After two incredible weeks with my son and his family, John headed home. A few days later, Jake and I traveled to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to visit Hoi Xuan Preschool, the Room to Read school that I, with the help of the many schools I've visited, fund raised to build.
On Monday, August 25th, Jake and I woke up at 5:15am. We ate breakfast sleepily, then waited for a Room to Read guide. After waiting a good while, I called to see what was up. I learned the local Room to Read folks thought we weren't coming. You see, they hadn't heard from me recently and Hoi Xuan Preschool wasn't finished. They thought, "Who'd come all this way to see an unfinished school?"
I, on the other hand had thought, "There's no need to call; the day's all set up. And, we've come all this way, we're going to see the school, finished or not." It was a classic case of miscommunication.
Room to Read's director couldn't have been more helpful! Before long Mr. Thinh, a Room to Read School Coordinator, Ms. Tinjet, a government liaison and a driver arrived. We picked up Ms. Nhiar, Room to Read's energetic Communication Officer in route.
Driving through the countryside of the Tien Giang Province was fascinating! The roads were pretty good, people were busy everywhere, the houses and buildings were very basic but the landscape was lush and green. What I enjoyed most, however, were all the creatively-loaded vehicles!
Sadly, all the rivers I spotted that day, and there were many, were very, very dirty. Ms. Nhiar said rivers are still used as bathrooms in Vietnam. In fact, she showed me one family's toilet that was just behind a school we visited on a creek bank.
Hoi Xuan Preschool, the school many of you helped to build, was the first one we visited. Within a few weeks the school will house 180 three to five year olds. It's two story, with six large classrooms, each designed for 30 students. It's open and airy, with a wide covered porch on both levels and a central stair case.
There's no school for three to five year olds anywhere nearby. I was told that Vietnamese children can attend schools in neighboring villages but often, their parents have no transportation and it's too far for little ones to walk. Thus, when Hoi Xuan Preschool opens later this fall, it will the first school experience for most of its students.
Here's a key point I learned: If Vietnamese kids don't start school when they're young, they often never do. As children grow older, they often need to work to earn money for their families. Kids that start school when they are young usually want to continue in school while working. But older kids are embarrassed to be in a class with younger students. So if they don't go to school when they're little, their chance for an education often slips away. It warms my heart to understand the significant this school will have in many children's lives.
Ms. Nga, the school's principal, and Ms. Hai, her assistant, rushed out on a motorbike when they heard we were coming. Even though they were completely flushed from their travels, they brought drinks for all, then proudly showed us their new school.
Next, we stopped by Long Binh Dinh School, another Preschool Room to Read helped to build. It's been open for a couple of years. Its yard has nice play equipment and many plants. The school is clean and well cared for. But we got there too late to meet the teachers or the kids.
The final school we visited was Hoa Dinh School, a Room to Read Preschool that open just two weeks before my visit. It is an eight-room school built to house 240 students. The interior of this school was finished but the yard was still bare.
The classrooms and halls were bright and gleaming. It even had pint-sized sinks and toilets. But beyond many adorable small tables and chairs, the rooms were mostly empty. We talked with the school's enthusiastic principal, Ms. Su, for much of the afternoon. Ms. Su listed off the many items she wished her school had: books, play equipment, computers and art materials, to name just a few. She said there wasn't money in the budget, (either from Room to Read or the government) for these things. But her students' parents were so grateful for this lovely new school, they'd promised to fundraise to buy what her school needs. I think it's great that the parents are taking ownership of their children's school. But these parents have so little money, I wonder how much they can actually give. To me, a school's just a building unless it has books and teaching materials....
Then we moved on to what I'd come to see- the children. I realized then that we'd missed the teaching day due to our late start. Darn! But I saw many content, sleeping children after a morning of work. It was a precious moment, seeing kids so new to school who were comfortable enough to sleep. Ms. Su shared some interesting facts: The old Hoa Dinh Preschool(on the right)was so small it only accommodated 45 students. Since the new school opened, 240 three-to-five-year- olds attend the school. Over half of them are 5 years old. All children eat breakfast and lunch at school. Most kids go home after lunch but some, like those we saw sleeping, stay on until their parents get off work around 5:00pm.
Ms. Su invited us for lunch at a local restaurant. We ate a delicious fish and vegetable soup that was cooked right at our table. Over lunch, Ms. Su talked excitedly about her love of children and all she hope to accomplish at her new school. Ms. Nhair talked about the challenges of educating Vietnamese children due to transportation issues, their need to work, and due to the country's many dialects. Mr. Thinh glowed while talking about the impact that the 45 newly built Room to Read schools will have on his people. Each of them thanked me again and again (and again) for the little part I had in it all. I was honestly very moved by their words.
I wish I'd seen more kids at the schools we visited, but overall, my day was awesome. I was so impressed by the those I met; each of them is clearly and deeply committed to improving educational opportunities for all Vietnamese children. So I guess I'll just have to come again. But next time, I'll call to confirm that I'm coming!
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you to all who helped me to build Hoi Xuan Preschool!
Would you like to help me build a second school in Vietnam? I'd love to visit your school! I plan to continue donating a portion of every speaking engagement to Room to Read. Email me at email@example.com for more details.
Some of you may be wondering, what in the heck is Room to Read? It's a non-profit organization that's had an impact on over 3.1 million children by giving them access to 765 schools, 7,168 bilingual libraries, 333 new local language children's titles and 7,132 girls in educational program. With your help, they can reach their goal of establishing 11,000 libraries to impact more than 5 million children by 2010. Find out more at www.roomtoread.org.
During the rest of our Vietnam stay, we explored Ho Chi Minh City. Its many roundabouts, wide sidewalks and landscaped boulevards give it a bit of a French feel. We visited the War Remnants Museum, which is dedicated to telling the Vietnamese side of what they call the "American War." Filled with a seemingly endless number of graphic photos showing the horrors that occurred during and after the Vietnam War, it's a place I'll never forget!
Jake and I greatly enjoyed being shown around H.C.M.City by an absolutely wonderful young man, Ho Tuan Huy. He's a social worker who helps Room to Read in his spare time. He took us to a beautiful Buddhist Pagoda and helped us to barter at the large and colorful Ben Thang market. He also took us to H.C.M.City's main Art Gallery, which was holding a show of current Vietnamese artists' work. Jake, who's a fine artist himself, was quite interested. Our day together ended with a fine meal in a local cafe. Thank you Huy! And now we're on to Korea...