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A New World and a New Look at Life
by Graham Sijben
When visiting Vietnam for the first time in 2006, Ingrid and I developed a whole new look on life. Like most people, we had seen images on television of hungry, underprivileged children in faraway countries, but we had never given much thought to how we could help them. That all changed when we met the children and families of Vietnam. These beautiful people touched our hearts and filled us with the desire to try to help in some way. Now, thanks to the help of the Degenhardt Foundation, we have been given the chance of a lifetime to join with them in their stride to improve life for children and families of Vietnam.
Ingrid, 39, grew up in the Netherlands, while I, Graham, 42, grew up on the other side of the world, in New Zealand. We first met in 1991 and after a time of travelling, we married in 1997.
Ingrid and I both love children, but our dream to have children was not to come easy. When we were finally blessed with the birth of our baby girl, Loeka, we could only watch as she was rushed off into intensive care. It took 2 weeks of research before we were finally told that our daughter had a serious metabolism disorder and would be lucky to reach 6 months old. Thankfully, we were able to take her home with us, where we gave her all the love we could, and made sure she had the best possible life right up until the day she died in our arms at the age of 5 months old.
Our hopes of bearing our own children were lost with Ingrid having to have her uterus removed due to cancer. Fortunately this operation was successful but it took 5 years undergoing various tests and controls to be sure. Even with these losses the thought of children never vanished from our minds.
In 2006, the idea of helping some children somewhere else in the world came up when we met a couple from the Netherlands, who were involved with volunteer work at an orphanage in Hoi An, Vietnam. Before we knew what had happened, we were sitting on a plane heading towards Vietnam and an experience that was about to change our lives. An experience that changed our lives!
“Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, we travelled to Dalat and hired 2 motorcycle guides to begin a tour that was to take us up into the Central Highlands. Each turn of the road led us to another wonderful discovery, from small farms of leaf munching silkworms to the endless miles of rubber plantations. From barefoot cattle herders to mighty Mnong tribesmen who towered above us as they rode past on their elephants. It was an amazing start to our trip, but it wasn't until Kontum that the real experience began.
Seated behind our motorcycle guides, we rode past the large wooden church and in through the iron gate to enter the first of the Vinh Son Orphanages. At first intake, we were taken back by the poor standard of living, and the lack of amenities that surrounded them. But as the children began to crowd around us, the worn timber frames, the cracked plastered walls and the glassless windows soon faded from our view. There were smiles and laughter all around and we knew instantly that although the orphanage was extremely poor the Sisters and volunteer caregivers were doing all they could to care for the children. Doing their best to make up for the love and care that the children could no longer get from their families.
During the days that followed, a deep feeling of admiration and respect began to grow inside us as we watched the children and caregivers go about their daily routines, but it was the children that really moved us the most. Seeing how these children would look after each other, not only with the chores but also in their free time was great. We often saw the older children teaching the younger ones games and dances. But it was the children’s smiles that stole our hearts and before long we had dismissed our remaining holiday plans, and decided to spend the rest of our vacation helping at the orphanage instead.
Spending a longer time with the children, we began to realize that although these children were looked after in the best possible way, the children would always be missing the love that only a mother and father could give. Most importantly, the need to be held and loved when in pain, and despite the best efforts from the caregivers, it just wasn't possible to give each child the individual attention he or she needed.
We returned to Vietnam again in 2007 to spend another month at the orphanage and it was during this trip that we came in contact with Joy Degenhardt. Joy was adopted in 1972 and returned in 1992 to dedicate her life to improving life for poor and homeless children and families. Joy has been living and working in Vietnam since 1992. She and her mother founded the Degenhardt Foundation in 2005, an American NGO, so they could continue their work providing humanitarian aid which had they had begun in 1992. After talking with Joy about our work in Kontum, we were offered the opportunity to move to Vietnam to work with her. Although this meant giving up everything in The Netherlands, we decided this was an opportunity we couldn’t let pass by. This was a chance to do something worthwhile, and also a chance to help the children we had fallen in love with in Kontum.
A New World And a New Life
We have now been living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, since December 2007. Joy has been great. She has helped us get settled into the Vietnamese world which is far different than our own, and her and her family have really made us feel at home here. At the Degenhardt Foundation, she has us involved with various tasks in and around the office, mainly editing documents and helping the staff with setting up various projects, not to mention helping them improve their English in the evenings. But most importantly, Joy has given us the opportunity to work in the area we love the most. Kontum.
There are quite a number of orphanages in Kontum and we have been helping in four of these, two of which are the Vinh Son 1 and Vinh Son 2 Catholic Orphanages, which house around 370 children in total. The other two orphanages are the government orphanages, Trung Tam Bao Tro Xa Hoi, housing about 95 children, and Trai Nuoi Day Tre Khuyet Tat, housing around 75 disabled children.
We have been helping at these orphanages in numerous ways. Sometimes simply by playing with the children, teaching them new songs and helping them with their English. We have also been able to raise some donations which we have used for buying extra food and necessities, taking children on picnics and outings, and arranging special meals for special occasions such as Christmas and the Tet holiday. Last year we used our donations to buy 146 new school sport uniforms and just recently we completed a small project to replace an old and dirty, broken concrete floor which the infants of Vinh Son 2 had been using as an area to play and eat. The old floor was completely removed and was replaced by a brand new concrete floor, this time with a tiled surface. This has made cleaning so much easier for the staff and has improved hygiene immensely.
We are now looking at helping set up a dental project which we hope will provide dental care for these 4 orphanages twice yearly. This is a bigger project than we have worked on before but we believe that with the support of friends and well doers, we will be able to make this work.
We have a lot more plans in mind and hope to be in Vietnam for some time yet. Of course sometimes thoughts of home, of family and friends creep in and tug on our hearts but with the simple smile of a passing child, all is made well and our thoughts return to this beautiful land and the beautiful people living in it.
This really is the most rewarding work I can think of and we would like to thank the Degenhardt Foundation for giving us this chance to join them in Vietnam. What the Degenhardt Foundation are doing here in Vietnam is fantastic and thanks to Joy we have been able to play a small part in it.
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by Don Funk