Volunteers in Vietnam work to bridge Vietnamese-American Relations

The Thuy An Rehabilitation Centre for Handicapped Children is located 70 kilometres from Hanoi. By bus, the ride into the Vietnamese countryside only lasts a couple of hours, yet Thuy An is worlds away from the sprawl and bustle of Vietnam’s capital. Close to the historic district of Sơn Tây, known for its ancient and more recent military history, the centre serves children from all across the greater metropolitan region. This setting has allowed a group of American students from the University of Delaware to make strides in a variety of therapies for disabled children.

Occupational Therapy volunteer Jillian Meyers (USA) working with physically disabled child at Thuy An Rehabilitation Centre
Occupational Therapy volunteer Jillian Meyers (USA) working with physically disabled child at Thuy An Rehabilitation Centre
The seven young women from the USA are spending their summer volunteering at Thuy An, a facility that Projects Abroad Vietnam has been working with for several years. Preparing for careers in medicine, physiotherapy, and occupational therapy, the students earn university credit for their commitment as volunteers in Vietnam. Applying their studies to practical fieldwork brings medical and therapeutic theory to life. Combined with a crash course in Vietnamese culture, the students are both enriching their personal studies and career outlooks, and lending a hand to a community in need.

“I have never been out of the US before, and the opportunity to combine my interests in physiotherapy and travel was one I could not miss. I was eager to learn about healthcare in the developing world, and Projects Abroad has allowed me to explore this topic,” stated Hannah Kimberly, a physiotherapy volunteer. Whereas some of the students sought opportunities to challenge themselves in entirely new environments, others already had a connection to Vietnam. Medical volunteer, Selina Su, said: “As a Vietnamese American, I was thrilled to explore my heritage, while undertaking this important step in my career.”

Comprising of a large campus with facilities for inpatient and outpatient medical treatment, as well as classrooms, occupational therapy workshops, and physiotherapy equipment, Thuy An has allowed each of the Delaware students to pursue her own interests and take initiative in assisting various children. In their daily tasks, they are supported and mentored by a local staff of Vietnamese professionals. “The staff has been beyond helpful,” shared Kendall Small, an 18-year-old pre-med student, “to see such welcoming mentors and teachers, a staff that truly wants to help us on this journey of learning, is even more astounding.”

The connection between American military involvement in Vietnam and the disabilities of the children they work with is not lost on the young students. Founded in the mid-1970s, Thuy An Centre was established to assist the disabled children of war veterans, many of whom were affected by Agent Orange, a defoliant used by American forces in North Vietnam. Generations later, the disabled children now at the centre are residual victims of Agent Orange exposure. It is unknown how much of the contaminant may still be present in the region’s soil or water.

“The staff has been nothing but kind to us, and shows a true appreciation for our service… it is beyond meaningful to build up trust with them. As Americans volunteers working alongside Vietnamese, it feels as though we are building a new partnership, and a new chapter in the relationship between our countries,” stated Su.

Occupational Therapy volunteer Amanda Chilkotowsky (USA) working with physically disabled child, and staff therapist, at Thuy An Rehabilitation Centre
Occupational Therapy volunteer Amanda Chilkotowsky (USA) working with physically disabled child, and staff therapist, at Thuy An Rehabilitation Centre
An American bombshell sits on the grounds of Thuy An – a powerful reminder of recent conflict. It has been repurposed as a dinner bell for the children. “The repurposing of the bombshell represents a desire to move on from conflict, as well as a need to remember,” said Kendall. “Vietnam is so far away from our lives in Delaware, both physically and theoretically, but here we can change what might be a dark legacy of American involvement in Vietnam. I like to think that we are helping to tie up our country’s loose ends.”

Challenged to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers in their daily work, the volunteers are not only supported by Thuy An’s staff of doctors, therapists, and other specialists, but also by their volunteer coordinators. At weekly meetings to discuss their progress and methods, they are reminded to always connect their work to Projects Abroad’s core values, some of which include the provision of emotional support, and improvement of the level of stimulation given to each child.

As 20-year-old occupational therapy volunteer, Casey Lazarek, said, “We were given the opportunity to get hands-on experience on our very first day, jumping right into work with the children. We are gaining practical skills, but also learning to work with fewer resources than we are used to in the US, flexing our muscles as creative therapists.”

Reflecting on the power of her service as a young American, Casey shared, “my first reaction to seeing the centre was one of guilt, knowing that many of these children have suffered at the hands of military tactics. But left with the opportunity to make amends, and to give back on behalf of our country, I am overwhelmed with gratitude.”

Find out more about volunteering with Projects Abroad Vietnam.

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