Its seems like the quintessential charitable act - volunteering at an orphanage in a less developed country. Yet, what ever our impact was on the orphanage it pales in comparison to the impact the people at the orphanage have had on us. By allowing us to come to their home for a few days they shared their culture, their food, their lives and their friendship with us. They gave us memories and stories that will last a lifetime.
When we first arrived at the orphanage to volunteer we were greeted by the head nun who speaks no English. We had been to the Pagoda the week before to meet her and see the program they have for special needs children. The head nun was very kind and served us tea. She has been recognized by the Vietnamese government for her work. Since arrangements for our volunteering had been made by a third party, we sat their awkwardly wondering if the message had gotten through that we were there to volunteer or if she thought we were just there for tea.
In a while a younger nun who speaks some English arrived. Although the Pagoda Orphanage does receive tourists it seems that they have not had volunteers before so they were uncertain as to what to do with us. We sat there for quite a while having tea and chatting. At this point our cultural differences became starkly noticeable as I had to suppress my urge to get started, while the nuns were happy to let things unfold as they would.
Some of the children who live at the Orphanage attend public school, so when they arrived back for their 2 hour lunch break we naturally started to play games and chat with them. This gave us a very smooth transition into the daily activities of the Orphanage. Dave, Devin and Kasenya continued while I went to the special needs classroom to see if there was anything I could help with. Meanwhile Lacey made her way to the kitchen to help with lunch.
We had intended to spend more time helping out with the special needs class, but language was a definite barrier to any meaningful participation. The staff at the special needs program are very organized and professional. Since there was little I could do in the classroom I helped feed lunch to one of the children who is unable to feed herself and then I helped the staff do the dishes by hand.
Shortly after this we were called to lunch. We arrived to a fully laid out table set for us in a dining room reserved for guests. It was an absolutely amazing meal consisting of special Hue rice cakes and a variety of other vegetarian dishes. This was real Vietnamese food at its absolute finest. We asked about eating with the children or teachers the following day, but were told that we were honoured guests and so we would be served our meal as honoured guests.
After lunch we found where the dishes were being done and so we helped with them. The 200 children at the orphanage create a lot of dirty dishes and all are done by hand. When dishes were done we were informed that it was nap time. We were shown to a small room with a bed and a couple of couches. The bed was of the Vietnamese style: a wooden sleeping platform covered with a colourful straw mat while the couches were also made of the finest tropical wood without any cushions or upholstery. The orphanage was almost silent as everyone went for nap time - including the nuns and teachers! Later one of the nuns would ask us in disbelief why Canadians don’t have nap time.
Following the obligatory nap we went to the nursery to cuddle babies. While in the nursery an American tour group came in. I was standing beside Kasenya holding a baby and someone asked if she could take a picture. We had been told pictures were permitted. To my surprise the woman started taking pictures of Kasenya!
When we arrived the second morning, we asked the head nun what we could do, feeling that our services had been underutilized the day before. She replied that there is lots of work to be done but nothing suitable for us. We let her know that even though we are from abroad, we eat and go to the bathroom like everyone one else at the orphanage so we should work like everyone else at the orphanage. She agreed to let Devin and Dave clean several of the classrooms. All the desks and chairs were also taken to the central courtyard for a thorough scrubbing.
Meanwhile Kasenya and I went back to the nursery to see the babies and helped with all that laundry from the nursery. Having quickly figured out where we could be useful and the flow of things, we followed the same routine as the day before: helping with lunch in the special needs class, having lunch ourselves, helping with dishes and then nap time. Nap was again followed by cuddling babies in the nursery. As much as this might sound like easy work, 10 children are cared for by 3 woman. With next to no toys for the babies, extra hands are always appreciated.
Another tour bus arrived and came to the nursery while we were there. I was holding one baby when one of the young nuns nudged me to indicate that I should stop hogging the babies and pass some around. So I took babies out of their cribs and gave them to the “visitors”.
Since it was apparent that I spoke English, the visitors had a lot of questions for me. They wanted to know about the babies but they also wanted to know about Kasenya and I. They asked where we were from, if Kasenya was my daughter and if she lived at the orphanage. Not quite sure how the logic of that one worked.
The head nun learned quickly, so on the third day of volunteering she met us at the front door and pointed in the direction of the courtyard where there were still desks and chairs to clean. This time all four of cleaned. One of the young nuns came by and seemed concerned that we were making Kasenya help. She was worried that the splashing water would make Kasenya cold even though it was at least 25 degrees outside.
When the children who attend public school came back for lunch, I was asked to do haircuts. I gave three boys haircuts. I think they also wanted me to do some of the girls but I since I have no training I was too slow. Dave, Devin and Kasenya helped with lunchtime in the special needs class which is on the perimeter of the courtyard where we were washing desks and cutting hair.
We had lunch earlier this time and so we ate while prayers were going on in the temple adjacent to our dining area. The sound of chanting and the accompanying gong provided a calm and pleasant accompaniment to lunch.
Lunch was again followed by dishes. But this time there were a lot more dishes because a tour bus had come and lunch was included with their tour. Squatting around the huge aluminum dish basins, the young nuns doing dishes began to ask Devin questions and giggle a lot. Finally one blurted out “you are very handsome”. How often is a 15 year old told he is handsome by a group of Buddhist nuns?
After nap time, Kasenya went to the nursery by herself while Dave, Devin and I finished washing desks and chairs. This time we had lots of help as the teachers and students from the special needs class helped us out. Some of the kids were so enthusiastic about it, they rewashed the chairs we had done that morning. We didn’t bother to stop them.
Even with only a few common words, we quickly formed bonds of friendship with the nuns, teachers and children. The work we did will not change their lives, but perhaps they will be as affected by the experience as we were. Leaving the Pagoda on our third and final day of volunteering was very difficult and Kasenya cried all the way back to the hotel. The image of the all the nuns standing and waving to us as our taxi pulled out of the lane will be forever burned in our memories.
Bissky Dziadyk Family
Travelling the world as a family since 2008.
In September 2008 our family embarked on a four month journey through South East Asia. Traveling with a child who uses a wheelchair presented its challenges, but following the Mekong River through China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam with a wheelchair was truly an adventure.
When we move beyond our fears and embrace our dreams, the Universe has an odd way of not only supporting us but giving us more opportunities than we ever imagined. Embarking on a journey with an open heart we can not help but be changed forever by the experience. Indeed it would be a waste to return untouched in the spiritual realm.
September: China (Beijing, Xi’an,Kunming, Yuanyang)
October: Northern Vietnam (Hanoi, Halong Bay) and
Laos (Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane)
November: Southern Vietnam (Hue, Ho Chi Minh City, Mekong Delta)
December: Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang, Kampot and Sihanoukville).