There are times in your life when you experience something that has a profound effect on you, makes you see things differently and even forces you to change your priorities. I had such a moment when I met the children in Phu My Orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. My husband is part of St Josephs Parish in Hobart and we joined the Passionist pilgrimage, which travelled to Vietnam in December 2010, to help in some of Saigon’s orphanages. This was a privately funded trip, I must point out. There was no taxpayers’ money spent on this trip.
Father Peter Gardiner CP led the group of 33 volunteers from Passionist parishes from all parts of Australia and New Zealand. Father Peter, who is Chaplain at Christian Brothers College in Adelaide, has been taking groups of school students to Vietnam and the Philippines for the last six years. For many of these students it is their first opportunity to experience a different culture. But, more than that, under Father Peter’s guidance, these students derive great benefits from their volunteer work at Phu My Orphanage. The immersion experience, which is both challenging and emotional, gives these students a wider understanding of the world and of other people lives and an appreciation of their own gifts and the need to share these with the world.
The December pilgrimage enabled Father Peter and the Passionists to give a group of adults this same opportunity to move out of their comfort zone and be confronted by the challenge of working with children with severe disabilities in conditions far removed from our normal comfortable Australian lifestyle. It is difficult not to be moved by seeing these children and the way they live.
In organising many trips to Phu My over these last six years, Father Peter has enabled hundreds of people to work with the children of Phu My Orphanage. In doing so Father Peter is continuing the work of his Passionist order, founded by Paul of the Cross in 1720. Passionists preach and minister among the poor and the marginalised of every kind. Passionists see that it is their role to care for those members of the society that have been forgotten—the sick, the poor and the abandoned. It is from this ideal that the Passionists, and Father Peter in particular, have developed the pilgrimages to undertake voluntary work in the orphanages of Vietnam.
Phu My Orphanage, or the Centre for the Protection of Handicapped Orphans, is home to over 300 children with disability. The orphanage was established in 1875 by the Sisters of St Paul de Chartres and they have continued to provide care for the orphans even though the government took control of the orphanage in 1975. In fact the sisters still live on the premises.
Most of the children have cerebral palsy and many have further complications such as autism, and some have Down syndrome. Some of the children are more able-bodied while most are confined to beds or can be transported only with assistance. The children are cared for by some 20 staff. So, for 300 children with disability, there are 20 staff. There are ancillary staff such as cleaners and people who do the laundry and the like. There are medical specialists in support although the numbers appeared limited.
Children at the orphanage have either been taken there by the families who are unable to care for them or been abandoned altogether. In all the time I was there, I certainly did not see any parents of children in the facility. The orphanage also provides day care for up to 200 children with disability, and this allows these children to remain with their families while receiving the specialist care they need. But, of course, you have to be able to afford to pay for that.
Vietnam is a developing country. Its people are resourceful and many find a way to live modest lives. But if you cannot provide for yourself or your family, life is hard. When a family has a child with disability, it can find that it is not capable of providing for the child. Phu My is one of many places that step in to care for these children. However, with many more children than staff, Phu My is not able to give the children the individual attention they need. This is where the assistance offered by volunteers becomes vital. While the orphanage can provide the children with the medical attention they need, staff at the orphanage welcome volunteers to spend time with the children, to play games, help feed them, push them in their wheelchairs, read stories, sing—really just to spend time with them and give them some individual care and some much needed one-on-one attention.
Although most of our time was spent working at Phu My, we also spent time helping in a number of other charitable establishments around Saigon. Robert and I spent two days at the Annunciation Orphanage in the outer suburbs of Saigon. In this situation there are two nuns who care for about 50 children in a very small three-story building. I think if they had the size of this chamber, they would be beside themselves. The children who live at the orphanage are of all ages, from a few weeks old up to about 16 years. The youngest when we were there were two one-month-old babies. They were not twins; both had been abandoned separately.
The older children help to care for the younger ones. One of the interesting things I noticed there was the real sense of family between the older children and the younger children. The older children made sure that the younger children were all fed before they got their own meals. They helped to feed the children who could not feed themselves. None of these children have family support; they rely totally on the orphanage’s ability to look after them.
Whilst all the children are treated with kindness and compassion and are clean and healthy, the orphanage needs additional funds to operate, and all donations are used directly to benefit the children. For example, the group we were with bought toys to take to the orphanage because they just do not have the money to spend on that type of thing. The things that the average Australian child takes for granted were not to be seen in these orphanages.
We visited Mai Tam shelter, which provides education and support for families affected by HIV-AIDS, as well as being a hospice for those who are in the terminal stages of AIDS. We met many of the children in care and visited a classroom where the students gave us a wonderfully warm welcome. They sang us a song and were very excited to have visitors. We briefly visited the hospice and spent time with the patients. From my perspective, this was probably the most moving experience. When we think of a hospice in Australia, we think of somewhere that is warm and friendly. In this hospice there were about 10 patients. They had camp stretcher beds of the sort you see in army disposal shops, and old pillows if they were lucky. It was quite moving for everybody who went there.
Between this site and the second site, Mai Tam shelter cares for about 60 children and some of the mothers as well. The children living at Mai Tam are both infected and affected by HIV-AIDS. Some are HIV positive or have AIDS, and some are the children or orphans of people with HIV-AIDS. Since it was established in 2005, the Catholic Church of Vietnam has funded the orphanage with additional support from donors in other parts of the world.
Other members of the group visited the House for the Blind Woman, which houses and educates blind girls, and the Buddhist Cooking House, where group members helped prepare some of the 3,000 meals a day produced at the cooking house. These meals are distributed to the needy, including the hungry at the public hospital.
After working, we had time to reflect on our experiences at the orphanages and the time to put these experiences into perspective. We realised that we are indeed fortunate to live in a comfortable, safe country like Australia. We benefit from all the hard work done by our predecessors and we are blessed by having wonderful natural resources which underpin our comfortable lifestyle. However, for many people around the world, and especially in our near neighbourhood, daily life is still a challenge. How is it that some people live in relative comfort while others have been delivered into a life of hardship, burdened by physical problems and economic adversity? It is a challenge for us all to face this dilemma and then to confront it and respond decisively.
The world has numerous problems and we can feel overwhelmed in trying to respond to them. They can seem too big for us to deal with. We each have our own problems that we battle with on a daily basis. Life can be a struggle, but for some the struggle is much harder than for others. Our struggles are put into perspective when we see the lives of those who are in desperate need, and this is where we can make a difference. It may be a little difference in the whole scheme of things but, for one small, helpless child, a small contribution can make a big difference in their lives
We all had the chance to do this. If you can change one person’s life you can make a big difference to the world. There were wonderful committed and compassionate people in our group. It was a privilege to meet them, spend time with them and get to know them. One, a student wise beyond her years, gave us a card on which was written a quote titled ‘What Matters’, author unknown, which said:
One hundred years from now, it will not matter what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, how much I had in my bank account, nor what my clothes looked like. What matters is that the world may be a little better because I was important in the life of one child.