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Every Little Bit Counts

Every Little Bit Counts

Nấm đông cô. In Chinese, it is known as the fragrant mushroom; in England, the black forest mushroom. But we know nấm đông cô best by its Japanese name: the shiitake mushroom.

Today, the shiitake is a delicacy in numerous Asian cultures. Its cultivation begins with a log of hardwood – such as oak, beech, alder, gum or sugar maple – and it’s from these logs that the fruiting bodies of the shiitake can begin to grow. The next step is to drill a dime-sized hole into the body of the log. A tanned-colored capsule containing the mushroom spawn is then put into this hole, and then sealed with a special wax to keep competing fungi from invading the log. Following inoculation, the log is kept in a wet and shady area. Mycelia will begin to colonize throughout the body of the log, and in four to nine months, depending on the climate, the familiar caramel colored mushroom caps will begin sprouting from the trunk.

A typical shiitake harvest yields at about 7% of the weight of the dry wood. So a 2,200 pound cord of oak will produce about 154 pounds of mushrooms over three growing seasons. Wholesale profits from the harvest will vary yearly depending on market prices, but on average, the mushroom sells for about $4-$7 per pound in the United States, totaling approximately $900 per cord.

Why do I know so much about the shiitake mushroom? The reason is because for the last two weeks, I’ve been researching them as a possible income generating venture for my partner organization, the Red Cross Vocational Center for Youth with Disabilities.

When I first heard about the idea from my boss, I thought his mushroom enterprise idea was absolutely ridiculous. A vocational center simply isn’t a place for growing mushrooms, and in fact, there were many other programs I felt the organization needed more. For instance, many vocational centers have computers and classes that teach IT skills. Many others help their students improve their English language skills, or even accounting and business skills. Unlike mushroom growing, these were more typical vocational skills that I could actually see leading to future employment.

It wasn’t until I was more settled into the vocational center after a few days that I realized the insight behind my boss’s plan. The center serves about 50 students, all of whom are living with disabilities that range from mild hearing impairment to severe intellectual disabilities. The sad truth is that each year, for every ten students that graduate from the center, only about three end up finding jobs in the workforce. Neither Vietnam’s society nor economic culture is set up to genuinely accommodate the disabled in the workforce – many modern work offices still lack ADA staples like wheelchair ramps and elevators. Additionally, public schools are not fitted to teach persons with disabilities, which means that students at our center are doubly disadvantaged by also lacking a high school education. Lastly, social work is still a nascent enough field in Vietnam that people with disabilities lack the social support and even government support that a handicapped person would receive in the U.S. So for most of the youth that leave our center each year, for the seven out of ten, their lives continue by simply going back home to live with their families. They go back to the dusty farms that skim the outskirts of the city.

It was in thinking about these dusty farms that I finally realized what my boss was trying to communicate to me. For the seven out of ten that go home, what use is it to know how to operate a computer? What use is it to be able to speak English at home if no one else speaks English? Or what use are any of the other typical vocational skills that are often practiced here in the U.S? The families of these students really have no outlets for these traditional types of vocational skills…and the society still lacks the wealth and social structures that would allow them to function independently in the workplace. What my boss wanted most was to teach each of his students something they can actually use. Maybe the student’s don’t have computers at home, but they have something else. Maybe they have a small area out in the back of the house, with just a little bit of shade and a little bit of rain; a forest nearby and just a little bit of knowhow.

I’ve always learned that every little bit counts – but coming to Vietnam after working in America makes me realize this more than ever. No one at my center fetishizes about applying for the huge grants, using the most up to date computers, or even working in an air conditioned building. No one here needs to have the best…they just want something – anything – that can improve their lives. And so, perhaps the simple idea of teaching youth with disabilities to grow mushrooms isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. I hope that one day, people living with disabilities here in Vietnam will be as integrated into society as much as those with disabilities in the U.S. I hope my vocational center will have more computers, more English teachers and big grants. But for now, I realize it’s important to start small and to be thankful for whatever comes.


–Quang Truong


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