Volunteer Ho Chi Minh City….It was an early start. 7am. Far too early a start while on vacation surely. I slowly opened my eyes and took in my surroundings. Three women were shoving crayons, books and papers in to their rucksacks. And then I remembered where I was… and that I wasn’t on holiday. I had signed myself up for a ‘volunteer vacation’ and today was my first day at the centre.
“One of the benefits of Volunteer Vacations,” I had read, “is to live as the locals do and do as the locals do.” This rang true as we hung on for dear life, bus hurtling at break neck speed in to the Saigon traffic, horn depressed in perpetuum as we overtook scooters and bicycles.
Our VPV representative, who was under orders to teach us our bus route, told us to look out for the shop with the green and blue satin dress. Here, we would disembark, walk five minutes to a different bus stop and interchange to our final destination. If this was to be our familiar landmark for the next two weeks, I wondered if we would ever find our way should the shop owners change the window display.
The centre when we reached was housed in essentially an open box. Only three walls protected us from the outside elements. The fourth elevation was completely open with only a half height railing to keep the children locked in. Not that they had the apparatus to escape. Many of the children were sprawled out on the marble floor, limbs and heads twisted and discordant.
Known officially as the Centre of Orthopedics & Rehabilitation for Disabled Children (CORDC), the LTK Physio Centre opened in 1983 as a joint humane project between ‘Terre des Hommes’ (Germany) and the Ministry of Labour, Invalids & Social Affairs of Vietnam. The aim is to provide free rehabilitation and health care for all paralysed children in South Vietnam. Most of the kids have varying degrees of cerebral palsy or Down’s syndrome. If I’m being completely honest, I’m relieved they do not have the horrific deformities I bore witness to at the War Remnants museum. There are approximately twenty five children at the centre, ranging from five to eighteen. Our (my co-volunteers) are there to help the nurses, although I’m not sure if we are more of a nuisance and a distraction to the kids. Mainly we entertain the children… something which is left to our own devises as there isn’t a lot in the way of toys or activities.
Mornings are spent either drawing or watching Tom and Jerry on the flickering TV set. An afternoon of face painting was also a hit with the children… They giggled with delight as I took photos of their animal faces and showed them their new personas. The finger painting was probably not so much a hit with the nurses though. The meanest nurse glared at me as she scrubbed the stubborn paint from their delicate faces and hands.
We also help the nurses feed the children twice a day which is probably the only thing that seems like hard work, depending on what kid you end up with. Unfortunately I seemed to be in charge of feeding the suspect green goo to the fussiest kid – not that I blamed him for not wanting it. I sampled the mixture out of curiousity and almost choked on the acrid taste.
One of my favourites is a little girl called Tringh (pronounced Ching), a five or six year old spritely little thing with a goofy smile, imploring eyes and an inability to speak due to cerebral palsy. Despite my shameful lack of Vietnamese (apart from ‘Xin Cao’ – ‘hello’ and ‘Cam On’ – ‘thank you’), I knew we had an instant connection when she ambled towards me and ‘admired’ the long pink summer dress I was wearing. By ‘admired’, she hitched up my dress, pulled it over her head like it was a wedding veil, and bared my knickers to all! I picked her up, tickled her until she wriggled and it was her silent laugh that won me over; I’m sure a jubilant giggle if her little voice wasn’t stifled by her disability.
Another favourite of mine is a little boy of around ten years old called Hai. Severely twisted arms and legs, Hai’s case of cerebral palsy is more debilitating than little Tringh’s. I loved him from the word ‘go’ when he crawled towards me, spidery arms pulling himself closer, legs dragging behind, a big charming smile spread across his friendly, sweet face. He raised his awkward hands to my face, a sign I’m told which expresses ‘beauty’, then drew his fingers in to a perfect heart shape to signify ‘love’. Yep, he had me alright. I gave him a kiss on the cheek in return and he beamed at me with a blush creeping up his face.
There’s also a little boy called Phoung who I would adopt straight away if he didn’t have such a loving father. He peered at me with his big, brown eyes through the railings on my first day. One of the veteran volunteers who had been there for weeks told me he was a newbie; a timid little thing who spent most of the day sitting by the railings in his own little world, legs stretched out in front of him in leg braces. Day by day though, with each cuddle, I’ve broken down that little wall of his. He only has to hold out his arms to me for a cuddle and I become a pathetic mess.
One little boy who will forever stay in my heart though is ‘Tim’ – one of the more disabled kids who can barely move nor speak. This isn’t his real name; this is a name I’ve given him because no-one seemed to know it. ‘Tim’ means ‘heart’ in Vietnamese, a name I gave him because of his beautiful heart shaped face and the fragile countenance he seemed to hold himself in. A maternal instinct swept over me each time I cradled Tim in my arms. I sung a lullaby to calm his painful cries. As he calmed, he gazed intently in to my eyes and I imagined if he had a voice, he would ask me – ‘Who are you? What has brought you here?’
And if I could have channeled my thoughts to him, I would have told him – “For the first time in my life, I actually feel this is the most natural thing I’ve ever done in my life, something I am truly content on doing.”
I know I’m not making a huge difference in their lives. I feel like I could do more… that I should be pushing for improvements to be made at the centre so there are more facilities for physiotherapy and learning activities. Some of these kids are so bright, I feel that they are overlooked… a forgotten bunch of flowers discarded by the roadside because they’re crumpled and deemed by the Vietnamese as far from perfect. They are perfect to me however… Little angels caught in broken bodies… As soon as I see their beautiful faces beaming at me every morning, I feel like I’ve come home.