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The First Day

The First Day

This is a very difficult exercise. I want to talk about something I felt and what I saw, but it means that I have to live through it all over again. But these children I am going to talk about have to live through it every day.

It was the first week, the first day, the first place – it was real. I wasn’t listening to a PowerPoint presentation or reading a report anymore, I was actually learning by experience.

The images remain vivid and the sounds fresh: the teenager with psoriasis that made his entire body look like it was perpetually peeling like a tree trunk, the boy with a tumor in his head that enlarged it so much that you couldn’t fathom how he was still alive, and the voice of a boy with disabilities named Huy who spoke to me and said “Anh dua em voi,” which means “can you take me with you?” After spending just a few minutes at the Thi Nghe orphanage, I wanted to leave as much as he did.

Seeing children who never ever had the chance to have a normal life, or even have the chance to try to have a normal life, left me overwhelmed with emotion. Some of it was sadness. Sadness in seeing what they were dealing with and going through. Shame, in that I couldn’t look at some of the children in the eye, because it was too jarring. It felt unfair, unjust, it was things you just wish never happened to anybody—so you turn away.

But I couldn’t avoid what I was seeing and who I was meeting. I remembered why I was there and the reason I came to visit.

When you see a person with disabilities, what do you think? We all know someone living with a disability. For me it was always my cousin Frank, who a severe case of autism. Whether it’s someone you know, a friend and/or family member, or an issue you care about, it’s never easy broaching the topic. For many of us, we’d rather not think about these issues and people because it’s too difficult. So why did I decide to travel to Vietnam, to volunteer there 5 weeks, and to meet people with disabilities and learn their stories? My short answer: why haven’t more done something like this?

I decided I wanted to do something to help others at a relatively young age. As the son of immigrant-refugee parents, I knew that the opportunities I had in America were special and were only made possible by the sacrifices of so many others. That’s what motivated me to choose a career in public service and to get involved in organizations where I could learn about how I could positively impact people and help solve social problems. Without question, the work is hard and challenging and the issues are daunting, but I continue to do it because I believe in our capacity to create change. Believing that I could do something about the plight of children with disabilities was the reason I decided to volunteer and the reason why I was at the Thi Nghe orphanage that day.

When we decided to leave the orphanage and I began walking down the stairs and out the door, I saw Huy run to me and heard him say those words that I’ll never forget: “anh dua em voi.” Though I couldn’t take him with me that day, I did take away a powerful affirmation that what I am doing with VIET2010 couldn’t matter more.


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