What led you to volunteer with GVN in Vietnam?
Luke: I wanted to visit Vietnam and do something other than a tourist sightseeing experience. I had enough time to travel where I felt I could try to settle in somewhere and do volunteer work. A friend suggested I look into GVN and everything I found online looked good.
GVN put me in touch with the local group that runs the volunteer program, and I felt really good from all the interaction I had with them. They got back to me quickly answering all of my questions, were really friendly, and were clearly dedicated to all of their projects.
The local partner said their highest need opportunity was at an orphanage in Ba Vi about 60 km west of Hanoi that is home to about 200 disabled children. Since I was going to a totally new place across the world I figured why not go for it and I signed up for Ba Vi.
I signed up for 4 weeks. I ended up staying for 11. Going to Ba Vi was a really great decision that led to so many new friends and amazing experiences.
What was the most rewarding moment of the experience?
Luke: It's so hard to pick one moment from having holiday dinners at local families' homes, making friends from all over the world, and the morning dance parties with the kids to start our day. But right at the top of the list has to be the day Nam, a 19 year old boy at the orphanage, walked on his own while he smiled and clapped his hands.
Nam has severe cerebral palsy, and possibly other mental or physical disabilities. He's probably a little under 5 feet tall and weighs about 60 lbs. He had been able to walk a few steps on his own before, and more than a few steps with help from a volunteer. But he hadn't been able to make much progress.
Then one warm sunny day, as I was holding Nam up while he slowly walked outside his room, he let go of my hand and started walking on his own. Nam's face lit up. I could feel his pride.
Then he started clapping as he walked. It was pure joy and we were both loving the moment.
Another memorable experience was arranging to take Baby Duong, a 3 month old with a seriously oversized cranium, to a hospital in Hanoi to see a neurosurgeon. Duong was a trooper undergoing x rays, blood tests, a physical exam, and an MRI to determine if he was a candidate for surgery.
Unfortunately he was diagnosed with a rare condition not appropriate for surgery or other life extending treatment (hydranencyphaly). While Duong won't get helpful medical care, we learned how to help make him comfortable, and his spirit was so powerful that doctors in Hanoi now know about the orphanage and have offered to see other kids.
Duong offered more hope for better medical care in the future and inspired many people around him to give what time, money, or skills they have to help other kids at the orphanage. I think of these moments often -- the good and the bad -- and feel an overwhelming desire to go back to Ba Vi the next chance I get.
Tell us about one person you met you will never forget.
Luke: Ngoc, a 21 year old girl who lives at the orphanage, is a friend for life. Ngoc is more capable than the 18 roommates she lives with at the center and she goes out of her way every day to help them.
Be it changing, feeding, helping to use the bathroom, or having fun outside while they play, Ngoc loves her roommates and devotedly tries to makes their lives a little brighter.
Every day I looked forward to arriving at the center and seeing Ngoc's smile, usually when she ran down the entry path to meet me.
Ngoc and I don’t speak the same language (not much of it anyway) and grew up in very different places but we have a very deep friendship. I stay in touch with Ngoc through other volunteers at the orphanage and even halfway across the world she still puts a huge smile on my face.
Has your worldview changed as a result of this experience?
Luke: Most definitely. The volunteer experience immersed me in the culture and allowed me to get to know many Vietnamese people and learn about their lives. I can't think of a better way to experience another country.
I learned that even though we have a lot of differences in our day-to-day lives, at the core, I am so similar to my Vietnamese friends.
I also learned more than a few things about overcoming challenges. I was shocked to see some of the severe physical and mental disabilities the kids have. That feeling quickly changed to complete awe at how the kids make the most of everything they have.
Living in a disability orphanage in Vietnam doesn't allow for much complaining. It also doesn't allow for pity. Neither of those emotions do much good.
The kids showed me incredible strength that I had never seen before to make the most of any situation and find the good in your surroundings. I think of them often for guidance when I have a decision to make and it helps me focus on what is really important to me.
Any tips for first-time volunteers in Vietnam?
Luke: Vietnam has a strong culture built on more than 1,000 years of history. I recommend traveling to Vietnam with an open mind willing to learn and try new things.
You'll definitely have an opportunity to share your culture with new friends but it goes both ways. If you have an open mind going in, you'll be able to get so much more out of the experience.
Also, don't eat the little hot peppers that you see in sauce jars on most restaurant tables. And whatever you do, take the homemade rice wine in small servings.