In Hue, Central Vietnam we visited an organisation which is helping local children have life changing heart surgery. They employ local differently able people to make beautiful handmade gifts using recycled materials with all profits being re-invested in its various projects.
Healing the wounded Heart – Hue
We were in Hue to meet with the Office of Genetic Counselling and Disabled Children (OGCDC) which has been helping poor local families to afford much need surgery since 1994. They raise funds in many ways and their commercial operation ‘Healing the Wounded Heart’ uses profits to help poor children from surrounding villages have much needed heart operations. But it doesn’t end there; as a way of helping differently able people to earn a steady, decent wage, they teach them valuable practical skills to make beautiful hand crafted products. All of the products they make incorporate recycled material from leftover telephone wire to used rice sacks!
Before visiting the workshop and retail outlet we met with Phoung , secretary of OGCDC, at the Department of Medical Genetics at the University of Hue. A small, cheerful lady on crutches, Phuong meets us at the gates of the University Campus.
Phuong has never had the use of her right leg. Later she would tell us of her childhood. Growing up in Vietnam’s small villages, disabled children are often kept at home as there is simply no infrastructure in place for them to be independently mobile. She was helped by her friends and family and is not sad to relay these experiences, just very matter of fact. Her friends secured her a specially adapted scooter when she was younger and now she has an improved model which allows her to negotiate Hue as effortlessly as everybody else. She is clearly very fond of it but what she really wants is a car. “Do you think there is a car I could operate? It is safe for me to use my scooter in the city but in the countryside it is too dangerous.” I reply that I’m sure these cars exist. She seems surprised but is not at all surprised when I add that I’m sure it would be very expensive. “This is my dream”, she responds. Her Engilsh is excellent.
Once the scooter is parked we are led through the campus and up some stairs to a bustling office where we are introduced to Prof. Nguyen Viet Nhan, Associate Professor and driving force behind the operation.
Professor Nguyen Viet Nhan
A cheery yet thoughtful and clearly very busy man Dr Nhan was born in Hue during the French occupation. Like so many people, his family were displaced by the American War, moving around a lot but eventually he returned to the city to become a specialist in birth defects. One of many tragic consequences of that particular conflict was the damage done by Agent Orange. A toxic defoliant used by the American Armed Forces to clear vast swathes of jungle in an attempt to reveal the Ho Chi Minh trail, it resulted in thousands of babies being born with birth defects. Moved by the lack of care for poor people affected, he saw a need to provide extra help and started working on the project by himself, founding the organisation in 1994. By 1999 he had opened an office with help from the government and overseas embassies, and began reaching out to potential sponsors.
The Work of OGCDC
Healing the Wounded Heart
It costs between $1000 and $6000 for a heart operation in Vietnam. The poorest of the country’s population live in small villages with no local medical facilities and would never have a hope of raising this kind of money by themselves. The OGCDC visit families where the children have health problems and evaluate the needs of the family, providing between anywhere up to 100% of the cost of the operation with funds raised at Healing the Wounded Heart or through international sponsors. 10 life saving operations are processed each month with their support. At present it is only children under the age of 18 who can helped.
Western benevolence and charity it seems prefer to help children than those who are older. This is something they are trying to change as many children suffer as the result of one or both of their parents becoming ill and in some cases dying. They are therefore in the process of encouraging sponsorship of people up to the age of 46. Profits from the shop also help to fund OGCDC’s many other projects .
They sponsor a rehabilitation programme allowing parents to stay in the hospital with recovering children up to 3 months after their operations. Without this support it would be impossible for the families of the children to stay away from home for such a long time without financial hardship.
Increased Mobility Programe
The team work with children of differing abilities, be it Polio, cerebral palsy or downs. The Increased Mobility Programme aims to help children today who cannot get outside, especially those with cerebral palsy. The team visits with the family and then consider which wheelchair would be most suitable in order to get the kids out into the world.
The organisation also has 300 students in its scholarship programme which sponsors the children from secondary school to University level both in Hue and Quang Tri province.
They have 2 centres in Vietnam for early intervention, one in Hue and another in the mountainous Nam Thong area. Children with Emotional and Behavioural Disorders such as ADHD, Autism and aspergers as well as children with downs syndrome are helped in these centres. There is very little education on these issues in Vietnam, even more so in the countryside. With help from OGCDC symptoms are identified earlier, thus helping them with their schooling. In Hue they are now helping 50 children.
Meet The Artisans
And so to the people who make the wonderful products.
We visited the workshop on the outskirts of central Hue to meet the artists working there to make the products sold in the Healing the Wounded Heart shop. All of the artisans are differently able and most live in the city to work during the week, returning to their villages at the weekend. The majority are deaf and find it very hard to find work, the attitude towards people with disabilities being somewhat archaic although not, we hasten to add, cruel.
There is a real bond between the men and women in the workshop. They are clearly very happy in their work and while their fingers fly at the weaving, sewing and stitching they are laughing and joking while signing with one another. In fact, two married couples working there met through work and are now raising young families. OGCDC organises birthday parties and group excursions for the team and and pay them a fair wage. They also provide health insurance and lunch every day as well as extra support of between $150-$200 per month.
Dr Nguyen was very realistic about the hardships of running such an organisation. When I asked him how things were going he very matter of factly said that the Global economic crisis has not helped but then, what can you do? It was very clear that this was a man who would carry on regardless. With staff like Phuong to support him too, I am not at all surprised. There are few selfless people in the world and these are certainly two of them. Both seem very happy in their work and even spend what spare time they have volunteering at various charities.
Professor Nguyen animatedly tells us of their plans for a thrift shop in the tourist area of Hue selling second hand clothes staffed by young people with Downs Syndrome. As if that were not enough he continues to tell me of their plans for an organic pig farm, raising wild pigs in the mountains. “Their meat is very good.”, he tells us excitedly. The farm will also include a residential home for people with differing abilities.
The team rely on the work of volunteers and donations from sponsors all over the world. While in the office we met Tess, an Australian audiology specialist who had been working at the University with the team in Hue for a year and was leaving tomorrow. Moved by her experience we had to stop talking as she was clearly very emotional at having to leave and didn’t want me to set her off again!
If you would like to volunteer or become a sponsor please get in touch with Phuong via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.