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!
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.
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.