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.
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.
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,
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
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.