Making a difference while traveling the world

By Jessica Chang, for

Maria Lee knew she was destined for a life beyond her small Midwestern hometown.

In the third grade, destiny found her.

“It just hit me in the soul, in my heart,” she said. “And that’s what I wanted to do ever since I was 8.”

A Peace Corps volunteer came and spoke to Lee’s class about her job helping children in Africa. That experience planted a seed in Lee that day.

And now, Lee is becoming a Peace Corps volunteer herself – at the age of 54.

“As a 20-year-old, I would’ve gone, ‘Oh my gosh! Who would go as a grandmother?’ Because I’m a grandmother now,” said Lee. “But now that I’m in my 50s, I don’t feel much different than I did in my 30s, only I feel more grounded and more comfortable in my skin.”

While the average age of a Peace Corps volunteer is 28, 7% of them, like Lee, are over 50. The minimum age requirement is 18 years old, but there is no upper age limit. The oldest serving volunteer today is 84.

No matter the age, volunteers are currently spread throughout 75 countries and are required to serve for 27 months. President John F. Kennedy started the program in 1961 to promote peace and friendship through service in developing countries.

“As someone who works in recruitment, I can tell you that this one of our best demographics, because Peace Corps resonates very deeply with them,” said Peace Corps public affairs specialist Kate Kuykendall of volunteers who are 50 and older. “We often hear from our applicants that they had wanted to join when they were younger, but ‘life got in the way’ and so they are very energized about doing something that they’ve been wanting to do for as long as they can remember.”

The Peace Corps recently partnered with AARP to target that demographic with advertisements and outreach events. The two organizations also encourage veteran Peace Corps volunteers and AARP volunteers to serve their own communities. AARP’s Create the Good program is an online resource for volunteer opportunities.

“Peace Corps volunteers age 50 and above come with a wealth of life skills and professional experiences to make an instant impact in communities around the world,” said Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams. “Peace Corps is honored to work with AARP to increase public service opportunities for Americans age 50 and over.”

Maria Lee said she initially hadn’t planned on waiting till she was in her 50s.

She set her sights on going right out of high school. But her aunt, at the time a Peace Corps volunteer on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, advised against it.

“She said, ‘Don’t. Wait until you’re older.’ She had waited until her kids graduated from high school,” Lee recalled.

So Lee did the same. After five years in the United States Air Force, getting married, having two children and running a successful horseback riding business, Lee applied in 2007.

The Peace Corps accepted her and invited her to work in Africa.

“I shouted from the rooftop,” Lee reminisced with a grin.

Only a medical screening stood between Maria and her dream. And that led her on a journey she never expected.

“They found breast cancer,” she said. “So I didn’t go to Africa in 2007. I went through chemo and lost my hair and my breasts and turned 50 years old in that condition and just kept going.”

Lee continued to hike, work outdoors and eat healthy, as she always had, determined to beat the cancer.

She did. And after three years of being cancer-free, she reapplied and was again accepted into the Peace Corps. In March, she leaves her home in Loomis for Albania in southeastern Europe, where she’ll work as a community and economic development specialist.

Lee presumed it was for her entrepreneurial spirit.

Maria teaching a horseback riding lesson

“When I ran my own business, I started with nothing. Somebody gave me a horse one day and I started to give lessons on it and it worked into almost a million dollar a year business,” she said. “It was just amazing how well it turned out in the end.”

Whether she gives business advice as an entrepreneur, a warm hug as a mother or empathy as a cancer survivor, Lee knows Albania will also add to her 54 years of life experience.

“I think that will be bigger than what I give,” she said. “I think what I learn over there is going to be tremendous. And I’m at a point in my life where I’m open to just about anything.”

For two-time Peace Corps volunteer Richard Fuchs, that’s the right attitude.

“I’m a firm believer that you make your program what you want it to be,” he said.

Fuchs first served in the Peace Corps for a tuberculosis control program in Bolivia right after he finished college in the late 60s. Almost four decades later, he reapplied.

Richard and his Peace Corps buddies in Bolivia in the 1960s

“I always thought I would do it again,” Fuchs said. “I would have to wait till my child grew up and I retired or something and the opportunity presented itself in 2005, so I said now’s the time. Why not? I’m still healthy and I needed to get out of this country and show other people that America wasn’t exactly what our government was doing.”

The organization assigned Fuchs to teach English in Turkmenistan in Central Asia.

“I wanted to go to a Muslim country because I have no Muslim friends and I wanted to find out what their culture was,” said Fuchs, a Van Nuys resident. “I found out, at least as practiced in Turkmenistan, they were the nicest, kindest, most generous – and they didn’t have a lot. To anybody, they opened up their hearts.”

Every Turkmen he met would ask him the same questions to get to know him – where he’s from, whether he’s married and how old he is.

“Age is revered in the Turkmen society,” Fuchs said. “I would explain that in American society many people go out of their way to veil the aging process, especially here in California through gyms, health food, tanning parlors, plastic surgery, hairplugs, and that most Americans wouldn’t ask that question. Of course having attempted to explain that to my students their next question was always, ‘So how old are you?’”

Whether Bolivia or Turkmenistan, in his 20s or his 60s, Fuchs stresses that each Peace Corps experience is personal and “devoid of age effectiveness.”

But he does admit, in Turkmenistan, he was able to offer “a broader range of knowledge and experiences that can be added to the teacher’s repertoire of instructional tools,” having lived longer than most of the other volunteers there.

For Maria Lee, her range of knowledge and experiences have cultivated a level of patience and maturity she hopes make her more prepared than ever for her upcoming adventure.

“You know you’re going to save the world when you’re in your 20s,” she said. “When you’re in your 50s, you’re looking back going, well I might not save the world, but I can maybe help this little corner of it instead.”

Starting Over

I recently met a humble and inspiring woman, named Karin Carlson, who I was lucky enough to shadow for a new job I’ve just started. At 61-years-old, Karin’s found a new calling in life. She’s a much different person today than she was a few years ago when her world was turned upside-down.

She and her husband divorced after being married for 35 years. She found herself in her mid-50s lost and lonely. Her friend offered her an idea to help her out of her rut – go with her to Kaihura, Uganda to volunteer for Bringing Hope to the Family – an organization that runs an orphanage, a medical clinic, a vocational school, an elementary school, sustainable livelihood projects and a child welfare program. She agreed to it. When asked what skills she could offer, Karin said she had administrative experience from helping her ex-husband build his business. But when she got to Uganda – change of plans. The organizers asked her if she was afraid of blood. She decided to take the challenge and became a dental assistant, helping pull teeth and repair smiles.

Karin working at the HopeAgain dental clinic

That trip left an imprint on Karin’s heart.

“I had never seen anything like the poverty, and yet the people had joy. It showed me that you don’t need things to be happy. It also got me outside of my own head and my own problems as a result of my divorce, and made me feel like a worthwhile person again.”

Karin’s newfound passion for serving the poor in Uganda brought her to Bringing Hope to the Family a second time – this time, she worked with children in the orphanage and helped build a beauty salon with teenage girls who were learning how to do hair and massages to become self-sustaining.

She’s going back for the third time next summer. Karin considers this community in Uganda her second home…and strongly considers making it that permanently one day.

“I am 61-years-old and a grandmother of 3. It’s pretty interesting to ‘start over’ at this point in life, but I think it’s a great way to go.”

Karin and her friends at Bringing Hope to the Family

I just got back home after an extended Thanksgiving vacation in so-sunny, so-warm So-Cal where I finally got to deliver gifts from Thailand and Vietnam to my generous friends who helped support my trip there. While I stopped in the Coffee Bean in Del Mar to meet a friend, the girl who took my chai latte order commented on the shirt I was wearing with the Chang beer logo on it.

This logo is similar to the one on the shirt I was wearing

She loves elephants and, therefore, loved my shirt. I told her I had bought it in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I visited while I was volunteering in the country, and how she should go there to experience the Patara elephant farm where I took care of an elephant for a day. She was so excited, she told the next customer in line about my trip. That customer’s name is Pat Feldman and we were meant to meet. She told me about her son at the University of San Diego who would love the opportunity to teach English in Thailand. Not only that, she started her own website – – that shares stories of kindness and humanity in a time when despair, selfishness, violence and corruption seem so prevalent. On her website, Pat shares how she was one of 7 kids and grew up on welfare. But no matter how little they had, her mother taught her the gift of kindness through a life lesson she’ll never forget that involved a coveted toaster – I’ll let you read the complete story on her website.

Pat told me how she featured a story on her website about a group of people who gather in the parking lot outside the Dream Dinners in Poway to package food to ship to people in Tanzania. Ironically, the person who owns that Dream Dinners, runs those food packaging events and leads groups to volunteer in Tanzania is Phil Harris, the pastor and director of Friends and Family Community Connection who led multiple trips to Biloxi, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina hit – including my first volunteer trip in September of 2006. Pat and I were both so blown away by this serendipitous meeting in a random Coffee Bean I’ve never been to in San Diego more than two years after I moved away. It’s a small world after all.

I’ve never been to Australia, but I thought this would be a cool way to see it. How would you like to travel down under, while helping conserve the country’s wildlife and beautiful landscapes by planting a new forest or creating wildlife habitats for an endangered species? From wombats to pygmy blue-tongue lizards and koalas; or restoring beaches, historic towns and outback areas, YOU CAN MAKE AN IMPACT through Work and Volunteer Abroad. After the droughts, then all the flooding they’ve faced the last few years, they need the help from volunteers! Just click on this link below to learn more about this volunteer opportunity!




Now that I’m home from my own volunteer trip, I thought I’d share other volunteer travel ideas with you from a great book I bought at one of those Borders Going-out-of-Business sales. It’s Frommer’s 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference. Here’s one that sounds so fun and inspirational…

So you’ve heard of the World Cup, but how about the Homeless World Cup? The Homeless World Cup is a soccer (or football if you’re not from the U.S.) tournament for homeless players from around the world to use the sport to empower themselves to make a positive change in their lives. The last one just happened in August in Paris and the one in 2012 is in Mexico City and YOU can volunteer there! Check out their website:

Homeless World Cup logo for the tournament in 2010. 2011 was in Paris and 2012 is in Mexico City.

I’ve been back in the states for two weeks now and it’s crazy to think how quickly I got sucked back into the go-go-go, status-conscious, check-your-smart-phone-every-10-seconds way of life again! Sadly, I feel the memories of Southeast Asia fading a little day by day. At least posting my photos on Facebook little by little helps fill in those gaps.

Living in San Francisco helps me relive those experiences, too. A whiff of the sewer or a sign written in Vietnamese helps transport me back to Ho Chi Minh City. Or the symphony of horns that rises out of the snarled traffic in downtown during rush hour takes me back to the insane streets of Bangkok (their traffic is so much worse!). Whether it’s something I see, smell or feel – just for a split second – it’s a link that keeps me latched to those three amazing months.

Here’s what I miss most:
The children’s smiles and laughs

Nghiem laughing







My homestay mom in Thailand, Pi Su

Pi Su and me on my last day at school









The other volunteers from around the world I worked with in Vietnam

Volunteers for Peace Vietnam, July 2011







Buying a good bowl of pho or a plate of pad thai off the street for $1

Pad thai from a street vendor








I loooove those mangosteens!







Massages for $6
2-hour siestas in the middle of every day in Vietnam
New adventures and places to explore every week

Being an elephant owner for the day in Chiang Mai, Thailand












Don’t get me wrong…I am glad to be home and here’s why:

Being with my family and giving my parents peace of mind that I’m safe at home
Being with Trevor
Catching up with friends
People who understand personal space
People who say “excuse me”, “please” and “thank you”
Seeing and interacting with people of all different ethnic backgrounds
Clean feet
Toilet paper in public restrooms
Not fearing for my life when I cross the street

Streets of Ho Chi Minh City...cross at your own risk







Softer mattresses
Finally getting to see the last Harry Potter movie (it was banned in Vietnam)

The important thing is not to lose sight of what I discovered about myself. I’ve learned I’m somewhat of a control freak and need to let go of what’s out of my hands. I’ve learned how to be comfortable – and confident – by myself. I’ve learned to become even more compassionate towards children, especially the ones who are so helpless.

Nghia and me

I need to use the momentum I’ve gained from my trip to keep driving me towards the bigger picture – my ultimate goal – of providing encouragement and resources for people seeking a volunteer venture of their own. Please let me know if you know of a web designer who’d be willing to contribute to a project like this and anyone else who might want to help. Stay tuned…I may be home now, but it doesn’t end here!

It takes a chance…

Every day, 4-year-old Tam wakes up surrounded by 31 other kids – his roommates and siblings, in a way. He’s brimming with energy and ready to jump out of bed and off the walls, like Spiderman – his favorite superhero. But he doesn’t get to play or run around with the other children. That’s because most of the others are confined to their beds – unable to walk or even speak, like he can.

The beds within the orphanage

Tam eating his dinner







Tam is one of the lucky ones. At the orphanage for disabled children where he lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, his disability is one of the least severe – being blind in his right eye. He can speak Vietnamese – and even a little English and French he learned from the volunteers who’ve worked at the orphanage.

Tam ended up at the orphanage after his parents abandoned him when he was about a year old – an all too familiar story amongst his “roommates”. But now, he’s getting a second chance. He’s able to use his abilities to build a future for himself – full of hope and potential. Tam just started going to school – outside the orphanage walls, with other children who can run, jump and talk with him – like him.

Tam at the school playground

Seeing him at school running around the playground, up the stairs to the slide, zooming down, then doing it all over again and again; hearing him laugh, scream and talk to the other children gave me a glimpse of who Tam could become if he continues going to school and growing in an environment where he’s challenged to be more than the kid who’s the “least severely disabled”. And thanks to the donations of Lorraine Burke, one of my fellow volunteers from Ireland, Tam’s future is more secure.

“If he gets a good education, he has a chance of maybe going out on his own when he’s older,” Lorraine says. “When he’s over 18, he’ll be able to get a better job, so it’s just great to see him and great for him to go out of the orphanage instead of being there every day.”

Since my one-month volunteer placement at the orphanage ended a couple of weeks ago, I’ve thought a lot about how I can continue to help the orphans I’ve grown to love like my own family. Maybe we can install an elevator or a build a ramp at the orphanage, so the kids have better access between the two floors. Maybe I can raise money to help pay for an operation to help Tam see again. When I fly back home to the U.S. tomorrow and return to my “real life,” those ideas and thought will continue churning through my head.

As I’ve traveled through Vietnam and Cambodia these last couple of weeks, I’ve stumbled upon so many opportunities to give in other ways – simple things we all can do when we travel. In Siem Reap, Cambodia, you can support the Angkor Hospital for Children by simply shopping at their store/photo gallery,

Friends Restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

donating blood or volunteering at the hospital. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, you can help give street children the self esteem and skills to become independent and productive members of their community by eating at an excellent restaurant, called Friends, that trains them to work in different industries, like the restaurant business.

In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I heard about an organization, called Maison Chance, through a volunteer I worked with at the orphanage. It’s an amazing place where disabled adults and orphans can get housing, health care, education and vocational training in a family setting. I got to visit all three of their centers – the most impressive to me was their

Maison Chance artist and his painting

Take Wing Center, where disabled adults learn how to paint, sew, make woodcrafts and work with computers. Here, they’re enabled and encouraged to build futures and careers for themselves even though they’ve been told so often their disabilities will hold them back. When I walked in, I felt as if I were entering an art gallery lined with expensive paintings of renowned artists. But these paintings were done by amateurs who’ve just learned the craft! I was drawn to this painting on the left of Vietnamese women dressed in traditional ao dais, in particular. So much in fact, I had to buy it. That money goes straight to the artist.

Seeing the talent and nurturing environment at Maison Chance gave me some hope for the orphans I helped take care of. With the right environment and people around them, maybe some of them can beat the odds, break through those metal bars that confine them to their beds and surpass people’s expectations of them as “disabled kids.” All it takes is a chance, just like the one Tam is getting.

The World Out There

One of the first things I do every morning when I arrive at the orphanage is take some of the kids “out for a spin”. That’s basically pushing them in their high chair on wheels around the second floor of the orphanage. It’s such a shame there’s no ramp or elevator to take them downstairs to escape the monotony and explore the empty courtyard and playground below.

But one special part of the second floor I’ve realized the children especially enjoy gives them a glimpse into “the world out there.” It’s a fenced-in hallway that overlooks the bustling street below epitomizing Ho Chi Minh City – the buses roaring by, honking their multi-tuned horns every 3 seconds to part the sea of motorbikes.

Hien and his huge grin

One boy in particular, named Hien, loves sitting perched up there. Even with the double fencing, electric wires and trees obstructing his view, he seems to lose himself in all the activity below. He points at the buses and cars while giving me his huge open-mouthed grin I love him for. I wonder what goes through his head. He cries every time I have to tear him away from his perch – his little hand grips the wall as I try to move him.

Hien watching "the world out there"

Today, another volunteer and I carried Hien downstairs so I could push him around in the new stroller we bought for the orphanage. I ran around the courtyard with him, doing donuts with the stroller, till I could hear him laugh. And, of course, I had to bring him to the orphanage’s front gate to give him a ground-level view of the street he’s so mesmerized by. I wish I could’ve escaped with him – just for an hour – so he could live it, instead of just watch it. I can’t help but think about how he – most likely – will never be able to experience that world out there first hand. Only 2 out of the 32 children we work with can talk, and only 5 can walk with some or no assistance. That means most of the these kids will live at the orphanage till they’re about 18, then move onto another center for disabled adults, if they live that long. I just hope and pray they get adopted or get the chance to go to school, beat the odds and find opportunities to live their own lives.

Hoa - one of the oldest girls I work with confined to her bed

The good news is that one of the little boys we work with, the clever one named Tam – a.k.a. “Naughty Boy” – is now going to school, outside of the orphanage, with other children who are more his speed. I also found out that we can sponsor children to attend school at the orphanage, which I plan to do.

For now – as I wrap up my month as a volunteer at the orphanage – I’m leaving behind some resources that I hope will help the kids live more comfortably. This past weekend, Lorraine (the volunteer from Ireland) and I bought the stroller, 2 high chairs on wheels, 2 walkers and 5 padded helmets for the orphans – all with donation money from our friends and families.

New walker

The new stroller

New high chair on wheels

Today, we bought 20 more cylinder-shaped pillows and velcro straps to be delivered next week when I’m already gone. I’m glad to know these donations will make some sort of an impact on these kids long after I’m gone…and, at least, the stroller can help Hien continue to imagine a life outside those walls.

Cultural Exchange

One of the best parts of traveling is the people you meet along the way. Even better – as a volunteer traveling the world, you get to meet and live with other volunteers with whom you share a common bond and become friends.

I’ve been living in one of three volunteer houses Volunteers for Peace Vietnam provides – known as Peace House 3 – for almost 3 weeks now. Since then, I’ve learned that flip flops are called “jandals” in New Zealand, tank tops are known as “singlets” in Australia and “Are you all right?” is how the English ask, “How are you?” When I came to Vietnam, little did I know I’d be learning so much about other western cultures from countries I have yet to visit!

Despite our slight cultural differences, we’re all devoting our time, energy and money here in Ho Chi Minh City for one purpose – to love and care for disabled orphans.

Marie Claire feeding lunch

Marie Claire is from England and is half Vietnamese. So during her 2 months volunteering here, she’s also getting to spend time with family members who live in Ho Chi Minh City and has never even met before!

Alice and Nghia

Alice is a 19-year-old university student from China, who’s never traveled outside of China before this. She and this little boy, named Nghia, have formed quite a bond as she helps him practice walking every day. This is her last week volunteering and she says she doesn’t want to go home yet. I have a feeling this won’t be the last volunteer trip for Alice.

One volunteer from Ireland, named Lorraine, is spending 10 weeks volunteering here – and get this – she doesn’t even like Vietnamese food! She’s willing to live off rice, bread rolls,

Lorraine feeding lunch

smoothies and candy bars for the kids. She just bought the children paints, paint brushes and paper so they can unleash the creativity within them. She also plans to buy more high chair/strollers and clothes for the orphans with the money she raised at home.

Phat, Tam and me

Here I am with two of the more independent kids of the nursery – Phat (the boy in green on the left) and Tam (on the right). Phat usually wears a sort of padded helmet on his head, but isn’t in this picture right before his bedtime. He can speak, but not very clearly, and walks with a bit of a jerk. He can never remember or pronounce my name, so he always comes up to me saying, “My name – my name.” Phat’s the oldest in this part of the orphanage and acts as a little assistant for us volunteers, the nurses and caregivers. He helps us volunteers identify which kid goes in which bed or helps us find the kid that matches the name labeled on the bowl for feeding.

Tam is a monster – but so adorable. He’s known as “naughty boy” around the nursery. Even Phat calls him that. He’s blind in one eye, but other than that, he seems to be a smart and agile kid. He can repeat the English words and phrases we tell him perfectly – no accent. Even when they had two French volunteers a couple of weeks ago, he could mimic their French! Tam loves to be tossed, spun, swung and hung upside down. He takes a lot more energy to play with than the other kids, but we have enough volunteers to pass him around when one of us gets worn out.

Aside from being co-volunteers, we’re also travel buddies. After taking a couple of trips by myself in Thailand, it’s nice to have others to check out the other

The lake in Dalat's city center

parts of Vietnam with. Last weekend, 7 of us girls (4 from England, 1 from New Zealand, Lorraine from Ireland and me) took a tour up to Dalat – part of the Central Highlands region of Vietnam and a 7 hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City. It was a much-needed getaway to lush, green trees, clean air and cooler weather after living amongst the intense heat, sweatiness and crowded streets of Saigon.

View from the top of the Crazy House

One of my favorite parts of the trip was visiting the Hang Nha guesthouse, better known as the Crazy House. Lonely Planet says walking through it makes you feel like Alice in Wonderland – and it’s true! The gnarly tree designs, the funky animal-themed rooms that you can actually stay inand the twisty, maze-like staircases and hallways. The view from up top was gorgeous, too.

Another highlight – after the mostly boring bus tour comprised of flower gardens and parks with cheesy plastic animal figures, Lorraine and I hired two motorcycle tour guides, known as Easy Riders, to take us to Elephant Waterfall – one of the biggest

Easy Rider and me

waterfalls in the area. They took us on a one-hour ride through the beautiful countryside till we reached the thunderous waterfall pounding down on boulders that resemble a herd of elephants bathing in the water. First, the Easy Rider guide showed us the waterfall from up top, but then he took us on a hike – climbing down the slippery and muddy rock paths to get a side view of the waterfall and through a cave where we got sprayed by the mist. There was the adventure I was looking for!

Elephant Waterfall

Five of the girls I went on this Dalat trip with are leaving tomorrow – a bummer, but we say our goodbyes to different volunteers every week and welcome in new ones, as well. And this week, we got two more Americans! They’re both Vietnamese American and can speak the language, which helps a lot. One of them is even from Nor Cal! I know I’ll get to learn more Vietnamese from them (already learned “toi qua” = “I’m hungry” and “no qua” = “I’m full” from one of them) and eat more of the authentic stuff with them – maybe even dog?

It’s been a whirlwind week here in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – living in a house full of strangers-turned-friends and travel buddies, working with children with conditions I’ve never encountered before and trying to stay alive while crossing the street in this hectic city!

I’ve been working at the orphanage I was assigned to by Volunteers for Peace Vietnam for 6 days now and I’m still getting the hang of how to care for the kids. I work with children who range from about one to 8-years-old. As many of you can understand, taking care of children is no easy task. I’ve been a babysitter, a camp counselor and, most recently, an English teacher in Thailand – but when the kids can’t talk, don’t understand the language you’re speaking and can barely move on their own, the challenges multiply. Most of the nurses and caregivers at the orphanage don’t speak any English either, so it’s been tough to figure out what they need us to help with.

Every morning, 5 of us volunteers leave our house to catch the bus to the orphanage. The whole place serves about 400 children whose ages range from infant to teens. The group we take care of is made up of more than 30 kids, about one to eight-years-old. It’s hard to tell just how old each kid is, though. One little girl has such thin legs and arms and looks about 2-years-old, but she’s actually 6! Their disabilities range from blindness to cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, hyrdrocephalis (extra fluid buildup in the brain) and birth defects caused by Agent Orange (herbicide used during the Vietnam War). This little boy, named Hao, has hydrocephalis, but when you meet him, you barely notice, since his smile takes up his whole face!

Hao and his big smile

When we arrive to the second floor section where our group of kids is located, we greet them in their stroller/highchairs or in their cribs. I like to say hello with a little song, like Good Morning to You (to the tune of Happy Birthday), Twinkle Twinkle, Row Row Row Your Boat or Itsy Bitsy Spider. I also


play with their hands and feet to get them moving. This little girl, named Lien, likes it when I stroke her fingers, which she can’t really move. The splints help keep her fingers outstretched.

This little boy (I haven’t figured out his name yet) loves it when I slide my hand across his. I also play a simplified version of paddy-cake with him.

Paddy-cake boy

Play area

If they’re in their chairs, we push them around the 2nd floor hallways to give them a change of scenery – somewhat. From what I’ve seen, they have no ramps or elevators to take the children downstairs to play in the playground or courtyard. We can also play with them on removable mats we lay out on the floor.

At around 10:00am, we feed them their lunch, since they go to bed and wake up so early. For the babies who can’t chew, it’s a green vegetable mush. For the intermediate eaters, it’s a rice porridge with chopped vegetables and bits of meat. And for the advanced eaters, it’s soup with short noodles, vegetables and pieces of meat. Not an extensive menu, but I’m sure it contains the nutrients the kids need. Each of the kids’ bowl is labeled with his/her name – that’s the best way for us to learn their names, since it’s hard to communicate with the caregivers.

I think I’m the slowest feeder of the bunch. So many of the caregivers shovel huge spoonfuls of food into the kids’ mouths – one after another – to the point where the mush is oozing out of their mouths, like lava out of a volcano! It’s painful to watch, especially when the kids are practically choking! That’s why I don’t mind allowing the kids time to chew and swallow. Even then, they often cough, so the food ends up on my face and clothes, or they can’t keep the food in their mouth, so they drool it all out onto their bibs.

After feeding, we wipe up their faces (and anywhere else they got food stuck on them) and put them back in their cribs for changing. We kind of have a diaper change assembly line going on. We volunteers take off the kids’ shorts and cloth diapers and dump them in a bucket. Then a caregiver follows to put a clean cloth diaper on them. Then we put a clean pair of shorts on them. Last week, I found a big piece of poop as big as the head of the little boy who made it. Once I got the diaper off, the boy stuck his foot in the poo, then peed on himself and on the floor!

After the kids settle down for their nap, we leave for a 2-and-a-half-hour break. Almost all businesses in Ho Chi Minh City shut down between 11:30 and 1:30pm for a siesta (Vietnamese-style). So we hop back on the bus to our house, eat lunch and take a break. Many of the other volunteers take a nap, but I haven’t yet, since I’m afraid I’ll wake up too groggy.

We leave the house for the orphanage again at 2:00pm and when we arrive, it’s pretty much the same drill as in the morning. We play with the kids in their cribs or take a few out to play on the mats. By this point, I’ve sung each of my children’s songs a dozen times, so I’ve also added Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours to my repertoire. I figure it’s a happy and upbeat song and they don’t understand the words, anyway. We feed the kids dinner at around 3:15pm (same menu) – most of them stay in their cribs for the meal, but I try to take the kid I’m feeding out to their high chair so they can eat upright. Then it’s clean up and diaper changing all over again before they go to bed. We head home at around 4:30pm.

There’ve been a few moments this past week when I’ve gotten a little choked up while playing with or holding one of these kids. To think how sweet and beautiful they are – but unwanted and abandoned by their parents – just breaks my heart. I remember reporting on a story about a daycare center in San Diego that helps nurture disabled children. I interviewed parents and teachers who talked about how these children are such blessings, no matter their disabilities and the extra care they need. I’m beginning to understand what they mean now. In the 6 days I’ve known them, these children have touched my heart, like no other children I’ve met before. Most can’t say please or thank you, but I’m happy to give them the love and affection they deserve and so desperately need – poop, pee, drool and all.