Autumn in Kontum

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Journal of my trip October - December 2009

Autumn in Kontum


The Vietnam Fund for Education, Music, and Infrastructure
This is a letter from Autumn after she found The Vietnam Fund for Education, Music, and Infrastructure in Kontumn. Her experience there is one of the things that is so beautiful about traveling and asking questions and meeting people.

Dear friends:

When I arrived in Kontum, Vietnam, a town of about 300,000, I thought I'd dabble in the local ethnic minority culture. I'd read about the dramatic communal houses, the colorful regalia of the Bahnar people. I also knew I'd see communities in need; I'd bring pens and candy, make a donation, and go on my merry way.

And in a way, that's what I did. But what I saw there--what I felt there--went so far beyond what I had expected. In Kontum, I met the founder of The Vietnam Fund for Education, Music, and Infrastructure, a nonprofit that supports the people of the central highlands. The Vietnam Fund includes a breakfast program for students in need, and encompasses the Orphan Education Program, which supports girls through high school, vocational school, college, or university by lending financial, structural, and emotional support and helping them start small businesses. I'm writing to ask you to donate to the Vietnam Fund.

Letters like this usually highlight stories of poverty we can barely imagine. And there was plenty of that: a five-year-old boy who seems no older than three because of perennial malnutrition. The hardscrabble, matter-of-fact manner of the family that had walked for two days from their village to see pictures of the healthy field-hockey-playing teenager they placed for adoption as an infant because they couldn't afford to care for her. I can tell you of 15-year-old El, who, when asked, couldn't articulate her life dreams because anything beyond that day felt so far out of reach that we may as well have been discussing a trip to Neptune; I can tell you of the barely perceptive flicker of sadness that crossed the face of Janey, the Vietnam Fund founder, when she gently asked 17-year-old Y. Len what her “second dream” was, because Janey knew her first dream—medical school—was, simply, most likely unattainable.

What's stuck with me, though, is the joy that surrounds this area. I find myself closing my eyes to whisk myself back to Kontum: I don't do this to see large, hungry eyes on a five-year-old's face. I do it to put myself back on a dusty blanket with the Blu family, who lay out trinkets to sell every morning even when there's nobody to buy them. Families wander by and invite me to their homes, where I sip tea and sing Bahnar songs they teach me. I close my eyes to sit at a table of giggling teenage girls who are struggling--and thriving--to make the best of the opportunities the Vietnam Fund provides them, celebrating the graduation of Y. Ngoai, whose painstaking savings will help her establish a sewing business in her village. I do it to take myself back to the Dakbla School, where 14-year-olds shout "Hello!"; where the English teacher points to the six computers the government supplied--with no desks to put them on--before taking me to the nightly entertainment of the cows crossing the river.

I'm as inundated by and numb to pleas for help as you--not because we don't care, but because the pleas seem fuzzy, faraway, exhausting. I keep re-filing food bank appeals in the “look at when I have time” mail pile until, weeks later, I finally discard them. I give to a handful of charities, my annual checks lending me an eggshell armor to the pictures of hungry children that surround us. I think back to those Sally Struthers “feed the children” ads and groan at her warbly voice, her watery-eyed sincerity, because, hey, I've given already.

Here's what I could not have known, could not have felt, before visiting Kontum: These children really do need you. Their need is not abstract: It is real, and it is immediate. The breakfast program for Dakbla School has a daily budget of 3,000 dong per student, about 18 cents. The program administrator has to choose which children are eligible. Does he choose the poorest of the poor children, or does he choose the children who had to walk the farthest to get to school?

Your support goes beyond feeding a belly. Vietnam has no truancy laws. For a family that makes its meager living selling the fruit grown in their field, sending a child to school is a luxury—their hands are needed at home, in the fields. The promise of a breakfast is enough for many parents to shift their mental calculations and send a child to school. In the short term, it is a mouth fed; in the long term, it is paving the path out of destitution.

The Vietnam Fund is unique in its directness. The founder, Janey Coyle, has been working in the region for 15 years. She has developed allies who serve as advisors in delicate cross-cultural situations, and she understands the peculiarities of working with the local government. Neither she nor any program administrators take a salary--in fact, with the exception of Janey's semiannual air travel, one hundred percent of the donations go directly to programs. Sometimes this means installing water systems at the school so students and teachers have a restroom instead of the jungle; other times it means buying a motorbike for a promising young seamstress so she can start her business without walking four hours to deliver her goods to customers.

Thirty dollars can feed a child breakfast for a year. In times that were more flush, this is where I'd say, "Thirty dollars is a single dinner / two cab rides / a magazine subscription." But in this economy, many of us have already cut out those dinners, cab rides, subscriptions. I've ignored many a worthy plea because I've already parsed out my charity budget. Believe me, I get it. All I can tell you is that the relationship between our economy and that of these children living in dusty huts is trickle-down economics at its worst.

You can click here to learn more about the Vietnam Fund: I'm happy to answer any questions you may have about the organization. It's a 501(c)(3) organization, so you can claim your donation on your taxes. You can also donate by check:

The Vietnam Fund
4148 Howe Street
Oakland, CA 94611

I am wildly fortunate in that I was able to have these experiences, meet such extraordinary people--American, Vietnamese, Bahnar and other ethnic minorities--and have images of delight and destitution alike seared into my mind. I'm luckier still to be able to communicate the need I witnessed to you. Together, let's help generate some luck for others.

Wishes of joy--