40 years on, Vietnam orphanage prospers from Xmas card revenue

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Students at SOS Da Lat, which was opened by Vietnamese professors in France in 1974 to help orphans and others in difficult situations. Photo by Professor Ham Chau

It possibly set the foundation for Vietnam’s childcare network and it all started with small money the founders earned from selling Christmas cards in Paris, insiders said recounting four decades flashbacks.
The SOS village for orphans and disabled children in the Central Highlands resort town Da Lat celebrated its 40th birthday Tuesday. It was followed by many others across the country.
Prof Ham Chau, one of those helping with the operation of SOS villages in Vietnam, said SOS Da Lat is an unprecedented case in the history of global SOS villages.
It was built and maintained by the money famous Viet kieu husband and wife professors Tran Thanh Van and Le Kim Ngoc earned selling Christmas cards.
Other SOS villages worldwide were funded by their umbrella organization SOS Kinderdorf International.
Ngoc told Tuoi Tre newspaper on the phone upon arriving in Ho Chi Minh City for the anniversary celebration that she and her husband were 40 years old when they opened SOS Da Lat.
“So more than half of our life has been attached to these orphans, to make them feel less lonely in this life full of storms.”
The Tran couple had spent three Christmas seasons selling postcards outside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
They sold a pack of ten cards for US$2, including 50 percent profit, under the name of Aid to the Children of Vietnam (AEVN), a member of the international SOS federation, of which Ngoc is a chairwoman.
Many foreigners were moved by the action and they joined to help sell hundreds of cards at many other churches all over France and some places in the US.
The small changed added up until the couple had $1 million to build the SOS Da Lat village.
Ngoc said they chose a church as they believed that after a religious speech, people would be more willing to open their hearts when they knew that their money could save orphans in a poor country.
But all the efforts did not pay off well in the beginning.
The village was opened in 1974 and the government closed it a year later, after the Vietnam War ended, to give the land and facilities over to a local factory.
In 1987,the  Vietnam government allowed SOS Kinderdorf International to build an SOS village in Hanoi and another in the north central province of Nghe An, and thus returned the location and facilities to SOS Da Lat in 1989. The village reopened late that December, after AEVN spent $300,000 fixing the houses.
According to a Tuoi Tre reporter who visited recently, the facilities at SOS Da Lat have been improving over time.
It is now home to hundreds of children divided into 14 families.
Managers said that as of 2011, 43 of those who grew up in the village have gotten married and built their own happy lives. They said 90 percent of the children have found jobs that guarantee them stable living.
AEVN also opened SOS village in Dong Hoi District in the the central region’s Quang Binh Province and another plus a professional training center in Hue .
There are now SOS villages in Ho Chi Minh City, the northern provinces of Dien Bien and Phu Tho, and the poor southern provinces of Ben Tra and Ca Mau.
Helmut Kutin, former president of SOS Kinderdorf International, told Tuoi Tre that he knew Van and Ngoc in the late 1960s.
They were young and their relationship was fostered by the shared wish to help the orphans.
Kutin said the Trans are leading experts at France’s National Center for Scientific Research and they deserve a convenient life with relaxing moments, but they chose to stand on Paris streets to sell Christmas cards.
Prof Van is a world renowned physicist and Ngoc is a big name among biologists after winning a scholarship to Sorbonne in 1953.
Kutin said what the Trans and their supporters did to open SOS Da Lat was not easy at all. It took a lot of devotion, so it should be treasured, he said.

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