The Night Before Christmas

Whether it was fruit or nappies, it took only a few dollars of my money to make such significant contributions. I wondered if any of my friends in Europe would want to buy oranges for a day for these beautiful children. I know often people want to help those less fortunate than them, but do not know how to and fear any contribution will be lost in an ocean of need. This was a little different, it was personal, I was offering the opportunity to help children and babies they already knew from my photographs, any money would come directly to me, someone they knew and trusted. I thought that if I could raise a hundred or two hundred dollars, I could buy fruit and nappies for the Orphanage for months, this would ease their little lives for a while. So, on Christmas Eve, I sent a Christmas message from balmy Vietnam to snowy Europe, sending photographs of myself and the children, wishing love, health and happiness to everyone for the upcoming year, then adding a little note about my hopes for fundraising…..

Tam Ky Baby Orphanage is home to orphaned, abused and abandoned children, with ages from five weeks to six years old. The children are affectionate and beautiful, their resilience and will to survive is breathtaking. The conditions in the baby orphanage are desperate and the children live in real poverty. Two of the children don’t even have names. They are referred to as “the littlest baby” and “the little boy who cries”.  Most of the children don’t cry, they know they will not be heard. We as volunteers try to listen to the children, and to provide as much love and care as we can, but mostly the children have to take care of each other and themselves. They are sick and malnourished due to the conditions they live in, but are so grateful for a hug, fruit or simple toys. They are a joy to work with and their strength and good natures, in spite of the poverty they live in, are an inspiration to those of us priviledged enough to know them.

For our children, we would like to raise funds for simple nutrition, fruit, milk and basic child care supplies. It costs very little to make a real difference to these children, it costs only 82 uk pence/ 1.20 US dollars/ 0.92 euros/ 1.80 australian dollars to provide fruit every day for a child for a month and to make a real difference. We also desperately need money for nappies, baby food and simple baby medical supplies. Any money you give will be spent directly and locally as you request on your children at the Tam Ky baby orphanage. We ask only for a donation, once or as often as you like! You can follow the progress of your children through blogs and photo journals of the volunteers at the orphanages. If you decide to make a donation, your money will come directly to us and we will ensure it is spent directly on the children on the things they most desperately need. Thank you so much for helping us to help these beautiful children!

Many of the people reading this message knew a little of my experience over the months leading to my time in Vietnam. Many had been taken aback to see photographs of a healthy, happy, although slim girl, with these exotic orphaned children filtering through from the other side of the globe. Many had not been in contact with me for some months, fading out of my life, this was their first news of me in some time. As I watched the donations flood in, I saw Christmas spirit, I saw love and I saw guilt. I had hoped for one, maybe two hundred dollars. The first donation came within seconds, fifty dollars. The second, third fourth within minutes, more fifties, some hundreds. Knowing what this meant for our babies and children, I shouted for the other volunteers to come watch with me. Before midnight, on the night before Christmas, my young friends in snowy lands had sent me almost a thousand dollars. I was touched beyond words. “That’s incredible Lucie, well done” whispered one of the most experienced volunteers. Hands on my face I turned to her and whispered under the laughter and excited shouts of the other volunteers, “Its guilt, I haven’t heard a word from some of these people in months.” She smiled and in her Irish lullaby voice said to me, “Take it, maybe its an apology, maybe its guilt, who cares. We can change worlds with this money”. A half hour before midnight we were ten dollars short of a thousand dollars. I sent another message, saying I was touched and that the kindness extended to these abandoned babies would change their lives, I would make sure of that. I said I was not going to bed till we got to two thousand dollars and was off to find my purse. Before I could, a message came back. “You can go to bed now, Mademoiselle Lucie”. Two hundred dollars accompanied this beautiful Lullaby.

In the days that followed, we received over four thousand dollars. As this money arrived, Sofia wondered if she could do something similar. My project had been simple to implement, just a heartfelt few words and some personal photographs. Sofia had plenty of these, but she wanted a theme. My own had come from a humble place inside myself, of love, empathy and gratitude, translated fruit, nappies and basic suppies. She began to wonder what hers could be, what her deepest feelings could become. Sofia had long, luscious hair that whilst living in France she had styled into dreadlocks, she had planned to shave all this off before leaving Vietnam, this being the only way to restart natural hair growth. I was pretty stunned by the idea and made more than one attempt to dissuade her, but she explained to me that she had always been known, even to strangers, as the girl with the hair. “I am not my hair”, she told me. Indeed this spectacular girl was not. So she came up with the idea of being sponsored to shave her head to raise money for scabies and lice treatments, which reached far from just medication but to hygiene and new blankets, clothes, towels, all the things that were making the infections so difficult to get rid off. She launched her project, declaring she was losing her hair to save theirs, planning to have her hair cut with the children next time the hairdresser visited to crop their pretty soft syles. The money poured in, in it hundreds and thousands, this time from Mexico and France. She raised ten thousand dollars.

 

The day a baby went blue

One day as we gathered our rusty bicycles for the Orphanage, filling our baskets with fruit, milk and books, BJ, always in training for a trialthon ran, grabbed her trainers and ran ahead, to give her strong legs a head start on our wobbly wheels. She took a left and headed for the Baby Orphanage. Five minutes later, we pushed off and took a right, for the Home of Affection.

BJ only realised she had confused the schedule when we did not cycle past her whooping and weaving, and did not catch up with her at the Baby Orphanage. After running for nearly an hour she decided to stay, playing with the toddlers outside, then wandering into the baby rooms. Maes busy elsewhere, the tiniest baby was sucking on his propped up bottle, lying on his back on a double wooden bed frame. BJ sat next to him and chatted to the toddlers as they wandered in to the baby room, to giggle with her and the other babies.

When he started to splutter, she looked down. When he stopped breathing, she jumped up. As he turned blue, she lifted him and screamed for help. She describes the scene as chaos. Maes came running, screaming, crying. Startled pushed aside toddlers looked on silently. As the women crowded round and tapped the baby’s tiny arched back, someone found an aspirator to clear his throat. As he gasped in air and breathed again, there were sobs as he was wrapped up and buddled in a car to hospital. BJ stayed to look after the children who were being cared for the Maes who had left with the baby to hospital, arriving back late, flustered and excited, to tell us what had happened. My hands moved to my face with shock, for the baby that turned blue and for all that I realised had taken place that day.

Miss BJ, in taking a wrong turn, had changed a world. She saved a baby’s life.

When we arrived the next day I went straight to the Baby room, not stopping to put down the children who had jumped into my arms, wrapped their arms around my legs and were now stroking my hair and clothes and chatting excitedly. Our little entourage kicked flipflops of various sizes and colours, tiny shoes flying in all directions. One of our small hands pushed open the door and we entered the Baby room. I saw the empty space in the wooden slats where our newest, quiet little bundle had been, the tiny blue mosquito net and small bundle of blankets more silent than ever.

My eyes then went straight to another empty cot and another unused blue mosquito net. Another baby, this one suffering from dehydration, had joined his tiny roomate in the hospital, whisked away in the night.

Mae Ba came rushing towards me, her hands held to her face, quiet tears running down her sculpted cheeks. “Oh Mae Ba”, I said, softly putting the children down from my arms and taking her into them instead. She wiped the tears from her face and head half bowed, with a look of penetrating sadness that seemed to radiate from her core, explained to me in Vietnamese what had happened. The tiny baby choking, the next baby so sick he was rushed to hospital in the dead of night.

As I listen to this tale again, unsure of the fate of either child, with quiet little arms wrapped around my legs and quiet heads leaning against my calves and thighs, I was touched and relieved to see how much she cared about these babies. She was all they really had and if she did not love them, no one would.

I took off my necklace, the one so coveted by the Maes, and placed it round her neck. Grasping her hands, I spoke in English, asking our Translator Mr Tuan to translate, the first of only two times I would ask him to do this, in all my time to come in this remarkable country and heart wrenching, heart warming place.

Through our translator, with all my words, I told Mae Ba that we loved her because we saw and knew how much she loved and cared for the babies, that the babies in hospital would be well and back with us soon and that she should have the necklace that they all thought so beautiful because she was the most kind and beautiful Mae there.

Tears continued to run down her cheeks as she smiled, nodded, touched her hands to her heart, then went back to caring for her babies.

Kindness

As the days and weeks passed, I witnessed beautiful acts of quiet kindness amongst these children. The children, the toddlers, the babies even, did not typically cry. Tears were not a meaningful method of communication, the children knew they would not be heard.

When I did see tears, they would be silent, running like streams down a small face of a tiny body crouching in an empty room, where the child was hiding till the upset past, till their little lion heart took over again and stopped the tears, then they would wipe their face with a scruffy sleeve pulled over their hand, before composing themselves and reemerging. It was quite heartbreaking to watch, a four year old already alone and responsible for handling their own battered emotions.

Amongst this heartbreak, I also witnessed moments of pure empathy and kindness. When Han arrived back from a trip to a physiotherapist, inexplicably returning confused and bald, Loc went immediately to her, as she was lifted from the back of a motorbike, he wrapped his arms around her, talking reassuringly into her ear, telling her he would look after her and she would be alright.

When Lan Chi had a scarf pulled from her head in a scuffle, the small loss and injustice reminded her small body of the loss and injustice she endured as her very being, I found her curled in a ball in a side room, crying rivers of tears. Chi meanwhile had crawled amongst energetic arms and legs, retrieved the scarf and had wrapped in round Lan Chi like a blanket and was stroking her arm and singing her a quiet lullaby.

When Thuy, newly left at the orphanage by a distant family member, realised she was not going home and clung to a motorbike for hours, stroking the leather seat, sobbing quiety, it was Loc that went to her, told her he had been scared and lonely when he first arrived too, but now he has lots of friends here and she’ll feel better soon.

When the Maes were busy and the babies screamed with hunger, it was Nhu who stood on her tiptoes to reach over the edge of the cots, to stroke their burning cheeks and comfort them.

When I was forgotten, unwanted, deemed worthless, these tiny people welcomed me, took me as their own and loved me, when my own would not, with a kindness, understanding and empathy that my own could not. Not a single one of them was over five years old.

In this Baby Orphanage, amongst these tiny souls, I saw love, I saw humanity and I felt more of both than I ever knew possible.

Gone Baby, Gone

Many children are adopted from Vietnam’s orphanages and children’s homes. At Tam Ky Baby Orphanage, a few of the smaller children were to be adopted by overseas parents, but not many. Five of the children were unknowingly waiting for their new families to collect them. It was lovely to hold these children and talk to them of the spectacular change that was journeying towards them.

I wondered if we would meet the adoptive parents of the babies and I learned this was down to chance, if we were there when the parents arrived then so be it. We were interested to meet the parents of course and share in this little moment, but more than anything I wanted to tell them how much we loved their baby. The days the parents were expected to arrive were jumbled and changed, so after a while our thoughts drifted from the specifics and we learned a little of the patience that the parents had no doubt been living and breathing.

One day, we arrived to find two babies gone. One of the volunteers managed to find out that they had been collected by their parents the evening before. We had no idea this was imminent and giggled with pleasure and surprise. We had not said goodbye, not seen the ecstatic faces of their new lives, not shared stories of these beautiful babies before they left for their new homes. Looking into the baby rooms we found their cots had gone too, as if they had never been there. A baby girl and a baby boy had disappeared in the night.

I found myself not sad that I had not said goodbye and waved them off. Instead I thought, Thank God. I hoped everyday from that day on to to come to the orphanage and find another little soul gone, to loving arms, without trace.

To any baby, any child, any teenager, any adult, that has left an orphanage with their parents, I will share the words I did not have the opportunity to say to the little souls I loved about the promises I had whispered to them as they were in my arms, in a strange language, in this bare place.

“Didn’t I tell you they were coming for you?”.

Oranges and Nappies

Working closely with the babies and becoming involved in feeding, changing and bathing gave me an insight into their physical condition. The babies, indeed all the children in the Orphanage, were covered in nasty, itchy and sore patches of scabies. For the babies, scabies combined with the nappy rash that came inevitably with simple cotton cloth nappies and no nappy rash cream, these tiny bodies were in a pitiful state. Scabies causes an angry, itchy red rash, sometimes the skin blisters and rubs away. All the babies had patches of the rash somewhere on their little bodies, the worse affected was the baby girl Choi. From her chubby cheekys to her toes, she was covered in red blotches, raised and sore. Her nappy rash and with this infection left her baby skin raw, it was difficult to tell where the nappy rash ended and the scabies began, so covered was her body in blotches. Mae Ba told me she struggled to sleep in the night because of the itching and showed me an almost empty tub of precious nappy rash cream that someone had brought from overseas. I looked in the shops for something similar, but there was nothing to be found. In my desperation I bought all the baby products I could find, including a mountain of nappies, all the nappies on the shelf, in every size and shape. Perhaps proper nappies would help ease the nappy rash which it itself was causing pain and discomfort.

The next day I swerved my bicycle into the orphanage courtyard, trying to balance under the weight of the nappies I had stacked high in my basket. Arms full, peeking my eyes over the top of my prize, I pushed the baby room door open with my hip and edged in. Mae Ba got to work distributing various sized nappies amongst various sized babies, pausing only to gently remind me that the bigger babies, unlike their western counterparts, were potty trained and had no need for the huge nappies I had brought. Looking at Mae Ba as she held one of the monster nappies in the air before trying to secure to an unsuspecting baby half its size using duct tape, I thought the larger sizes were more suited to her petite frame than the poor baby now sporting a nappy from up under his arms down to his knees. I made a beeline for Choi, scooping her up from her cot and putting her on the bed that doubled for a changing mat. She wriggled out of her scruffy clothes without fuss and I reached into my bag for the best substitute for nappy rash cream I could find, my expensive clinique face moisturiser. It was the gentlest moisturiser I could find in my backpack. The small tub had cost me more than a hundred nappies and I took pleasure in this fact as I smothered Choi’s little body in delicate lotion. She seemed happy at this impromptu Spa, as did Mae Ba who appeared behind me smoothing tiny dabs of the cream onto her cheeks. As the lotion absorbed into the baby’s skin, we stood over her, hands on hips, heads tilted to the side, waiting for her reaction to this cool substance. None came. So we put a nappy on her, dabbed some cream on her nose to make her giggle, and carried on our day.

The next day Mae Ba poked her head out the baby room door, waving for me to come in, chatting in Vietnamese as I peeled toddlers from me and kicked off my flipflops. She leaned over Choi’s cot, pointing triumphantly at her chubby face, Choi’s huge brown eyes peering back. The redness, although still there, had faded. A massively overexcited overreaction it may be, but at that moment I thought I had captured an elusive secret to changing the world. Nappies and over priced beauty lotions.

On other days I stopped my bike at a roadside fruit stall, to the bewildered amusement of the locals, to fill my basket with oranges or bananas. The children in the orphanage were hungry, the government providing only a tiny amount of money to feed them and their meals were small and scarce. Fruit gave them some valuable vitamins and softened the hunger rumbling in tiny swollen bellies.

Although impromptu fundraising meant I knew massive sums of money were on their way to us, I still emptied the supermarket shelves of nappies every day or two, playing nappy super market sweep as I literally swept everything off the shelf and into my overflowing trolley.

We continued to take a bag of fruit for the children every day, but seeing how little it cost I began to buy better fruit, bigger, juicier, more colourful, tasty and ripe. One day I bought two bags, oranges and banana and I still smile at the excited confusion this provoked in the children. As they washed their hands, I set out two bags of fruit, one with oranges, the other with yellow bananas. The first few with clean hands come running and skipping towards me, but on seeing these two bags of different coloured fruits, stop dead in their tracks. A little pile of bodies crash into the back of the advance party, peering through gaps, over shoulders, round arms, through legs, to see why they had stopped. As more little bodies joined the back of the pile up, each causing a shunt forward. One little body forgot to hold on the waist of their pants, tripping over their own feet as they crashed to a halt. Laughing, I opened my arms for them to come to me. Tentatively they shuffle over, looking shy and ready to bolt at any sudden movement or noise. I open both bags and hand out an orange and a banana to each child. They back off, eyeing me as if we are part of some happy conspiracy, holding one piece of fruit in each hand, staring disbelievingly between the two, as if they expect the banana to have disappeared whilst they studied the orange, the orange to evapourate whilst they consider the fillingness of the banana. Once the fruit has been handed out and they have all retreated to safe corners, they want to pose for photographs with their prizes, like I have handed them simultaneously an Oscar and their first born child. As I laugh and take photos I feel a small tugging of a tiny cubby hand of my skirt. This little one, head tipped back to the sky to see me, shows me disbelievingly that he has not just an orange in one hand, but a banana in the other. Lauging I encourage them to start eating by miming and helping peel the fruit. Most of the children delve in, except one little boy who was found sitting in a corner in tears without having taken a taste, trying to stick his orange back together. I found Lan Chi, good with english words and having already mastered orange and banana before today. “Orange”, I said smiling, pointing at her orange. “Orange” she repeated, nodding. “Banana” I said, pointing at her banana. “Orange” she said, nodding again.

“Ba-na-na Chi” I said, smiling. She looked at me thoughfully, smiled a little, looked up am my with her floating brown eyes and said, “Orange”. The appearance of two fruits in her world was just too much for her sophisticated linguistics to handle.