Smile Group is an organization started by Nguyen Van Hung to help children live in dignity with AIDS.
More specifically, their mission statement is “to restore dignity and hope to children and families affected by AIDS, through financial, educational, moral and psychological support. We are committed to helping children and young adults have equal access to education, medical care, and social services. We assist AIDS victims in adopting a lifestyle, which allows them to live with AIDS as a chronic disease rather than a death sentence. And perhaps most importantly, we educate the community about the disease to fight discrimination and prevent the spread of AIDS.”
The kids learn English, which will help them later on in life. They also do lots of fun activities like yoga, dancing, and swimming. There is also a volunteer from France who teaches art/drawing/painting.
The thing I noticed most, though, was that there is love all around. Tons of touching, affection, and love. These kids have a horrendous disease and are probably ostracized in their daily life. But here they can be themselves and escape that ostracization and enter a community and atmosphere of love and acceptance.
We took the kids to the zoo to play some games one morning. They played a variety of games and I joined in doing my best given that I often had no idea what the rules were or how to play
I led a rousing game of head, shoulders, knees and toes (knees and toes) to complement their English learning for the day.
The kids also sang some traditional Vietnamese folksongs.
After the zoo the kids went swimming, which they all loved and enjoyed.
After all these activities, we returned to the organization’s center so we could have lunch, the kids could take a nap, and the adults could have a meeting.
Below some pictures:
One afternoon it rained really hard and the plan to go swimming was shot. The French artist was out of town and there were hours to kill.
So we got down on the floor, with the drumbeat of hard rain in the background, and drew pictures.
One of the kids was a true natural though! Look at his drawings below!
Specifically, look at this one. He made a cartoon, with captions in English. I don’t know what it all means, the skeleton holding the heart and the blood dripping everywhere, but the artistc skills are amazing!
One of the volunteers decided to draw my face. She did an amazing job! The funniest part was watching her spend 15 minutes making circles to draw my crazy hair! Below you can see some of that in video.
Other drawings made by the kids are here:
Other kids opted to play games or read.
In the end, it was wonderful to bond with the kids. I wish they weren’t battling an incurable disease, but it was clear that they aren’t defining themselves by their disease, nor are they letting it stop them from doing anything. I have all the respect in the world for them, and for Smile Group Vietnam.
Visiting a Buddhist orphanage/nursing home
One day I took a trip with some university students to the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City.
The place itself was beautiful, but the story of each individual there was probably tragic.
The older children were doing morning prayers when we arrived.
While they did their prayers we visited the elderly residents. Each elderly resident had his or her sad story. Most of them found themselves there because they had no children. Children here often serve as a form of social security in old age, with the children supporting the parents into their old age.
These elderly people are given a place to sleep and food, but medical care is not provided. So they all had various ailments, some treatable some not, that plagued them.
They really enjoyed our company, breaking up their routine and making them laugh and smile. Of course, as a foreigner they had many questions for me and it was definitely a change from the norm. They were really a lively group despite the fact that they are basically there waiting to die.
The university students and I scraped together some money so the people with medical issues could get some treatment.
Then we hung out with the little children. There were a ton of them and they seemed hungry for affection and touch.. and candy too
We also interacted with the young people, say from age 5 to 15, after they finished their prayers. I learned many of them will grow up to become monks as they don’t really have many other options. Still, they are educated there and can do whatever they want when they get older.
They all spoke a little English and it was fun talking to them. What was more fun was them trying to teach me some Vietnamese and seeing how much they laughed as I tried my best to imitate their .. noises.
It’s very inspirational meeting people trying to make the world a bit better via their local community. The people carrying out Nguyen Van Hung dream of helping kids with AIDS live a dignified life are inspirational, but many of these people are young volunteers.
Similarly, the university students I visited the orphanage with weren’t students of sociology or social work. They were studying finance and banking!
There is a solidarity here that is palpable. Maybe it’s due to the struggles this country went through to get its freedom. Maybe it’s just the characteristic of being Vietnamese. But there is solidarity here.
And these young people, these change-makers, are the future of Vietnam. As I mentioned in my post about Ho Chi Minh City, the “times are a changin” here. I, personally, am excited to see what becomes of this energetic and young nation full of hard-working, empathetic people.