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A Little Good Goes a Long Way

A Little Good Goes a Long Way

Eliminating poverty.

Eradicating preventable disease.

Empowering the poor and sick to live dignified and fulfilling lives.

These are the kinds of noble goals that people who work in nonprofits believe in and work toward achieving.  They do so, not out of a naïve sense of idealism or utter disinterest in today’s reality, but because of their deep belief in our human capacity to make a difference.  In this line of work, where I also spent a number of years before attending graduate school, the deep belief that you can make a difference is constantly challenged.

It’s easy to be deterred by the scale of the problems and the difficulty in achieving swift, systemic, and sustainable change.  I found this to be no less true in Vietnam, a developing country still poor that the typical household earns just $80 a month and where half of the country must live on less than that to make ends meet.  With such little wealth and resources, it’s easy to look the other way.   Yet, there are people who choose to look the neediest people in the eye and find ways to make an immediate impact.

This is the case with Thay Chau (pictured above) and the disabled community in Vietnam. A savvy and charismatic leader, Thay Chau is also a former member of the Catholic ministry who now runs the St. Francis Shelter in Bien Hoa (a mid-sized city neighboring the Ho Chi Minh metropolis).  His shelter is a place for abandoned children with disabilities who used to roam the streets. It is a haven for adults without families and without the ability to work to support themselves. (See a video where he describes the people in the shelter).  Thay Chau sat in front of me, speaking about how his shelter stays afloat, and described how a beggar like himself can provide for so many others. During the day, he collects uneaten rice and foodstuffs from large, local company kitchens. He then sells the majority of the rice to local fishmongers and reserves the remaining portion to feed the shelter’s own livestock. This daily routine provides just enough money to feed the shelter’s residents.  For an additional source of income, he buys scrap fabrics from local clothing manufacturers to sew together for resale.  By and large, the shelter is kept afloat by the sporadic goodwill and generosity of the individual donors and, as Thay Chau puts it, his “begging ability.” Little by little, he’s doing whatever is in his capacity to help those in his community who would otherwise be (literally) left on the streets.  For those lucky enough to find the St. Francis Shelter, this means everything.

Being able to meet the needs of Vietnam’s poor and disabled may seem like an insurmountable challenge.  Yet anyone who knows Vietnam’s history and has recently visited the country can’t help but feel a strong sense of hope—hope that the future holds promise.  The Vietnam of today is not the Vietnam my parents knew when they fled the country after the war, not a country ravaged by famine and economic malaise.  In the last decade alone, Vietnam has slashed its poverty rate from 35% to 12%; the country’s GDP has risen from $400 per capita ($31 billion total) to $1,000 per capita ($100 billion total).  In the bustling Ho Chi Minh City, growth is everywhere: the 10-million-and-rising population, the new high-rise developments and the ever-present storefront openings.  For Vietnam, business is booming. Yet few seem to consider at what expense such rapid development is having on Vietnam’s least-abled population.

Amid the quest of many Vietnamese and overseas people rushing to snatch a piece of the growing economic pie, Vietnam’s neediest population is being left behind without the sufficient social safety nets in place. This is especially true for people and children with disabilities. My visit to the St. Francis Shelter has left no doubt in my mind that the need is greater than ever to pay attention to and encourage the efforts of people like Thay Chau and those working to empower the poor and the sick to live dignified and fulfilling lives.


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