Gippsland Portal Local News:
A happy trainee at KOTO Hanoi
A story of one man and a dream...
By Clare Gleghorn - 4th November 2002 - Back to News
"I remember going for a walk one evening and there in the centre of town came four young boys carrying coconuts. The baskets they were carrying weighed twice as much as their body weight…Noticing the ulcers and blisters on their legs and arms, I asked where did they shower? They replied that they showered next to an open sewer."
Australian Jimmy Pham’s experience in Ho Chi Minh City is a common one. With 37 per cent of Vietnamese living below the poverty line and 25 per cent of the country’s labour force unemployed it is little wonder.
Deep within the Vietnamese landscape, whilst enchanting and splendid, exists this harsh reality. The children it seems suffer most. Homeless and disadvantaged youth struggle under these conditions daily, compounded by the epidemic of drug abuse, prostitution and the increasing risks of HIV infection. Sent to the cities to find work, many only finding jobs as sex workers and many still finding the streets their home.
After meeting the young boys in 1996, Australian Jimmy Pham saw an opportunity to help and took it, feeding and clothing street children. Soon Jimmy had 60 children in his care.
"At that time, I made a decision, that I wanted to come back and help these children. I didn’t have qualifications in social work, but I knew even back then that even if I just helped one and made his/her life something more meaningful, then I have done my part for society."
In 1999, children in Jimmy’s care suggested opening a café where they could develop practical skills, eventually finding work. The initial KOTO opened one year later. With phenomenal success, the current KOTO Restaurant in Hanoi caters to the development of thirty young Vietnamese street kids.
"The trainees do a combined 36 hours of training per week for 18 months. Besides this, they also do English for specific purposes 4 hours a week, and life skills workshops…"
Workshops include sporting programs, reproductive health, first-aid training, team building exercises, clothing donations to disadvantaged families, and drug, crime and HIV awareness.
"The KOTO environment, is to provide a family for these youth, and I guess my role mainly is their big brother."
"We hope by capacity building, the skills left by the volunteers will see the local staff going into these positions in the future. Hence the acronym Know One Teach One."
One such volunteer was Australian Suzette Mitchell. Suzette was in Vietnam as a UN volunteer.
"Its not often you get to see the change in peoples lives…what Jimmy was doing was really phenomenal." Suzette, based in Melbourne, assists in fundraising for the centre.
Suzette recently completed a photojournalism course. Their first exhibition, An còm chûà (Eaten Rice Yet?), visions of Vietnam and Cambodia by 8 photographers, will donate all proceeds from sales to KOTO.
"We wanted to give something back to the country that gave the images that inspired us", Suzette explains.
The exhibition will be held at Dante’s in Fitzroy on the 12th November from 6-8pm. Information regarding KOTO is available via the Street Voices website, www.streetvoices.com.au.
So what is the future for KOTO and the children of Vietnam? Jimmy responds, "I see KOTO as a magic place for children. It is a place that they can always call home. No matter even after leaving the safe nest of KOTO…I see my kids knowing and teaching one."
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