January 02, 2013
Kim Anstatt Morton is a longtime Room to Read supporter and member of our global Board of Directors.
In early December, I had the honor of traveling to Vietnam's Mekong Delta to visit Room to Read's Literacy and Gender Equality programs. Erin Ganju, Room to Read's CEO, our Vietnam team, eleven other supporters and I gathered in Ho Chi Minh City at the superb Park Hyatt Saigon. After delicious pho for breakfast (and some of the best French pastries I have ever had), we forged our way through the sea of motorcycles to the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City to visit three girls in our Girls Education program. Then we drove 5 hours out into remote and poverty-stricken Can Tho Province, where the Mekong River divides the land like fingers on a hand until it empties into the East Sea (South China Sea).
Our group was here to see firsthand the challenges facing these families and communities and how Room to Read's programs over the last 11 years are making positive, measurable change in the lives of children. As a Room to Read board member and longtime supporter, I love tracking results and seeing impact numbers and am proud of the efficiency and scale of Room to Read's work on paper, but nothing compares to being in the field with the children and communities who benefit from our programs. Below are two highlights from the trek and a few photos.
Visiting the students from our Girls’ Education program in their homes is an emotional experience. You do not leave the same as you came. Phuong—one of the girls I met on this trip—is a strong and stoic 18 year old in 10thgrade who has been supported by Room to Read since 2009. We climbed on motorcycles and wound along tiny paths over rickety bridges to get to her home in rural Long An province (where Half the Sky was filmed).
Phuong’s father died when she was four years old, and her mother passed a way after a boating accident a few years ago, leaving Phuong as the head of her household of four, including her mentally disabled sister and her sister's baby boy. In order to support her family, Phuong beads slippers in her small frond-covered shack along a Mekong tributary. She beads for eight hours aday, 5-6 days per week, making 10 pairs of slippers every day. All this effort amounts to a meager income of around US$1.50/day. But the amazing part about Phuong is that she refuses to drop out of school.
On top of all that work, Phuong eagerly attends the afternoon shift of school and Room to Read's life skills workshops. She says the trainings are her favorite part of the Girls’ Education program. Specifically, she pointed to the financial budgeting training and explained how it helps her manage her household.
Phuong also loves learning and practicing her communication skills so she can be "more confident and raise [her] opinions". Phuong loves to run and wants to be a gym teacher after going to University. When we asked how else Room to Read could help her, Phuong graciously replied, "you are doing so much, there is nothing else I need—Room to Read is a very positive part of my life."
Each of the girls we visited in their homes, like Phuong, are inspirational. Most notable was their extreme confidence despite dire circumstances and their clear message that without Room to Read (and in particular the life skills workshops we provide), they would never imagine themselves as the literature prize-winning, confident, university bound students they have become.