Saigon Children: Giving the Gift of Opportunity
Imagine the scene. A new mother reaches out and takes her baby, just a few minutes old, in her arms. She looks down on the tiny face and is overwhelmed with emotion. A flood of hopes and dreams, worries and fears sweep over her. Her life, as she knew it, is gone.
In the blink of an eye, her life is no longer her own. She now focuses on the tiny bundle in her arms. ‘How will I keep you safe?’ she wonders, ‘how will I keep you healthy?’ ‘How will I keep you happy?’ she asks, ‘not only right now, but for forever and always?’
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If you are a parent, or have ever thought about being one, the gravity of these questions can be overwhelming to say the least. Imagine then, that upon leaving the hospital, you have no choice but to return to a tiny single roomed house, made from cement and roofed with corrugated tin. Food is hard to come by as you live in a small rural village, and maternity leave is not only a foreign concept but is an impossibility. Your $25 a month salary is essential for your survival, and now, for your baby’s.
Whilst in Ho Chi Minh City, it is easy to forget that the fight against poverty is one that many Vietnamese face on a daily basis. As the city booms and living standards rise, the plight of those in rural provinces seems a million miles away. Statistics from WorldBank suggest that, throughout Vietnam, around 12% of households live on less than $1 a day. In some of the poorer provinces, this equates to 25% of households. These areas often lack job opportunities outside of the farming industry, and with such low salaries, families struggle to make ends meet. Obtaining a good level of education is regularly sacrificed as young people are required to work, so that they can contribute to covering the costs of running the household.
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Even for those families that don’t require their children to work, finding the fees for school can be as good as impossible. The bills for school fees, uniforms, books and stationery usually arrive all at the same time and require paying as a lump sum. Without the option to spread the cost, many children are simply unable to attend classes.
Without completing their education, career prospects are extremely limited for the residents of Vietnam’s poorest provinces. Familial responsibilities and isolation from the wealthier regions, where salaries tend to be higher, prevent people from seeking a job elsewhere. Trapped by circumstance and geography, it seems that from the moment their mother first holds them in her arms, the destiny of these babies is sealed.
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The aim for Saigon Children is to change the destiny of as many children as possible. For almost three decades, their goal has been to remove the barriers that stop disadvantaged children receiving a quality education. Whether that means building a school where there isn’t one, assisting with school fees where money is scarce, or providing vocational training to help land a first job, the projects run by Saigon Children have transformed the lives of tens of thousands of young people throughout Vietnam.
Speaking with Ms Angelique Masse Nguyen, Head of Fundraising and Communication, I ask first about Saigon Children’s School Building programme. The programme has been a life changing influence for almost 40,000 students and innumerable numbers of people within their communities. From Tra Vinh on Vietnam’s southern coast all the way up to Tuyen Quang close to the Chinese border, the project’s value has proven to be priceless. “If you imagine children and teachers learning in a ruined classroom with dirty water up to their knees, you are imagining one of the schools which will be replaced by our school building programme” Ms Nguyen explains...
“... In remote, rural areas, where access to a proper educational environment is difficult, our programme turns unsuitable and unsafe classrooms into safe, bright, clean, and friendly learning environments.”
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The result of this is not only that children and teachers find school more pleasant but more people in the village see the benefits of education, meaning that the advantages of staying in school become more widely known.
“We want children who are disadvantaged to have a truly memorable childhood at school and have a strong motivation to follow higher education in the future.”
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Of course, progressing into higher education is not always a possibility for young people in the rural provinces. It simply is not affordable. Many youngsters find themselves working for very low pay in exploitative conditions, and as Ms Nguyen says sadly…
“It is impossible for them to break out of the cycle that their families are in if they do not get high-quality work-related training.”
Luckily, Saigon Children also helps young people to avoid getting trapped in the cycle by providing short term, vocational training and individual support via their Getting Ready to Work programme. “What we were seeing in these young people was no job orientation, no work-place skills, no hope and no confidence. Under such conditions, they had few options,” says Miss Nguyen. “With our programme each young person will decide which job they want to follow, and each young person receives one-to-one support, to help identify the right training, the right course and the right provider. Then, we monitor them until they complete the course and are successful in work.”
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The programme has proven extremely successful, and graduates have found employment in a variety of industries and roles that offer more opportunity for progression than would have been possible otherwise. From cooks and bakers, to motorbike mechanics and beauty technicians, Saigon Children has helped innumerable young people step out of the cycle of poverty into which they were born.
Being a long-standing member of Ho Chi Minh City’s philanthropic community, Saigon Children is well known and well supported. But with UNICEF reporting that almost 5.5 million children in Vietnam live in situations of deprivation, support for and promotion of Saigon Children’s work is still as essential as ever.
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If changing the destiny of an innocent child is something you’d like to do, there are many ways that you can make a difference. As Ms Nguyen says, “Anyone can help, and it’s very easy!” From a simple donation or sponsorship of a young person, to working up a sweat with one of Saigon Children’s charity challenge events, or simply sharing a post with the hashtags #allshewants or #saigonchildren, there really is something that everyone can do to help a mother’s dreams for her baby come true.
Visit www.saigonchildren.com for more information about fundraising and volunteering opportunities.
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