Australian charity helps Vietnam blind kids find moments of happiness

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Children from the Nguyen Dinh Chieu School for the Blind in Ho Chi Minh City are taken to a swimming pool every Saturday afternoon under a program initiated by an Australian charity.

Loreto Vietnam-Australia Program's "Swim With a Vision" cannot however take all the school's children at a time because the pool is not very large and Loreto staff and volunteers can only take care of about 15 of them.

Understandably, the children are thrilled when their turn comes.

At the pool last Saturday, they were frolicking in the pool. Some were unable to swim yet because they had only been to the pool a few times. One of them was coming for the first time and she looked a bit afraid for a while.

All of them wanted to continue swimming even after the person in charge blew a whistle to indicate they had to leave.

They were helped to get out of the pool, to the changing room, and to taxis taking them back to the school each with a smile on the face.

Dao Nguyen Hong Duc, 8, says: "I've been to Lam Son Swimming Pool four times and I'm almost able to swim. I like it very much."

He will return to the pool when his turn comes again because he finds it exciting, he says.

Australian volunteer Jade Bilowol says: "Yen Nhu, a beautiful young girl I swam with, wanted to 'go around the world' swimming around the pool."

Bilowol heard about the Loreto Program through a friend and she first met Trish Franklin and the Loreto Team at RMIT University Vietnam where she teaches.

"What really struck me when I went swimming with the children was how much they enjoyed themselves. They had great big smiles on their faces. That's incredibly rewarding for any volunteer.

"They were delightful and so much fun to be around. I'll definitely be back."

Dang Thien, a volunteer and an RMIT student, says: "I've been going out with these disadvantaged kids for more than a year. Looking at their innocence, I feel relaxed and forget all about the difficulties of life."

Another volunteer, Thanh Cao from the Ho Chi Minh City University of Industry, says: "A cousin introduced me to the Loreto Program and I like going out with the kids and helping them."

Trish Franklin is LVAP's CEO.The Australian woman came to Vietnam 17 years ago and has run the Loreto Program since 1997.

Over the years, the non-profit organization has provided assistance to tens of thousands of underprivileged children.

It has helped build and renovate schools and kindergartens and provided them with resources and equipment. It has also provided scholarships, bicycles, and school kits for children from poor families.

"The blind kids' lives at school and even in after-school activities are rather "˜structured' and we see that swimming times can balance this by giving the kids some hours of free creative experiences through the tactile freedom of water," she says.

"This weekly swimming time allows them to lose themselves and become confident in another medium that is water - where their highly developed other senses are allowed to be unhindered. Some of these children develop amazing skills over time and may even go on to compete in Olympic Games for the Disabled."

The Swim-With-A-Vision' program carries huge significance for the kids, she says.

When they come to the pool for the first time, they are very afraid of not being able to see "where" they are -- since they cannot visualize the water or the wide expanse of a swimming pool -- she explains.

However, after just a short period of encouragement, their self-confidence grows significantly, and, in spite of their disability, they are more than able to be successful in another aspect of life, she says.

"The Loreto Program also accompanies the vision-impaired kids to the Saigon Pony Club at times. Again, their anxiety of sitting on the back of a pony and taking a ride is very intense. Once again, after much reassurance their joy is highly obvious: they don't want to stop."

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