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bicycles, poverty and a kaleidoscope morning

brand new and ready to go

This morning I was privileged enough to join the team from Loreto Vietnam and Australia on a trip out to District 9, Saigon, to witness the handover of 60 brand new bicycles to 60 of the poorest school aged children in the district.

trying to be patient.

We drove out of Ho Chi Minh City down the freeway and arrived at a large highschool (the midpoint for the drop off) a little before 8am, the children were only just starting to arrive, some with their parents, and some alone. I wondered why on such an exciting day for these kids why the room had such a sombre silence. I asked around only to realise that these children had been told very seriously that they wouldn’t get their bikes if they were badly behaved and the needed to be on their best behaviour. Because of this, they didn’t smile, they didn’t talk – they just sat as if they were sitting at a funeral. It wasn’t until after the speeches and the ceremony when the children were released outside did we start seeing some animation on their gorgeous little faces.

registering for a brand new bike

The youngest of these kids would have been about six and the oldest around sixteen and they were selected by the local government in District 9 because they came from the most disadvantaged families. Each child was given a brand new bike in the colour that they chose, and as I watched a little girl, in her ironed school uniform that looked 100 years old and her plastic orange shoes ask if she could please have a green one, it dawned on me that this was the first decision that this little girl had ever been able to make for herself. living in poverty and hand-me-downs, this would be the first gift that was given to any of these children that was brand new – they even got to rip the plastic off to prove it. It was their bike and it was perfect.

with her new GREEN bike.

The program that Loreto puts into place every year donating bicycles to impoverished children is all based on helping and supporting these kids get the best start to their lives through education. Many of these children had to walk kilometers to school every day, and because of the school system in South East Asia, they also have to walk home for lunch, and back again – doing four trips in the blinding heat and humidity, and only having a short time at home in the middle of the day for eating and rest.

what a smile!

It was pretty spectacular seeing the look on these children’s faces as they climbed aboard their brand new bike for the first time, there faces split open in a smile revealing crooked teeth and the happiest moment of their young lives.

I felt extremely honoured to be involved and to have the opportunity to see these children and to experience this moment with them.

better than christmas...

After the bikes were handed over and the kids went for a test ride around the quadrangle at a very well off high school in the outskirts of the area, they all rode out onto the road – some kids rode their bikes all the way home – for some this was quite far, and as we left we saw other kids sitting on the back of their mum or dads motorbike clutching protectively their brand new sparkling bike that rolled along beside them.

the chalk board

After the bike handover we moved on the Long Phuoc, a  school in District 9 that Loreto plans to get the funding to demolish and rebuild – and thank god because the facilities are really terrible. I’ve seen some terrible schools around Asia, and India was by far the worst – but here, in a big city, trying to educate poor children in a classroom with a roof that is falling in, with crumbling concrete on the floor and an average temperature of boiling point, well, it’s just not giving these kids a fair go.

the teachers throne

We took a tour of the school with the principal, who is understandably very excited about the prospect of a new school for her students. She has worked at this primary school for 25 years, since she graduated herself, and she says that even 40 years ago, when she was in primary school, the conditions were better where she studied.

The children who attend this school are very poor and the school does not have cooking facilities (as many asian schools do) so that the children can eat and nap at school so they don’t have to do the long walk to and from home in the heat of the day. The children don’t get enough to eat at home, only a couple of bowls of rice/soup per day, and if Loreto can get this program up and running it will ensure that these children are getting at least one full, stable meal per day… which would certainly help with their education and give them more of a chance for the future.

the face of poverty

We then moved on to visit two families out in the poorest areas of District nine, both families have a child who attends this dilapidated school, and who received the gift of a new bike today. The first home was that of Kim, a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl with the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen, and her confidence was astounding. she lived in a small house of only two rooms and a dilapidated bathroom, snuggled close to the little house next door that housed her cousins and aunty and uncle. A child of three, the youngest being only two years old and is being cared for by the grandmother elsewhere because the parents have to work to only just scrape by in such dire conditions.

We chatted with her and she took us on a very proud (very short) tour of her home. She smiled from ear to ear as she talked about not being able to sleep the night before because she was so excited about getting her bike, and that it would always be parked inside the house.

you can see the world from up here...

We moved on to a second house, which we had to access by walking through fields of lotus flowers and drying grains, to a little cluster of shelters in the back, where about 15 children lived with their parents, I’d guess at about 5 families. The little girl we visited here was so poor that her parents and her brother and herself had lived in a shack that had its roof ripped off every time a gust of wind blew through the fields. The government built this family a home three months ago, which is what the Vietnamese government calls A house of Love. They had borrowed a table and chairs from the next door neighbours so we had somewhere to sit. They were so proud of their new home, which was a small tiled three room structure with an outside bathroom – and I’ll I could think was what a shock it must’ve been for that family sleeping inside a concrete structure after growing together under a thatched roof for so many years.

The little boys leaped from the trees into the river and I bounced a fat little cabbage patch baby on my hip as we talked (and translated) the stories of the families and we thanked them profusely for giving us the privilege of seeing their lives and visiting their homes.

As we drove back to the city I thought again about my time in India, and the stories I’ve heard from friends who work in Ethiopia – And again I am humbled by the people who I meet and the stories that I hear. It doesn’t take much for a family to be happy, they don’t need iPods and big screen TV’s, they don’t need much at all… They just need each other, and every now and then a House that love built.

Barefoot, colourful and moving in the right direction, one little step at a time.

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