months’ and then almost cruel to take it away. Eventually, I made my decision- it was not right to do this. I prepared to tell Karen but before I could she told me that we had some new
Sheila the Wedding PhotographerSheila the Wedding PhotographerSheila the Wedding Photographer

Pictured at Vinh's wedding
long term volunteers in the pipeline and that some Lifestart Foundation staff would be involved at the Shelter. That put a whole new context to the Activities Group. So from then I went ahead with assessments, extending activities into jigsaws, construction kits, craft activities, multi-player card and board games to encourage interaction with others, music with improvised percussion and singing and indoor ball games.

The second big challenge came after 4 months and was the result of cultural differences. There were two elements to the frustration I felt at the end of March. One was caused by the apparent inability to forward plan, the second caused by that Asian phenomenum ‘Saving Face’ which led to me wanting to say “ Don’t tell us what you think we want to hear- just tell it how it is ” . The frustrations were resolved by a) having meetings with staff to discuss issues and how to sort them in a positive supportive way b) talking with our physio volunteer, Emma, who was having some similar issues at the time, c) accepting that the cultural differences are there and as that was one of the reasons I was in Vietnam, it was a case of ‘suck it up that’s how it is.’.

What did I learn about volunteering and myself?

Essential characteristics for all volunteers are (not in order of priority) a sense of humour, stamina, enthusiasm, creative thinking, flexibility and the ability to say enough. The last point, saying enough, is tricky as you are there to do whatever you can and want to say ‘yes I’ll do’ that to everything that you are capable of but there are times when there don’t seem enough hours in the day to achieve what you want and tiredness takes over. I have always found it difficult to say no and as a teacher am used to having a job that doesn’t stop at the end of the working day or weekends but had to learn in Vietnam to take some time out to recharge the batteries. Carmen had a saying which was relevant for me and all volunteers- you have to be good to yourself to be able to do good.

Vietnam and volunteering also taught me to be far more flexible than I was, that you can find humour in most situations and that it is a wonderful way of releasing tension. I became more self reliant and self contained yet much more confident interacting with people I didn’t know.

I went to Vietnam thinking about what I could offer and to learn about the country but hadn’t thought about what it would give me and how I would change through the experience. It really was a two way process and the most wonderful experience.

What next

Back in the UK I continue to work for Lifestart Foundation in researching UK based fund raising opportunities and product development. February 2014 will find me back in Hoi An for another volunteering term. Yes I am going back – this is now a long term involvement. I will still be saying

I’d Rather Not Teach English All Of The Time but honestly don’t think there is much chance of that. "

Interested in Volunteering?

Arm yourself with as much information as possible about your host organisation, read their website thoroughly and I would suggest that you read this blog on International Volunteering .

Have a look at current LSF Volunteer blogs and stay connected with weekly happenings at our Wordpress site.

For those of you who are little techno challenged like myself if you click on any of the words in blue it will automatically link you into that subject. Don't forget to have a look at our new website and find out how you too can support us from anywhere in the world.

Enjoying the blogs? Forward them along or subscribe those that you think would be interested in Lifestart Foundations's free!

If you happen to be in Hoi An, Viet Nam, visit us at:

77 Phan Chau Trinh Street,
Hoi An

Lots of Love from Karen

Read stories from past volunteers here:

Meet Emma from New Zealand

Learn more about International Volunteering

A New Project for Lifestart Foundation

Update from Lifestart Foundation Free Disability Centre

Meet Carmen from Germany

Meet Sahar from the UK

Meet Robbie and Al from Australia

Meet Sahar from the UK

Al and Robbie

Meet Trisha from New Zealand

Art Classes with Lone from Denmark 9th August 2011

Ruth: Teaching English in Vietnam 31st May 2011

E: Why Vietnam Rocks 9th Dec 2010

Sue: Capacity Building and Cleaning Up Mud 29th July 2010

Mark and Mary: Teaching English as a Second Language November 2009

Tropical Storm Ketsana - A picture is worth a thousand words

Cycle Vietnam for a Worthy Cause – Jan 17th 2009

Doctor John – Jan 14th 2009

Memory Portraits – Jan 14th 2009

Birdman Returns – Jul 15th 2008

Meet Sherry – A dream volunteer – Apr 30th 2008


11th December 2013

The good work continues with fantastic volunteers. Thanks for another interesting blog.

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