It’s a strange thing only working 16 hours a week. You have all this time and yet somehow it evaporates into thin air and all you have to show for it by the weekend is an empty wallet, slightly bigger tummy (damn you all-you-can-eat ice cream buffet) and a hard drive clogged with episodes of Peep Show.
This is the kind of life that I could only dream of when I was working a nine to five office job in New Zealand but funnily enough, now that its reality the novelty has worn off. A while ago I started to recognise that this laid back lifestyle was actually making me feel as if something was missing so I decided to fill my time with something worthwhile.
The school that I work for has an affiliation with several charities in Ho Chi Minh City so it was easy for me to find a cause to donate my time to. I chose Go Vap orphanage and have been loving the experience so far.
I’m lucky enough to come from a loving family and can’t imagine a life without them. For the kids of Go Vap, many will never experience that kind of support and as many are disabled, they need it more than most. Once I had my first cuddle with one of the Down syndrome kids it was clear just how much these kids crave love. It’s even more apparent with the toddlers and babies- yes, hard as it is to believe many newborns are abandoned at the hospital and end up in the orphanage.
These tiny beings cling to you like magnets and as soon as you’ve picked one up you know that it’s going to take all your strength to let them go – not just mentally but physically too – these little guys can cling! Often the young kids fall asleep on me instantly because they’ve simply been waiting for someone to share a soothing heartbeat with. I like to think of myself as a giant play thing for the older kids who love to race around and be picked up but with the bubbas you really do feel like a temporary mum.
Most people would consider volunteering to be a one way street where you donate your time for nothing in return. That’s so not the case at Go Vap. These kids are the highlight of my week and give me so much. They put life in perspective and when you get a smile or a laugh out of them it’s magic. It may sound corny but I can’t put into words the feeling of plonking yourself down only to have a gorgeous wee creature race towards you within seconds and give you the biggest uninhibited cuddle you’ve ever had. The most surreal part is the fact that they may have only met you once in their life but that’s enough for them to form a bond. It’s a beautiful thing.
It’s not all smiles and cuddles at the orphanage though. There is genuine sadness and pain in spades. Last week I went with a male co-worker and as we bent down to say hello to a new resident (he must have been about two years old) he recoiled instantly, started crying and had to be taken away. We were later told that he had just been brought in as his mother had abandoned the family leaving him in the hands of his father who had beaten him so badly that neighbours had heard and reported him.
Then there are the severely disabled children who spend their entire lives at Go Vap. Apparently a lot of the volunteers come once and can’t handle seeing these kids so they never come back. There isn’t a lot we can do with these children (and teenagers), some of whom have such swollen heads that they can’t lift them and spend their short lives lying in pain. All we do is sit with them and massage their shrunken and often contorted limbs but this small gesture seems to make a difference. I think it’s more just the presence of someone being there that helps them. On occasion you’ll see some relief on their face or even a faint smile if you’re lucky and it’s an amazing moment to share.
There are around 200 children at the orphanage and the staff working there all deserve medals. It’s probably one of the hardest and yet most rewarding jobs out there. I can’t begin to imagine the emotional rollercoaster that being involved with the kids on a day-in day-out basis would be. Even though I’m only there for a brief time I know that I’m going to experience grief, pain (some of the characters enjoy giving you a bit of a hard time!), joy, hilarity and love all in the same visit. I feel so lucky to be a part of the lives of these incredibly brave kids and thank them for filling my void.
Yes, I may still have too much time on my hands but at least there are a couple of hours each week where I know I wouldn’t want to be spending it doing anything else.