Motivated by the desire to give back to the Vietnamese people, we consulted with Anh-Huong Nguyen, dharma teacher and founder of the Committee for the Relief of Poor Children in Vietnam (CRPCV), who helped us identify a needed project - a school under construction in a poor village in central Vietnam that had been abandoned due to lack of funds. Another $8,000 was needed to finish construction and purchase equipment and supplies. The unfinished school, which we later named, "Happy Sparrow School," was in a beautiful wooded area in the outskirts of Hue only a few hundred meters from Thich Nhat Hanh's Root Temple, Tu Hieu.
After a brief but successful fundraising effort, our sangha representative, Allen Sandler, personally delivered the funds we had raised to Vietnam after attending a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in China. After touring the school site, he learned that during the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese call it the American War), a group of citizens from Hue were buried alive one night by the Viet Cong near the site of this school. The sound of shovels and muffled cries were heard by Buddhist nuns in the nearby nunnery, but they could do nothing to help. During the three-week occupation of Hue by the North during the Tet Offensive in 1968, approximately 3,000 civilians, including Buddhist monks, were executed. We are hopeful that our school helped bring peace back to that soil.
The Happy Sparrow School serves 70 children between the ages of three and six years old. They attend the school without cost, and come from poor families in the villages surrounding Thich Nhat Hanh's Root Temple, Tu Hieu. Before the school opened, some of these young children had to tend their family's livestock or help sell produce raised by their family. As Dharma teacher Anh-Huong suggested at the onset of our fundraising effort, our school can provide its little sprouts good soil in which to grow. Our Sangha funded the salaries of two teachers and two cooks at this school for a period of two years following its construction.
Our sangha was asked to help the residents of Thuy Bieu Village, a very poor village on the outskirts of Hue City, help the large number of children with disabilities in the village who had no access to educational or therapeutic intervention. A Red Cross team had identified 188 children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy and other physical disabilities, intellectual disability, autism, & hearing impairment. It was thought that many of these disabilities were caused by Agent Orange sprayed by our country during the Vietnam War. These children were excluded from the public schools due to the extent of their disability, and were a significant financial and care-giving burden on their families. Sangha member, Allen Sandler, a professor in the area of severe disabilities at Old Dominion University, toured the homes of many of these children and was distressed by the conditions under which they lived. Children were sometimes left tied to a bed or placed in a shed all day in the heat so the parents could work the fields and grow rice for the family to eat.
The Buddhist nun with responsibility for Plum Village charitable work in central Vietnam called a meeting of parents, government officials, and Red Cross representatives to request help for these children and their families. The parents brought their disabled children with them to this meeting (see photo). In response to the parents’ pleas, Allen pledged to raise funds to build a school for these children. The parents asked when the school would be built, and Allen replied, not knowing how much money would be involved, or where the money would come from, “Within two years …”
Two years later, after negotiating a number of political and bureaucratic hurdles, and with the help of Dharma teacher Ha Vinh Tho and the Swiss sangha, our sangha had raised our half of the $54,000 needed to build and equip a school with five classrooms and a kitchen that would serve 60 children with moderate/ severe disabilities in Thuy Bieu Village. The Swiss sangha contibuted their half of the needed funds, the school was built, and began operation. The school was named, “L’ Ecole de l’ Aimee / School of the Beloved” after Allen’s severely disabled sister, Aimee, who as a child had been excluded from school just as these children in Vietnam. In cooperation with the Swiss sangha, we committed to funding half the cost of teacher salaries and food for the children attending this school for a three year period with the expectation that the local government would take over funding at the end of three years. Our sangha made good on this commitment, and moved on to our next project. The Dutch and Swiss sanghas have continued to fund the school’s operation.
Not only were children with moderate and severe disabilities excluded from the public schools in Vietnam, but children with mild intellectual disabilities - including children with learning disabilities incorrectly diagnosed as having an intellectual disability - were served on a very limited basis. This was due to lack of funding, as well as limited classroom space and a lack of willing teachers, as there was a common fear in Vietnam that a teacher who worked with children with disabilities would be more likely to give birth to a child with a disability.
The Director of the Hue City Office of Education and Training, Mr. Binh, wanted to help serve these children, and indicated that there were several “hot spots” in Hue with many unserved children with disabilities he was especially concerned about. Sangha member, Allen Sandler, met with Mr. Binh and Dr. Nhan, Chief of the Office of Genetic Counseling and Disabled Children at Hue Medical College, and a plan was developed to build eight new classrooms – two at each of four local elementary schools – that would serve 80 unserved children with mild disabilities alongside their nondisabled peers. Although in the West a trend toward “full inclusion” of children with disabilities in general education classrooms had begun, in Vietnam, serving children with disabilities in a separate classroom in their neighborhood school represented a significant step forward.
The cost of constructing these eight classrooms was $23,000, and working once again with Dharma teacher, Ha Vinh Tho, and the Swiss sangha, funds were raised to build these classrooms. The salaries of the eight teachers for these classrooms were also covered for a period of three years, after which the Hue City Dept. of Education and Training took over funding for teacher salaries. While serving as a Fulbright Scholar at Hue University, and with a grant from the Northern Virginia firm, Diversified Educational Systems, Allen established a special education teacher training program at Hue University to prepare teachers to work with children with disabilities in these eight classrooms, as well as at “The School of the Beloved / L’ Ecole de l’ Aimee.”
The Phu My Orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) serves 350 children with disabilities and is operated by nuns belonging to the Catholic order, Sisters of Saint Paul De Chartres. The Vietnamese government provides only a small stipend monthly for each child at the orphanage, not enough to meet the needs of the many children with severe disabilities at this facility. Additional children continue to be abandoned at the orphanage gate…
While training teachers at Phu My Orphanage, sangha member, Allen Sandler, was moved by the love provided to the children by the staff, but also by the tremendous need for additional resources and training. Of the 350 children housed at this orphanage, 130 children were confined to cribs day-in and day-out. Twenty-one of these children were kept tied to the bars of their cribs due to severe behavior problems such as self-injury and aggression.
Partnering with Catholic Charities of Hampton Roads, our sangha raised $6,500 to set up a program that focused upon freeing these children from restraints. The program provided greatly improved staffing ratios, sensory enrichment activities, use of positive behavioral strategies, and pharmacological interventions as needed
During one of his trips to Vietnam, Sangha member, Allen Sandler, met a father holding his sick child in his arms, and learned that this child needed heart surgery, but due to the high cost of surgery, this child, like many others in central Vietnam, was likely to die not from his disease, but from poverty. Working in partnership with Dr. Nguyen Viet Nhan, Chief of the Office of Genetic Counseling and Disabled Children at Hue Medical College, a sangha project was initiated called the “Central Vietnam Surgical Intervention Project for Children with Disabilities and Congenital Heart Defects” designed to evaluate children, ascertain eligibility based upon income level, and provide funding for heart surgeries. With generous donations from members of our sangha, along with early support from the California based, Spiral Foundation, as well as sanghas in Norway, Holland, and Switzerland, we have helped fund surgeries for over 280 children from poor families in central Vietnam. Please see photos of some of these children and the touching thank-you notes written by their parents below:
"Our family is really happy as seeing Dinh Quang Hieu get well and enjoy himself like other healthy children. Because of poor condition, we could not have enough money for Hieu’s treatment. From our heart we truly thank you for your great help."
"Quang Huy is my little child. He was operated with your support. Thank you so much for your help. We will never forget your favor. When Quang Huy gets older, we will let him know about your help. I and my family will always pray for you."
"Dear kind donors, I am mother of Huy. I would like to faithfully express our deep thanks to your great sponsoring which has rescued my beloved from the Death. For the whole life I cannot forget your great hearts and promise myself to do the best for this life."
"We don’t know how to express our deep gratitude to your holy heart for supporting surgery fee for our beloved baby. It’s so marvelous that we can see his fresh smile again after a very long time suffering from endless pain. We thank you so much for all the great things you have given to our family as well as to poor people. "
"The family of Kim Anh would like to extend our deepest thank you to your generous support. Amount of money you provided has allowed Anh a timely operation in order to save her life. What you have done for our child has transformed her future. She can continue to live and develop like other children. We are eternally thankful. This debt is in our mind forever. Wish you all the best."
" Our family cannot express our deep gratitude for your assistance effectively through words. We know that there is nothing as valuable as children. And now we are very happy to see our daughter is better than before. We are really thankful for your help with supporting them in this much needed treatment. Without your support, the endeavor for a better life for our daughter would not be possible. Our joy is immense, thank you again."
"We want to say thank you for what you have done for my daughter. That is all we can do to express our gratefulness. My child’s health is improving and that make us believe that she will grow up well. This result is mainly due to your help and we always keep it on our mind. Best wish to you. "
"We really want to let you know how grateful we are to your support. We are very happy when my son has opportunity to grow up well like other children. We will never forget your help. Wish you good health and happiness."
"Being the mother of Chung I am writing to you to express my warm gratitude to you for supporting our child’s operation fees that I cannot pay. Thanks to your help, my child’s operation is successful and now, she can lead a normal life as other children. From our heart we truly thank you for your great help."
"After a long time of waiting for surgery, lastly our beloved child was successfully operated and is leaving hospital in good health. This is all our great happiness. Now we can have peace in mind about her health state. No enough thanks that we can say to you all for your greatly kind heart for helping us."
"We are writing to you in the extremely happy state. With the fund you help, we brought our child to hospital. After nearly two months at hospital, our child spent the surgery and she is in recovering. Before returning to home, we would like to send you a thank you letter for what you gave us. Wish the other poor children like mine also get the assistance from the kind hearts."
"Thanks to the great help of friends from Norway and OGCDC, our child was hospitalized and operated successfully. Our heartache has blown over and we are really happy to see our child's health is well and she will be an active girl as the other same age children. Our wonderful friends from Norway and OGCDC are highly appreciated for your help by our relatives and us. Wish all the best to all of you."