Vietnam has undergone rapid development over the past decade, but the country still lags behind many of its South-East Asian neighbors. There are many ways that volunteers can get involved and make a real and profound difference, not least through lending a hand with projects that care for mentally and physically disabled children.
The stigma attached to mental illness and physical deformity is a problem all over the world, but its repercussions are particularly strong in Vietnam. There are relatively few programs in place to care for people suffering from development illnesses such as cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome and Japanese encephalitis. Those programs that are in place are too often under-supported.
Unfortunately, public support for programs that assist the mentally ill is spotty in Vietnam. A study published by the Stanford Undergraduate Research Journal found that traditional beliefs often attribute psychiatric disorder to past moral transgressions. While this is only one facet of a highly complex social response to disabilities, it at least illustrates the importance of raising awareness about the reality of mental and physical disabilities.
When international volunteers donate their time and resources to causes like this, they contribute to two important causes. First, the children that they work with can see, in a very tangible way, that they are cared for and loved – even by strangers who have no direct connection to them. That’s a powerful realization in anyone’s life.
Secondly, international volunteer support for centers that care for children with disabilities shines a public spotlight on the issue. The neighborhoods where these facilities operate don’t receive many international visitors. When a group of volunteers arrives to lend a hand, others in the community can’t help but take notice. In a sense, it forces the issue in a subtle and non-confrontational way. Everyone benefits.
This is an intense project that requires a great deal of patience, maturity and compassion. It’s also intensely rewarding. The children are delighted at the attention they receive from international volunteers, and you’ll see plenty of genuine smiles and hear plenty of laughter while on duty.
Most of these childcare centers are understaffed, especially when it comes to workers with a medical background or experience working with people with disabilities. Volunteers that have experience in these areas are greatly needed; however, this is by no means a requirement.
Childcare centers also need help with other tasks that are not directly related to working with children. Volunteers who enroll in a two-week (or longer) project generally help out in one of more of the following ways:
• Playing with and taking care of disabled children
• Lending a hand with feeding during lunchtime
• Assisting with gardening on the compound
• Organizing charity campaigns (for items such as books, clothing and shoes)
• Helping with networking and fundraising campaigns