I will finally try to update you in installments on my most recent trip to Vietnam. I do hope that you have been able to understand that this last trip was my biggest to date (in terms of work load), and my long days (up at 5 a.m. and in bed at 12 p.m.!) left no time to sit at a computer and do any of these stories justice.
I really feel like there is a story every hour of every day, so consequently, at the end of each week, I am never quite sure where to start. Some of the stories are desperately sad and have me in a river of tears whilst others are so wonderful my heart is ready to burst!
I left Melbourne with two volunteers, Marelyn and Robyn, who had traveled and volunteered with me previously. Another volunteer, Peta, joined us a few days later in Hoi An. Thanks to Vietnam Airlines, we transported more than 300 kilos of much-needed donated goods for our Lifestart children and families, including a special wheelchair for little Ngoc, who has cerebral palsy.
I might ease you all into the trip with Sinh’s
Sinh and Lifestart
Sinh volunteering as art teacher at the Lifestart Free School
story. (This is a happy one!)
Sinh is a 19-year-old orphan who I met some four years ago, when he was 15 and living in an orphanage in Hoi An.
Sinh’s mother died when he was six months old and his brother Tu was four years of age. Their father deserted the boys shortly after their mother’s death, and an aunt was left to raise Sinh and his brother. The boys’ elderly grandparents, who had enough trouble feeding themselves, were not able to care for the boys. The boys’ auntie cared for them for four years but due to her own level of poverty could not look after the boys permanently. Sinh and his brother were placed in an orphanage, where they spent the next 11 years of their lives.
I met Sinh at the orphanage four years ago. Amongst all of the children there, he had the biggest impact on me—we had an instant connection, and indeed, he was someone who remained imprinted on my memory.
Sinh shared a very sparsely furnished and depressing room with a group of boys.
He slept in one of the top beds of the old wooden bunk beds
Sinh & Nick
Sinh with Nick Lee at Hai's Scout Cafe
in the room. What struck me about Sinh was that amid all of the grey and drabness of the room, the corner of the wall his bed was placed against was awash with colour. He loved painting and had decorated his little bit of L-shaped wall space with what I thought were terrific paintings for one so young. I thought at the time that he was painting stuff beyond his years. I remember asking to look at all of his work and asked him if he would like me to sell some of his pieces if I could, just to give him a little bit of pocket money. He thought it was a great idea, and I sold a few pieces for him on that trip.
Sinh and I lost contact over the course of this past year. When orphans turn 18 they are required to leave most of the orphanages; in many cases, they are then on their own. Sinh left the orphanage and went to Saigon briefly to have a taste of living in the big city. He realized it wasn’t for him and returned to Hoi An; we had been trying to find each other but
Sinh with mom
Sinh at his mother grave
kept missing each other. During this trip, I learned that Sinh now worked at a café and that he had called our Lifestart school looking for me. I found out where he was working and went to find him.
This is the story of the next chapter in Sinh’s life…a chapter that will hopefully be much brighter and happier than the years of Sinh’s life to date.
A New Beginning Commencing September 2006
I can’t describe how absolutely wonderful it was to see Sinh again. He is currently working as a waiter in a café for a little over $1 per day, seven days per week—no days off. When I asked him if he had been painting, his gorgeous face just clouded over as he told me how much money he was making, which was barely enough to eat, so there was no money left over for paper, brushes, or paint. He said he had a few old canvases, and we arranged to meet at the Lifestart School the next day so that he could show them to me.
As I waited at the school for him the next day, I expected him to arrive with
Desk and bed
Sinh is painting on a big wooden table, this is his bed and painting table
his paintings rolled up. But then I saw him pedaling his bicycle along with one hand on the handle bar and the other supporting four big canvasses on his shoulder!
His paintings were lovely and, much to Sinh’s and my own delight, they all sold within 24 hours.
Sinh was very interested in what I was doing at the Lifestart Free School and asked if he could volunteer teaching art at the school. Our children at the school adore art, so having a permanent art teacher is fantastic for them. He started teaching straight away and is fabulous with the children. A natural teacher, he has them hanging off his every word. I talked to Sinh about becoming one of our Jobstart recipients, which would enable him to paint and pursue his dream. He was and is still "over the moon" at the prospect of this.
Sinh has now been stocked up with paper, paint, and brushes for the next three months. He can paint to his heart’s content.
I approached Nick Lee, a very close friend of mine who runs a restaurant in Hoi An called Hai’s Scout Café and pitched him the idea
that it would be great for his restaurant to have a "Young Artist in Residence." It would provide a point of interest and something a little bit different for tourists visiting his café, I told him. A long-time supporter of Lifestart Programs, Nick did not take much convincing. Of course, this arrangement would also give Sinh somewhere to paint each day and the opportunity to maybe sell a painting or two to the many tourists that frequent Hai’s Scout Café.
Sinh is now "Young Artist In Residence" Monday to Friday from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. He teaches art on the weekends at the Lifestart School and is still retaining his café job in the afternoons and evenings until he can make some money from his art.
Marelyn, Robyn, and Peta (the three volunteers) and myself have all brought Sinh’s paintings home to Australia. We will try to sell them and help get him on his feet. Sinh is going to donate 50% of his profit back to Lifestart, which seems to be the beginning of a long and very special relationship for Sinh and Lifestart Foundation. We are currently selling his paintings for $5 to $30 AUD. They are ink and water colour on rice paper. The hope is to keep the prices low now so we can get some cash flow going, and he can get into some bigger canvasses further down the track. Maybe we could auction some of his bigger pieces at the dinner dance next year. If any of you have any ideas on how to help, promote, or sell Sinh’s paintings please let me know. They are great inexpensive gift and Xmas present pieces. If I was more computer literate, I could probably put them on the Internet!
Sinh and I communicate via a translator, but he is determined to learn English. With the help of Julie, an extraordinary volunteer from the UK (more about Julie later), Sinh has English lessons everyday in hope that the next time we meet we will be able to have a conversation without a third party.
Before I left, Sinh asked me to visit the cemetery to burn incense at his mother’s grave. He also asked me to visit his elderly grandparents and the aunt who cared for him the first few years after his mother’s death. I would only realize later how symbolic this all was.
When I left Vietnam, Sinh gave me a five-page letter to read on the plane. I was lucky enough firstly to get an upgrade to business class (thank you Vietnam Airlines!!!) and secondly to sit next to a delightful English-speaking Vietnamese man named Kenny who kindly translated a very emotional letter to me. In brief, the letter explained how Sinh had never had anyone in his life to call mum and would I consider adopting him. He doesn’t know it yet, but of course my answer is yes.
Hai’s Scout Café has now taken on two of our other Jobstart young people. Dao and Viet have both been given the opportunity to learn cooking at Hai’s Scout Café. Staff alternate between this establishment and also The Red Bridge Cooking School and Restaurant. If you are traveling to Hoi An (as I know many of you do), please pop in and make yourself known to Nick Lee and say hi to Sinh, Dao, and Viet. They are all articulate, warm-hearted, wonderful kids who just need a helping hand.
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