December 2016/March 2017
Thy and Hung, our two current students, came by over Tet holiday to visit us and let us know how they were doing.
Cao Thi Mai Thy
Thy has decided to get one more year of teaching experience before going back to school for her Masters degree in English.
She is now teaching level one adults in addition to children and says she enjoys it. She is also taking classes to prepare for an international teaching certification.
Phan Huu Hung
Huu Hung, is in is his second year studying tourism at Can Tho University. His GPA for the first semester was 3.59, bringing his overall GPA up to 3.49.
In mid-February, after the Tet celebration had slowed down, the vice principal of our local high school brought over two grade 12 students, a boy and a girl, along with their moms and school records. He was recommending them for university scholarships, and we agreed to both. The girl, Nguyen Thi Phuong Linh, will be a star. She is a top of the class student with a clear goal. She wants to study food processing. This is an expanding industry and there are good job prospects in this field. The boy, Nguyen Van Nghia, is a bit of a risk, but we agreed because of his good high school record and extremely difficult family circumstances. He is an above average student who wants to study automotive technology. We were clear that our commitment is for one year at a time and they must maintain GPA of 8.0 out of 10 for us to continue. Subject to passing university entrance exams, they will start school in fall 2017.
As usual, exercise books were the top request from school principals, and the kids are always happy to get them. They use them every day in school and for homework as well. The little kids use them to practice writing, and the older kids use them for lesson notes.
This year we bought 13,820 exercise books and distributed them in sets of 10 to 1382 students in 16 schools. One of the most enjoyable parts of our work is going to each school and handing them to each student, one at a time, especially to the youngest ones.
Some of this year's kids
We built nine houses, with an average cost of $1,620 per house, an increase of 6.6% from last year. Building supply prices have remained stable but labor has gone up. One house was an emergency due to fire and we were able to start construction within a few days.
Here is one story.
Not much of a house. One wall built of natural material and the rest of it put together with tarps.
Mom and dad both age 49, son age 12. They recently moved back to the countryside from Saigon. The dad has one leg amputated just below the knee, because of uncontrolled infection following small on-the-job accident. The mom is overweight and has disabling knee pain. It’s difficult for her to go to market for food or do regular household activities. The boy started grade 6 but stopped school when they moved. Town officials were there and we asked about getting the boy back in school. Short story - they had every reason that the boy couldn't go back to school now - bureaucratic reasons, money reasons, family reasons. After long discussion with the family and town officials the mom turned to the boy and asked him if he wanted to go back to school. Yes! Tender smiles from each of them. It was a beautiful moment. The reasons finally disappeared and the town officials promised to get him back in school within the week. The boy’s uncle and aunt followed us to our town on motorbike where we bought notebooks, textbooks and a bicycle. The district government chipped in as well with two sets of school clothes.
When we left we waved goodbye and got the BIGGEST SMILE EVER from the boy. Major feel good project.
Here’s another story.
In early December we were referred by one of our regular helpers to a family that did not have adequate housing and we went out with her and a couple of town officials to take a look. Dad, mom, 15-year-old daughter in grade 10 - average student. The mom was sick with cancer but was at home. The daughter lived with someone else near her school because their house is very remote and the last couple hundred yards of trail are very difficult, even walking. Much of it is covered with fallen palm fronds for support but we still sank ankle deep in mud in a few places. Getting construction materials to the site was difficult - it was delivered in small batches by boat on the canals near the house.
Sadly, the mom passed away during construction of the house.
When we completed and delivered the house, the daughter moved back in with her dad even though getting to school and back is difficult. He fishes in the canals for small fish and shrimp for food and to sell for income. His boat was not usable anymore and this limited his fishing.
We asked if anyone knew of a boat for sale and one of the town officials who was there did. After lunch we checked out the boat and bought it for $124, and it was delivered in the afternoon. He thanked us, holding back tears, when we told him we would buy him a new boat.
Because of the remote location, the house has no electricity. At our request, the town government arranged to have an electricity line run out to the house. We also arranged for them to get 15 kg of rice per month for a year.
Last year we took an initial foray into rural infrastructure development – improving village roads, trails and small bridges. After focusing on the individual and family since our inception, we thought we could make very efficient use of some of our money doing some community based work. Our idea was to identify projects, offer to buy the materials, and get volunteer labor from those directly benefiting from the project. Our first two small test projects were successful, and this year we’ve decided to make this a regular part of our work.
On the current trip we built one concrete road and improved two village trails. The biggest of the three projects was replacing 200 meters of dirt trail with a concrete road 2.5m wide and 10cm thick. Because this project came in well under budget we were able to do an additional 84m of connecting trail and resurface a small connecting bridge.
These road and trail projects are especially appreciated by the communities. At the dedication ceremony for the road the leadership of the town and district showed up, as well as two representatives from the province. There was a short spot on the provincial TV news as well. Our cost for this project was $2,915.
A problem with some existing trails is water. Ben Tre is an island province at the mouth of the Mekong with an average elevation of 5 feet. It is mostly rural and laced with canals, which fill and empty twice a day with the tides. On the new and full moons when the tides are high many trails flood, making them difficult and sometimes dangerous, especially for kids who use them to get to school. Improvement consists of building up banks on the sides of the trails with mud from adjacent canals, and then filling them and raising the height by pumping in silt which is dredged from the annual flooding of the Mekong. This silt self levels and forms a hard durable surface. In one case we spent $530 to bring in enough silt to improve about 300 meters of trail which directly benefited about 30 families, and in another case a town had almost enough to do a trail improvement benefiting about 20 families, and we shared the project with them, adding $132 for silt.
We’ve fired up our clean water program again, and plan to continue it each year in future.
Availability of clean water is a serious problem in the area where we do most of our work. The only source of water ready to drink is rain, and that only comes in monsoon season – May through November. The other source of water is the canals and rivers, but they are not clean. Chemicals are available to treat the water, but it still must be boiled for drinking. Most of our recipients get their water this way. Bottled water can be bought, but our recipients can’t afford it.
Storage of rainwater for the dry season is the best solution. The problem is that poor people cannot afford storage containers. Recently, high quality plastic storage containers have become available in large sizes and at reasonable prices.
Phuong negotiated a good price for 1000 liter tanks , about $65 each including delivery to town centers, and we bought and distributed 105 in four towns. We checked out about half of the recipients one at a time, accompanied by town officials so they would know exactly what we were looking for, and relied on them for referrals for the rest.
We paid for heart surgeries for seven kids, bringing our total to 37, plus 4 for whom we shared the cost with Lotus Humanitarian Aid Foundation. Our oldest this time was fifteen years old, our oldest child so far, and our youngest less than a year. There were good outcomes for all seven.
VinaCapital Foundation, A U.S. charity based in Saigon, makes all the arrangements for us, including getting additional funding, usually from national health insurance, sometimes from provincial societies to help poor people needing medical care, sometimes from other charities. If we bring them a child and $1,200 (up 20% from previous years) they get it done, including additional diagnostic testing, in some cases getting the child healthy enough for surgery, arranging the hospitalization and surgery, and follow up care.
This year we did not find any local kids with heart disease, so we asked VinaCapital to choose the children for us – there are about 5,000 on their waiting list.
Here are the reports for each child prepared by VinaCapital.
Coir Spinning Machines
We only had requests for 49 spinning machines this year, which we filled, along with starter supplies of coconut husk fiber to be spun into rope. We have now distributed 1,789 spinners to people who use them to earn income from home.
This very popular and successful program, now in its 11th year, is winding down and this will be our last year. Why? Technology. There are automated machines that can spin the coir into rope much faster than the hand fed machines that we've been distributing. More importantly, they make a more uniform rope, and this higher quality rope is in more demand than that from our machines. So, there is less demand for our product and hence lower profit. The town that asked for 49 this year is farther from the district center than some of the other towns and there is still demand from recipients, even though they know that profit will be less than before.
The price of the automated machines has been falling. They are now less than $2,000 and there are people who can afford that. To see if this had potential for us we visited two places, one family that has one machine, and one that has five. What we found is probably typical. The family that had one machine sometimes rents it out to others, and the one with five has employees. We thought about buying a machine for a town or hamlet and making it available for free to all residents but Phuong's brother pointed out that with many users and no owner the machine would not be maintained well and eventually would fall into disrepair, and be discarded or not used at all.
So, what about the money we budgeted for spinners but didn’t use? We’ve used it for additional infrastructure projects and fired up our clean water program again. See the reports for those programs for details.
This year we gave rice to 1,106 people, including 130 blind or severely visually impaired. Most of our recipients are referred to us by local governments – the town Peoples Committees. We let them know how much rice we can distribute in their town and ask them to prepare a list of people most in need, paying special attention to old people, single parent families and people whose work is limited because of sickness or disability. We usually distribute 15kg (33 lb) packages.
Additionally, we sometimes find some families in very difficult circumstances and give them 15 or 20kg of rice every month for a year. This year there were six. We leave the money with our rice dealer and the people pick up their rice monthly. We also often spot a few people around our own town that we want to help with rice - old people without family to help them, disabled people, lottery ticket sellers, all struggling to meet their most basic needs. This year there were 16.
Most of our rice recipients can afford to buy rice, but often not much else. A gift of rice frees up a little money to buy some of the other necessities of life.