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Thứ Tư, 7 tháng 3, 2012

Everything started in 2005. Huong, by that time had been working as a development official for the Canadian International Development Agency for many years, took her two friends on a trip to Lao Cai. It was not a business trip, the three ladies simply planned the vacation for fun. However, having worked in the region for so long, Huong managed to introduce to her friends things that are not usually available to tourists. And one of those rare sights was a visit to a local primary school.

Here they met a little girl about 7 or 8 years old, yet only as tall as a 4-5 years old normal child. But what struck them the most was the girl's outfit. She was wearing not even used and torn clothes, but a man t-shirt, which was so long it covered her knees, and nothing else. Absolutely nothing else. No shoes, no socks, no hat, no scarf. Being a mountainous province, Lao Cai is famous for an extreme winter. The three friends shivered from the cold, tears ran on their faces while they were listening to a teacher explaining about the situation.

Five children, the little girl in T-shirt included, were orphans. No one took care of them, so a few teachers volunteered to take them in, chipped in their own salaries to feed these students, and of course, shared with them not only their room, but also their T-shirts. Although Huong was not at all surprised by the facts, since she herself had spent a lot of time travelling through this region to implement projects providing aid specifically to children, mostly building schools; the mere sight of the girl sent pain to her heart. Together with her friends, they made the very first donation of what would later become the "Rice scholarship program" by giving some money from their own pockets so the teachers could buy some more rice for their students to survive that unusually long winter.

But it was not a one-time-charity-to-make-you-feel-good-about-yourself. The three friends didn't forget about the five orphans, and many other children sicken with poverty they saw during their trip. Huong wrote an email, sent out, and asked her friends to circulate it. Her reputation as an honest, responsible and kind woman won friends', and even strangers' trust. People started sending her money, not to help, not to "cure the problem", but just to share a bit of burden too many children were still suffering.

In the beginning, Huong took advantage of her frequent field trips to this areas to give out "scholarship" whenever she happened to go to the provinces. But unlike other organizations with big names, she never cares about putting her name out there, or advertising her good intention. The "program", if you will, is based solely on personal network, friends to friends, families to families, and persons to persons. All she cares about is the money is given to the hands of the students, so she carefully makes it extra clear that none of the donated money is used for whatever operational cost, both to the donors and the local partners who help her a great deal in administrating the process. To the Women's Union, to the schools, to the Department of Education in all districts and provinces she goes to, she makes sure not a single cent is dropped in middle way and 100% of donations go straight to the students.

And she collects stories along the way. You know, I saw with my own eyes students living in dormitory (most likely a bamboo sack) brought a bowl of rice to a tap, opened the tap, got some water and pretended it was some kind of soup, put in some salt and that was all they had to eat for that day. You know, in one scholarship disbursement, we saw this boy with such bright and unusually new pair of slippers. When I asked, his father explained that to go to the central district is a big occasion for them all, so he bought his son a new pair of slippers, but actually, he added, this is my son's first pair ever in his life. You know, the furthest distance a student lived away from here is 60km. Her teacher had to pick her up the night before, and they started their journey very early this morning, probably 3am, crossed many streams, bushes and different trails, to be here at 10am, hopefully they would be able to arrive home before sunset. You know, this family was so glad to receive this pack of rice, because without it they would probably go hungry for the next three months and eat mostly cassava. You know, the further you go, the more remote areas you come to, the more children with both physical and cognitive problems you will meet. In one school, almost 1/3 of the students are affected with some kinds of disability: some are mute, some are deaf, some are dumb, some are just not normal..and it is all because their bodies don't get enough nutrition when they most need it. You know, you know, you know...

Her sincere heart and heart-breaking little stories move people. The program grows bigger as friends forward emails to friends, sisters tell brothers about the children. Some simply have forgotten how it feels like to be poor. And in 2011, for the first time, Huong was able to organize a trip to interested donors to come to Lao Cai and Dien Bien to distribute the scholarships themselves. And by the end of the year, the program's official website is launched. Huong never talks about mission, goals, values, she just tells people what she has seen, and it's up to them to decide what they want to do. Huong doesn't call herself a founder, or any grand word charity doers like to associate themselves with. She just puts her name out there as a simple "coordinator", a bridge between those who want to give, and people in need. She doesn't even appear on most pictures on the website, because she is always behind the camera.

Two old ladies in Canada knitted 300 hats and sent them over for the children. A friend has donated every single year to support a boy who first started grade 1 and now is in grade 7, taller than his sponsor. People respond to her, and none of them talks about "making a difference", or "changing the world", or "improving life", or "a better place for children". Everyone knows what they have done and are doing is humble, and it is nothing compared to the hardship the students endure years after years. But to quote Mother Teresa: "What we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But if that drop was not in the ocean, I think the ocean would be less because of that missing drop"

To watch Huong draft and send out emails, to help her prepare the sweaters for each and every child, tie and retie them to arrange them in order of drop-out locations, scan each letter and translate them to English-speaking donors, take every picture of each student receiving scholarship, title them, send them out, contact people, work with local government, and see her cried when one student sang about his addicted father and hugged him tight even he has HIV, leaves me in awe. She even goes out of her way to draft an interesting itinerary to make sure that donors have an enjoyable trip beside distributing scholarships. All that, without bragging about hard work, passion or compassion; and she is still a full-time worker, and an ordinary mother and wife. She is a type of person one feels fortunate to come across.

Which makes me really proud to call her my aunt.

* This year Rice Scholarship Program gave out over 300 scholarships for students in Lao Cai and Dien Bien, each is worth 800.000 VND (the equivalent of 40kg of rice, enough to sustain one person in 4 months). For more information, check out the website http://www.ricescholarship.org/

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