Friendship Foundation of American Vietnamese

Volunteer Work as Education

By Volunteer Sharnice Nicole Floyd Eaton
Project VIII Participant

During our month in the Children's Project, I learned much more than I learned during four years in college. My professors in college taught me a lot of head knowledge, but very few of them spoke to me about life or the world in general. None of them spoke about any of these things as much as did Gia Hoa Ryan--the Foundation director-- during our time together. I will never forget her speech before we arrived at the Cu Chi Tunnels. The first thing on the itinerary for that day, December 23rd, was our visit to the Cu Chi tunnels, but actually our lessons started on the bus ride there. Some of us, tired because of our early start that morning, slept. Others read travel guides on Vietnam or stared at the lush countryside just outside the windows. Only a few listened closely as Gia Hoa, our queen mother/fearless leader, began a passionate speech. But when she finished, every head was raised and every eye was focused on her. My eyes were even sweating a little. I don't think that I was the only one.

First Gia Hoa spoke about the children we met at the medical clinic we visited yesterday. How some of them can not afford to attend school because they have no money for a uniform or textbooks. They can't read or write. Even those kids lucky enough to have a uniform might have to share it with their brother or sister. Some kids only ate every other day- and even then nothing but a few handfuls of rice. People also use children, like a drug dealer might get a child to beg money from others so he can feed his habit. "Many people have no relatives, so they have no one who is looking out for them- no one who is going to help them," she said. The microphone that she held in a tight grip trembled near the end of the sentence, at the same time as her voice did. She paused to stare out of the window for a moment before she continued in a calmer voice.

"Don't leave here with anything," she said. "You don't need it! Just give everything away."

Next she spoke to us about her family. Bi, a relative of hers, has a 5th or 6th grade education but can't even get a job in a cafe with that. Now he unloads trucks for a living. Her brother, among many others ex-soldiers of the Vietnamese Army of the republic of Vietnam, was sent to a re-education (i.e., prison) camp. Wow. Mr. Meissner followed her speech with one of his trademark history lessons. By the time we got off the bus, I had gained so much wisdom that I felt years older.

But perhaps the most memorable day was when we visited the Leprosy Village in Nha Trang, and had an object lesson in kindness. We spent only a day there, but our experience was more than enough to earn a Ph.D in charity. Much of this was due to our encounter with the Montagnard folk, who also taught us about the diversity within Vietnam.

On the bus, Gia Hoa told us people from the nearby Montagnard clans (ethnic minority groups) would come down from their mountain and would meet us, along with other folk from the Leprosy Village. Well, once we got off the bus we saw no Montagnard folk. At first, only a few friendly uncles--who were ethnic Vietnamese-- with three fingers on each hand and some kids greeted us. All of them came from the Leprosy Village. "The people at the Leprosy Village were responsible for making sure the Montagnard were here today," said Gia Hoa with a frown. Later she told us that she wanted to turn around and leave. At the time, I wondered why she was so upset.

However, we decided that we must continue. From the bus we had to walk another two or three miles to the Leprosy Village, carrying some of the donations. I thought it might be difficult, but actually the distance flew under our feet. We stopped on the way to take pictures or speak to the ever-growing crowd of kids following us like sheep follow a shepherd. People in the houses alongside the narrow dirt road we followed smiled and waved at us. I felt like we were traveling inside a landscape painting- one more beautiful and full of colors than any I had ever seen or heard a tale of.

I was almost sorry when we finally reached the clearing where we could meet everyone in the Leprosy Village. But not for long- as I walked up I could hear children singing, and once I got closer I could see them dancing as well. "Can you die of cuteness?" said Ray, a fellow Project participant, sighing. "Because as I look at this, my chest is hurting. . . " But I decided he was grinning too widely to be anywhere near his last moments. The children even did an energetic dragon dance for us. Then it was our turn with our Project Choir led by Catherine whose father served in Vietnam during the war to share some songs. We started out with five Christmas carols, like "Silent Night" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Then we switched into ESL English as Second language) teacher mode and did the "Hokey Pokey," "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes," and we even threw in the Chicken Dance for good measure. Picture about 25 kids jiving away. That gives you a rough idea- but I assure you the real scene was 100 times cuter.

We followed the pattern we developed earlier, at the one-day medical clinics we set up and at the orphanages we visited. All 40 of us broke into small groups, with some of us giving out Christmas cards, some giving piggyback rides, some playing games. We each chose an activity suiting our personality/goods. I was in Christmas card giving frenzy when I heard some encouraging words from Gia Hoa: "Don't hand out everything you have yet. The Montagnard people are coming."

Soon a little flatbed truck rolled up. An entire village of people were crammed in the back. I think some of the little kids must have been standing on their head. Almost before it rolled to a stop, wave after wave of people cascaded out of the cheerful blue truck. They stood around the truck for a while, as if they were uncertain what to do.

I hopped right over and started to give away my precious origami. All of them came from one person. The cook at Onodani Junior High School, one of the 12 schools where I work in Japan, has a passion for origami that I have never seen equaled- she can somehow fold ten minatory cranes out of one piece of paper so their outspread wings touch each other. She gave me a large can full of her artworks, and I had saved most of them for a special group of people.

The Montagnard people's children were not like most of the other ethnic Vietnamese kids. The kids I gave cards away to earlier swarmed around me once I gave one away, and begged me for one in a loud voice, with their hands outstretched. The Montagnard kids hesitantly accepted the origami that I offered them but they studied my face very intently when they did so. They did not say anything to me at all. Some of the them had to be actually pushed forward by their mothers before they would accept anything from me. As an African-American, I felt an affinity for them. They had dark skin, like mine. They also are members of a minority group which has fewer advantages than the majority group. How can I feel a bond with the Montagnard people when I do not even share a language with them, I thought reproachfully. But nevertheless, those feelings persisted. The old grandmothers around me wore faces that looked like my own grandmothers. However, our worlds were so different that I could not even fully understand their needs. Next I wandered into the meeting hall. There, Ms. Judy, our group doctor, pointed to the conical hat on my head. "I gave my hat away to one of the old ladies sitting out in the sun who didn't have one," she said. "If you are so inclined, then you can give yours away to one of the ladies sitting over there."

Until she said that, I did not even notice that some of the old ladies had nothing but an old rag on their head. I even remember thinking that maybe they did not want to wear a conical hat. Anyway, I gave my conical hat away. Something similar occurred a few minutes later, when the same truck from before rolled up. But now since it was taking my new friends away from me, its color seemed to have changed into a faded and faintly sad shade of blue. As the Montagnard people rose to leave, I stood clutching my empty shopping bag, wishing that I had something else to give away. Suddenly from out of nowhere, Gia Hoa pounced on my empty bag. "Don't leave here with anything," she said. "You don't need it! Just give everything away." I looked down at the bag, as though seeing it for the first time.

To me, it was worthless. I could not believe that this giveaway bag could be something worth giving away. But of course Gia Hoa was right- they could use it. I gave it away. Like many other project participants there that day, I gave away much more than I originally intended to give away. Keeping Gia Hoa's words in mind, I rummaged through my fanny pack for anything else I could give. I found pens, some postcards from Japan and Vietnam, a few pictures, and some trading cards from a Japanese comic book. I gave all these away.

I even drew pictures on the back of the envelopes that once contained Christmas cards and gave those away. I remembered that Mr. Meissner had said earlier "By the end of the program, we are just giving everything away. I'm lucky to come back with my shirt on my back and the shoes on my feet." At the time I thought he was joking. . . but nope, he was telling the truth. We often hear sayings like "It is more blessed to give than to receive," but how many of us truly understand giving? We are very prosperous, so few of us have ever had the experience of giving to someone else until we feel in need ourselves. How many of us, in the West, are truly thankful for what we have?

Usually we "try to keep up with" the amount of things that our neighbors have, but if we look outside of our own country, we can see many people who are starving and in want of clothing or shelter. We need to learn how to give. We also need to learn how to be thankful. for what we have. That is why volunteer work is so important- anything less than that is miseducation.

As for me, I am still studying very hard. I have already shared the results of my research with my family and friends here in Japan. But I still have to teach over 1,000 students in my prefecture about what I learned in Vietnam. The Children's Education Project has not ended, but still continues...

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