On the 28th of December 2013, I went with a group of 17 volunteers for an immersion experience to work at the Phu My Centre for disabled orphans in Vietnam. It was an amazing experience and I’d like to share with you what it was like and what I learned from a JPIC (Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation) point of view.
The orphanage is located in Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon) and is home to an average of 400 children. It was founded in 1975 by a religious order of nuns, who are still there (The Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres), but taken over by the Department of Labour, War Invalids and Social Welfare. There are 260 persons who work for the Centre including administration staff, nurses, doctors, technicians, physiotherapists, teachers and hospital helpers who directly care for the children. The stated tasks of the Centre are receiving, nurturing, healing, rehabilitation and education for orphans with cerebral palsy, polio, developmental delay and mental retardation from babies to 16 years of age. The Centre also helps to educate and restore motor function for 200 handicapped children in the community.
The children vary in the level of care needed. Some need complete care in terms of feeding, personal hygiene, etc. The staff, therefore, has to offer 24-hour care. From my observations they do this very well, but with so much work to do, including washing, cleaning and folding diapers, keeping the place clean, feeding, etc., there isn’t a great amount of time for just playing with the children and provide them with this kind of occupational therapy. That is what I think our major contribution was on the visit, though we also helped feed, clean and change the children, depending on what the caring staff directed us to do.
The orphanage had very good facilities at their disposal with 7 medical care rooms for children according to age, disability type and special care unit for children with serious sickness. There were facilities for physiotherapy, a courtyard area with facilities and sport equipment for exercise for those children capable of such activities, and classrooms for schooling. Again, the children were at different levels of ability in all these areas.
The food the children received was good and nutritional from my observation in terms of protein (meat), vegetables and carbohydrates. The children also appeared to me to be happy, innocent and trusting, so for all the limitations on what the staff can actually offer time wise in terms of personal quality time, they do a pretty good job and were certainly welcoming of us as volunteers.
How this immersion program came to be something our JPIC committee offered was through Peter Gardiner, CP. As chaplain to CBC (Christian Brothers College), Adelaide, he was invited to take part of a school program where the staff would take a select group of year 12 students for an immersion experience where they would volunteer at the orphanage for a week and a half. Peter went along and was deeply moved by the courage and humility he saw in the year 12 students as they faced their fears, stepping out of their comfort zone, to offer love and hands on care for these children. Peter also recognised the profound effect this immersion had on these students and the perspective changer that the experience was for them. As a result, Peter became a regular, going along each year with the next batch of year 12 students to take part in the immersion experience. In his own words, it was for him an annual retreat that inspired him in his ministry.
About 9 years ago, I became chair of our province’s JPIC committee. Peter is a member of this committee and when we initially met to discuss directions for our future, he suggested organising just such an immersion experience for anyone connected with our wider Passionist Family who would be interested. From a Passionist Charism perspective it was about being with the Crucified: “I was hungry, you gave me to eat; I was thirsty….” (Mt. 25:31-46). So we set up a campaign to promote the trip and in December of 2010 our first Passionist Immersion to Vietnam took place. I did not myself go on this first trip. Peter took a group of about 30 people who are affiliated to our order through parishes, youth ministries, and the Passionist Family Group Movement. The trip was a success, though there was much learning in terms of the size of the group and the challenges, given the cost, of getting the group together before or after for some reflection or formation for the experience.
We had decided to do it again, and so Peter began plans for a trip that was to be held from the 28th of December 2013 to the 14th of January 2014. I accepted Peter’s invitation to be part of this group.
To be completely honest, I cannot say I was looking forward to the trip at all. I do not enjoy overseas travel. I find it uncomfortable, inconvenient and stressful, plus I cannot sleep on a plane. Added to this was that volunteering for the orphanage was stepping right out of my comfort zone. I do work with teenage youth conducting high-school retreats all the time, but haven’t worked much with younger kids, and didn’t feel I had the patience for it. As for working with handicapped children, that was way out of my experience, and frankly the prospect frightened me. Also, I have had a few medical issues over the last 4 years (including a heart attack) that have been a blow to my self-confidence. The prospect of getting sick overseas did not thrill me at all.
So why did I say yes? Guilt! How could I, as chair of our JPIC committee, ask people to do something I wasn’t prepared to do myself? I also felt it was my responsibility, as chair, to support Peter in what he was doing for the committee and our province. I also felt guilty about avoiding the challenge to care for the broken. If I didn’t go I felt I would be paying lip service to the Gospel. Also, I have done enough personal work to recognise that growth doesn’t come from running away from your fears. Here was an opportunity to challenge myself to grow. So kicking and screaming (quietly to myself) I bit the bullet and went.
With all the reservations and fears I had, and all the mental psyching myself up for the challenge, I was not prepared for one critical and life changing factor – that I would end up loving the kids. It was an amazing experience and one that I would do again tomorrow. They were just wonderful kids and I loved being with them. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. How did all this unfold?
When we first arrived in Saigon, Peter wisely introduced us gently to what we were about to do by taking us, on the first full day of our visit, on a tour of the Mekong Delta. Saigon is an assault on your senses. It is overwhelming in so many ways: the noise of traffic and car horns (I wont miss that); the smells of car fumes, food cooking and rubbish; the humidity and heat; the haze constantly in the air, which I presume to have been smog; the incredible number of motorcycles on the street (Our guide told us that Saigon had a population of 9 million people and 10 million motorcycles). Crossing the road was a real test of courage cause you just had to walk, slow and steady, and trust that the motorcycles, cars and trucks would go around you (there was a better chance that you would get hit if you stopped in mid-transit as the drivers would be expecting you to keep going). That first day of touring gave me a chance to get some orientation and feel some familiarity with the place. This was important in preparing us for work at the orphanage. I am grateful to Peter for his wisdom in this and not dropping us, day one, in the deep end.
Our second day in Vietnam involved our first visit to the orphanage. Before we went, Peter sat us down in the foyer of the simple hotel we were staying in, to give us some words of introduction to the task at hand. What he told us also helped me, and the others, to personally prepare for the coming challenge. He told us to take things at our own pace. We needed to take care of ourselves, and pull back to catch our breath if we needed to. He shared with us that the first 4 times he had been to the orphanage, he would end up throwing up out the back, and that each of us would react to it differently. As he put it, “This was a dickhead free zone” – that in accepting the invitation to be part of the experience we had already done something good and important – this was not something that dickheads did.
The pep talk done, we set off for the orphanage, which was about a mile’s walk from the hotel. So that we could be identified by the staff, as members of the volunteer group, Peter gave us each a specially made polo shirt with an emblem of Australia and Vietnam in cooperation. We took a group photo, were welcomed officially by the director of the orphanage, then Peter took us for a tour of the facilities. There were different sections to the orphanage for children of different ages. Up on the second floor were the wards for the young children aged from about 2 to 8. There were also wards for children suffering from more debilitating conditions like hydrocephalus, etc. Downstairs were medical and physio facilities, kitchens, dorms for the older children, a dining room for those who could feed themselves, classrooms, etc. As we came to the upstairs ward, we were expected to leave our shoes at the door. As Peter walked us around the cots (about 20 to a room) he encouraged us to touch the children or carry them. Because I had mentally prepared myself to face the challenge I found I was able to do these things without much hesitation, nor did I find myself upset by what I saw. I knew there was nothing I could do to take away their disabilities so I found that I simply accepted this was the reality of the situation. Others reacted differently. One of my fellow Passionists told me he would be looking at his own problems and worries differently after seeing the hand that life had dealt these children.
After we completed the tour, Peter told us we were on our own to go where we felt drawn and start the work. So I headed back up to the younger children’s ward and found that it was feeding time. One of the caring staff handed me a bowl of porridge and pointed to one of the children and so I began feeding the child. Having watched umpteen parents feed their children was what I drew on in terms of what to do, having never fed a child before in my life. After feeding one, I was shown where to take the empty bowl for washing and handed another bowl and shown another child, and as simple and unspectacular as that my time as a volunteer began.
The time table we followed was to go to the orphanage at 8:30 a.m. each morning and work till 11:00 a.m., then return to the hotel, as after the morning feed the children were put to bed for a siesta. We could then grab some lunch and rest up a bit before returning to the orphanage at 2:00 p.m. and work through to 4:30 p.m. before calling it a day. Each evening at 5:30 p.m. Peter would gather us in the foyer to debrief and check on how we were all going and how we were finding the experience. Peter had also given us a journal so that we could reflect and write up each day of our time there. The evenings were then free for us to do what we wanted, or occasionally to do something together, like going into town to the Ben Thanh market and having a meal together in one of the impromptu restaurants that spring up around it.
Because we were in Saigon just after Christmas and before New Year’s Eve, the streets of the city were beautifully decorated with flower sculptures, which the lights at night made spectacular. Walking on the streets I have to say that I felt safer in Vietnam than I have in the Philippines or in India, places I have also visited. Food, clothing, etc. is pretty cheap by our standards. My daily breakfast, in the café across the road from the hotel, of an omelette, baguette and coffee came to around $2 Australian. You could haggle over prices in the markets, but when you consider that this is the livelihood of these people who are poor by our standards, there isn’t much point to being greedy. Taxi drivers in Rome have certainly ripped me off worse than those in Saigon.
On the third day of my visit I woke up with the inevitable dose of diarrhoea. I took a couple of pills and headed off to the orphanage. This day, as I walked into the upstairs ward, a boy of about 6 caught my attention. He wanted me to lift him out of his cot, so I did this and held him as, in his struggling way, he walked along the balcony. When we got to the section of the veranda that overlooked the main road outside, he clearly wanted to be lifted up to see what was going on. There is so much traffic and activity on the streets that it is as good as any television for distraction. I carried him so that he could observe what was happening below, but soon realised he was heavy. I devised a technique of resting my right foot on my left knee and sitting him on my right knee so as to support his weight. We must have spent a good half hour like this before he decided he wanted to do some more walking, thank goodness, as by this stage my arms were about to fall off. I helped him to walk for some time but after spending a good hour in total with him I realised that another thing I had not been prepared for on this job was that it was quite physically demanding. Working like this, carrying kids in the heat and humidity was hard work. Having a dose of the runs, I was out of energy and thankfully found one of our other volunteers who took the boy off my hands so I could grab my bottle of water and drain it before rushing off to the toilet again. I then sat in the shade of a tree in the courtyard trying to recover enough energy for the walk back to the hotel. I had had enough. I got back and shut myself in my hotel room and didn’t eat a thing for the rest of the day so as to let the bug work through my system. I think I also just needed my own space to adjust to the overwhelming environment that is Saigon. It was New Year’s Eve, and I spent it sleeping and recovering in the privacy of my hotel room.
It was what I needed. I was fine the next day and back on the job. Peter took a number of the group to visit some care facilities for children and mothers with HIV, as well as a hospice for people dying with AIDS. I went back to the orphanage as I felt it was important to climb back on the horse that threw me. Being a public holiday, I discovered that the Vietnamese also volunteer for such work. As I was feeding a child, the girl feeding a child next to me, who could speak pretty good English, turned out to be there volunteering on her day off from her job working in a hotel in the city. This was the day I first met Kong, who became my favourite at the orphanage. I was feeding him with a spoon that was bent, which struck me as odd. The feeding turned into a typical game where he would smile and turn away so I couldn’t feed him. I used words that I picked up in Vietnamese to encourage him to eat, such as ‘delicious’ or ‘good boy,’ but he would shake his head, then I would nod my head, and he would laugh. This game continued until one of the staff clearly indicated to him in Vietnamese that if he didn’t eat his meal he couldn’t have desert, which was chopped up papaya. Well, he grabbed the spoon off me and fed himself the rest – I’d been had. The spoon was bent because his only good hand, which was his right, didn’t afford him the best motor control, so the bent spoon helped him to feed himself.
Another morning I arrived at around 8:00 a.m. and went to the ward. There was a girl of about 3 years old crying in her cot, so I came over and stroked her arm. When she felt this she immediately raised her arms to be carried, so I picked her up and carried her. Her crying immediately stopped, but after about 10 minutes I thought to myself, ‘she’s heavy!’ So I placed her in one of the small hand made wheel chairs they have and wheeled her around the top veranda. After about 3 circuits I thought to myself that she probably only ever sees the top floor, so I asked another member of our group to give me a hand and carry the chair down to the ground floor. I then wheeled her all around the courtyard and grounds, exploring every nook and cranny. She seemed to be enjoying this, occasionally clapping her hands. At around 9:30 a.m. I knew it was time for her feed, so I carried her back upstairs and put her back in her cot, and she immediately started crying again. But before I could do anything about it, a member of staff handed me a bowl of food and pointed to another child for feeding.
Feeding itself was tricky. One child I was asked to feed was lying flat on his back with his head slightly raised on a pillow. He opened his mouth to receive the porridge, which I fed him vertically down into his mouth. I filled the spoon with the next load, but noticed he didn’t have the control over his swallowing response that you or I would have. It took him some time to swallow, appearing to almost gag on the food. So I waited for each gag and a clear throat before I would offer him more, but a staff member saw I wasn’t doing it right, so she took the bowl off me and literally shovelled the food into his mouth. He coped and was obviously used to it, so she handed the bowl back to me and I followed the same process. We got through it.
A typical day for me would be getting there at 8:30 a.m. and playing with the smaller kids, to the degree they could play. For some this meant wheeling them around the upper veranda or holding them up so they could look over the balcony to the traffic below. Then at 9:30 a.m., help with the feeding of these children, before heading downstairs to help feed the older children. When I returned in the afternoon the process would be repeated, though sometimes the older, more capable kids would be playing soccer (which was more like kick the ball for all it’s worth in whichever direction you like) or badminton.
The greatest surprise for me, as the days progressed, was to discover that the children remembered me. To walk into their section and see smiles break out on their faces as I came into view, was a great feeling. Kong, in particular, along with 3 of his friends, would end up in 3 wheelchairs, with one lad sitting on the tray table in the middle, as I pushed them around the veranda over and over until I was totally drained. They never tired of this game.
On the last day there, I made a special point of spending a bit of time with Kong in the afternoon, wheeling him around, feeding him, and then putting him to bed. Given the language barrier there was no way I could tell him that I wouldn’t be back the next day. He has probably seen many volunteers in his time and knows the deal. But I felt an unexpected sadness when I said goodbye to him. I never expected, when I started this journey, that I would feel like this.
As I reflect back on the experience, I can’t say that I changed the world by volunteering. The reality is that I was in the lives of those children for a week and a half, and for that time found myself growing from simply serving them to loving them. It gave them a few laughs and fun, and alleviated some of the pressure on the working staff, who learned to trust us, though they were welcoming from day one. We left a donation for the orphanage, of course, but this wont drastically improve their lives as they are already in good hands.
In the end, the value I see in what I did is that love is its own reward. It is our egos, I think, that seek some effective change in order to feel better about ourselves that we’ve made a difference. The reality is that the kids probably made a bigger difference in my life than I for them. The experience helped me to discover a capacity to love that I didn’t know I had. I discovered a patience that I didn’t know I had. I felt fully alive while I was there, without the distractions or expectations of my work and life back home. All that mattered was what I was doing at that specific moment – feeding, carrying, and playing. I was living in the present, and there is a great freedom to be found in that. I guess that is what an immersion experience is all about – taking you out of your routine and immersing you in a different reality to discover depths within yourself.
The experience sold me on the value of immersion experiences as a tool for changing perspectives. I plan to organise a group form amongst the young people I work with on retreats here in Australia and bring them over with Peter in 2 years time so that they too can experience what I experienced and learn what I learned, though each persons journey will probably be uniquely their own. I wonder when I return, in two years’ time, if Kong will remember me.