Peter Cornish reflects on the work of Loreto Vietnam as the international non-governmental organisation celebrates two decades of service.
Loreto Vietnam celebrates 20 years of achievement this month. The celebrations have been accompanied by a pause for reflection, reconnection and reestablishment of the mission, values and objectives that have brought the organisation to where it is today. This is not a time of reinvention, but more of rebirth, with a new name and identity reaffirming their place in the legacy of a 400-year-old institution.
What is now Loreto Vietnam started out 20 years ago as Loreto Vietnam Australia Program (LVAP). Founded by Trish Franklin, a Loreto sister, it has been operating in southern Vietnam since 1997 with a focus on providing safe shelter and learning opportunities for the region’s street children. Much of their work is with disabled children, improving their access to learning and enhancing their abilities and life opportunities.
Vietnam’s rapid development has now reached middle income status. Although many people have been lifted out of poverty, the opportunities from the country’s economic development have not been shared equitably. There is a growing income and knowledge disparity between rural and urban areas, and many continue to live in poverty, often little above subsistence levels. Challenges remain for ethnic minority children and those with disabilities, and there is a growing group of urban poor, often those who have migrated from the countryside to cities in search of economic opportunity.
The people who benefit from Loreto’s assistance are identified by the government as from ‘poor households’. They are often female, perhaps belonging to an ethnic minority and often disabled. They live in remote areas which makes livelihood and education difficult. They need access to resources, opportunity and knowledge. They want education and skills, trust and respect, leadership, and the continuity of support.
Recognising that the majority of international non-governmental organisation activity in Vietnam takes place in the north of the country, Loreto works in the southern provinces of Ho Chi Minh City, An Giang, Ca Mau, Tien Giang, Tra Vinh, and Phu Yen. As the economic conditions of southern Vietnam improves, many INGOs are withdrawing their support from the region but Loreto remains committed for the foreseeable future, especially in areas left behind and excluded from the overall economic development of the country.
In the last 20 years Loreto has completed more than 80 projects and programmes that have facilitated greater access to quality education and educational environments, including building kindergartens, toilet blocks, computer rooms and libraries in many poor areas. They have also provided thousands of children with bicycles, scholarships and school supplies.
Early success included the establishment of two shelters for vulnerable street children in HCMC; the Sunrise House for Girls in District 4, and The Sunlight House for Boys in District 3. The first educational programmes were launched with English classes at the Nguyen Dinh Chieu School for the Blind in District 10, supporting students with their integration into mainstream schools.
Loreto also provided opportunities for blind students through their ‘swim with a vision’ swimming safety programme and horse riding at the Saigon Pony Club. Several students who benefitted from these programmes have gone on to tertiary level education, including RMIT, and have secured employment in a variety of fields including education, music and physical therapy.
The early 2000s saw construction of the Sunrise Special School in Tan Phu District, built with the support of AUSAID and donations from individuals in Australia. The school provided special needs education for disabled children at a time when it was not readily available to many, and parents were reluctant to manage the social stigma associated with having a child with special needs. A second campus was added in 2009 to provide vocational training for older students, and prepare them for greater independence once they left school.
The organisation received a welcome boost in 2007 with the launch of LoretoFest, showcasing musicians from Vietnam, South East Asia and Australia, and raising money and community support. Shortly after, permission was granted to operate in other provinces beyond HCMC and a new stage of their work began assisting remote and distant rural communities
By 2011, projects commenced in Phu Yen province with 10 school communities being assisted in a four-year programme. In Ca Mau a further seven schools were supported in conjunction with the local Education Department. Work started in Tien Giang province in 2013 with support for five school communities and 132 individual students receiving scholarship support for five years. Similar projects took place in Tra Vinh province, focusing on Khmer ethnic communities living in impoverished and remote hamlets.
As Loreto moves forward they continue to build on the impact and legacy of founder Trish Franklin, staying true to their mission of recognising children as members of the community, and the broad concept of capacity building for the most disadvantaged through access to quality education.
The organisation’s guiding principles see them continue to act with integrity and to develop and nurture collaborative relationships based on mutual respect. As a social justice organisation, they prioritise and protect the best interests of their beneficiaries, and strive to operate according to the best practices of operational excellence.
The new Loreto logo is an origami sparrow, a bird that although small is both powerful and productive. This reflects the self-worth that each of us should feel for ourselves, regardless of external factors, and teaches us to be vigilant, hard-working and productive. It’s also a reminder of the importance of protection and communal involvement. Like Loreto, sparrows care deeply for their community and benefit from working together for common causes.
Reaffirming their core values, Loreto Vietnam moves into the future with a continued focus on education for the disadvantaged and disabled. With a strong commitment towards sustainability for local communities, they support them to function strongly and independently and with real prospects for a brighter tomorrow.