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Photos courtesy of the author

“Find a cause that matters to you, take a volunteer trip, and you will likely return a better person for the experience,” reflects Paige Stringer on her experience teaching hearing-impaired schoolchildren in Vietnam.

I met Thien on the second day of my volunteer assignment at the Thuan An boarding school for the hearing impaired in Vietnam. The school yard was filled with the noise and energy of 300 excited children hard at work making art and flower baskets in anticipation of Teacher Appreciation Day.

Hands fluttered as the students communicated to each other in sign language. I was taking in the swarm of activity around me when I suddenly felt a tap on my elbow. “Chau Co,” the greeting came with a smile from the clean-cut teenager with glasses standing next to me.

“My name is Thien,” he wrote in perfectly scripted English on a pad of paper. When I responded with my own name, he flashed me a smile and excitedly began to write some questions.

Word about our ability to communicate shot around as it only can on school playgrounds. I instantly became an A-list celebrity on campus.

Over the next few weeks, I spent a lot of time with the kids in the three English classes I taught and in stolen moments between class, after dinner, and during weekend activities.

Students ranged from 5-20 years old, and came from diverse backgrounds and life situations, but the boarding school environment and the uniqueness of their disability bonded them into one large family.

They were as interested to learn about me as I was about them. We shared stories in a linguistic cross between written English, simple Vietnamese, and international sign language.

The questions posed to me ran the gamut: from “What do you eat for breakfast?” to “Did you vote for Obama?” to “What animal do you want to be in your next life?” to my favorites: “Does snow taste like sugar?” and “How long does a boy have to wait to kiss a girl in America?”

I admired the passion and tenacity of the teachers to help these students in spite of meager resources, limited training, and outdated technology. The town where Thuan An is located is gritty and desolate, but hope and love are very much alive in this special place.

A lot of that has to do with Thuy, the executive director. She has devoted her life to the school since she arrived almost 20 years ago. Thuy has a quiet peace about her and the kindest eyes of anyone I have ever met.

Thuy and I had many deep conversations about the challenges facing deaf education in Vietnam and where help is needed.

Bright, highly capable kids like Thien are fated to become field laborers or factory workers because the system does not provide the handicapped with an education beyond the seventh grade.

Thuy and others are working to increase awareness about the issue and to change the perception that these kids are limited in their ability to learn and become productive members of society.

Thuy and I bonded on a personal level as well. She would call me into her office, close the door, and break out a bowl of peanuts or a large piece of fruit. For the next few hours, we would share stories about our lives while the rain fell outside.

When I first learned about this volunteer assignment, I thought it would be a great opportunity to give back. This experience was better than any plan to simply visit Vietnam and its tourist attractions. I helped to make a difference at Thuan An, and left a changed person in the process.

Community Connection

Frequent Matador contributor Hal Amen has just begun a year-long volunteering journey. Follow along with his regular column, Volunteer Voice.

Activism + Politics Volunteer + Work


 

About The Author

Paige Stringer

Paige Stringer manages marketing and public relations for Xola Consulting, an adventure travel consultancy, and provides strategic direction for Off the Radar - the company’s adventure travel website and online newsletter that provides information to adventure travelers about the best sustainable adventure travel destinations and tour operators.

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  • Tim Patterson

    Inspiring!

  • Terry Lee

    Well written article. Makes me want to explore volunteer tourism oportunities.

  • Robert Baggs

    Great Article! Love the personal touch. Extremely well written. How do I get involved in working with and supporting the deaf children in Vietnam?

    • Cuc, Le Thi Kim

      Well, if you are willing there is deaf school in Hanoi and Deaf clubs in Northern areas as well… you can teach them in photography, life skills… etc
      Just have a reply if you are interested then we can discuss more about this.
      Cuc
      Sign language interpreters

  • Paige Stringer

    Thank you for the nice comments! To answer your question, Robert, many tour companies such as Buffalo Tours offer volunteer assignments at deaf schools. Also, on my trip, I learned about the significant need for more knowledge among Vietnam's teachers about how to effectively educate children with hearing loss. The executive director of Thuan An and I collaborated on a proposal for a teacher training program. If you are interested, please visit ” target=”_blank”>http://www.paigestringer.com/services.shtml to read an abstract about this initiative.

  • HazardousDavis

    Hi there, I'm currently traveling in south east Asia. I read your Matador post just now, sounded really cool. I wondered if you could help me with some few extra details of doing something like that too in Vietnam, or even the contact info of the place you did you voluntary work at? Thanks in advance, … And help me you did! Thanks for the info on the area where you worked, I will be getting in touch and seeing what I can do to help! Cheers

  • Paige Stringer

    Happy to be of help Davis. Have a great time and yes, be sure to tell me how it goes!

  • Henry

    I agree, working with the deaf is rewarding. Among them I met a 20-year-old tailor who is deaf and mute. Even his Vietnamese is limited and his general knowledge is poor because he had minimal education. He did a technical college and is now supporting his family – father and brother, both deaf, and mother, all unemployed. He is frustrated, angry and bored. I think he is intelligent. He may benefit by stopping work for a while and taking on some sort of university education. I need some advice and resources so I can put some options to him. Do you have any suggestions?

  • sylvanie

    Bonjour,

    Je suis sourde et bientôt je pars au Vietnam pour le travail (je suis artiste – vidéaste-intervenante) … J’aimerais rencontrer l’école des sourds… Pourriez-vous me dire où se trouve le centre où vous êtes allé, que l’on voit ici sur ce blog?!
    Merci beaucoup pour votre réponse et aussi pour votre article sur ce blog…
    Bonne continuation

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  • speech correction teacher

    Hi I’m teaching student w/ hearing impaired, We teach oral method and language development.We are using different techniques that came from abroad and to my country . we do all our best to let them talk, listen and express them selves orally w/ the help of their hearing gadget .. we love them very much. Early intervention is important and also parent’s support..

  • http://www.holidayindia.net shashank Naithani

    i come to Matador Network First time and i say thanks to matador network that there are so many beautiful and amazing blog with real life things. I really admire the way you are helping the children in Vietnam.

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