Cyclo Challenge wheels in money for children, aims to expand

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Organizers want the annual charity event, already a favorite among locals and expats, to become one of the city's regular large festivals

Racers competing at last year's Saigon Cyclo Challenge held by the British NGO Saigon Children's Charity. Organizers hope that the annual event, to be held this year on March 10 at The Crescent in Ho Chi Minh City's Phu My Hung Urban Area, will become a major festival.

Chau Dinh Van dropped out of school in grade eighth three years ago and has spent most of his time since hanging out with local youngsters in his neighborhood.

The 17-year-old boy from Ho Chi Minh City's District 10 has a scar on his face he said he got from a motorbike accident.

"I used to be involved in street racing," he said.

Last year, Van worked for a small factory where he polished, sealed and waxed everything from electric wares to furniture, but he quit to avoid regular exposure to poisonous chemicals.

Van's life took a turn last May when he enrolled in a six-month hospitality course at Thang Long School a vocational training facility of the British NGO, Saigon Children's Charity (SCC), in HCMC's District 4.

After obtaining a certificate, Van was hired by a restaurant in downtown HCMC where he has now worked for over two months.

"They also taught me English. It is really useful for communicating with foreign customers at the café," he said.

Van earns VND2.2 million per month, enough to support his mother, but he admitted that the most significant thing has been the positive transformation he has undergone, which has made his mother happy. His father left her before Van was born and she has been eking out a living for the family working at a café.

Van is only one among thousands of Vietnamese children to have benefited from SCC, which receives funding through different events, most notably the annual Saigon Cyclo Challenge, which has attracted thousands of spectators over the years.

New festival on the calendar

Launched in 2001, the charity race set out to raise money to support underprivileged children in southern Vietnam.

After 10 years as a high-profile event, with stiff entrance fees and corporate sponsors, the event changed significantly last year.

Admission fees were eliminated and the fundraising target was reduced considerably, taking a lot of pressure off organizers.

Dong Thanh Ngan, SCC fundraising communications manager, said they are seeking even more changes this year.

"We want to make it a festival rather than a simple race. We wish that more and more people will remember that this festival is held in March every year," she said.

Ngan said they have avoided overspending on organization, ensuring that the preponderance of funds go to their charity programs.

SCC's director Paul Finnis said he was excited for the race.

"It is a fantastic day out this will be my fifth cyclo event and each one seems more fun than the last and each one is different too," Finnis said.

"I remember one year where we raced all day in the pouring rain and one year where the games were wild! This year the focus is back on the racing pitching teams against each other in a race against time with the fastest team eventually going on to be the winner and have their name engraved on the Grand Challenge Trophy."

The 2012 Saigon Cyclo Challenge will get underway at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday (March 10) at The Crescent in District 7's Phu My Hung Urban Area in HCMC.

Organizers expect the event to draw more than 2,000 people from reputable companies in the city, including corporate leaders and office workers, foreign businessmen living and working in Vietnam, teenagers, families and children.

Racers are supported by the event's Gold sponsor companies, including HSBC, Baker&McKenzie, Giant, Schenker, Hoang Long Hoan Vu, Crown and Megastar.

Other sponsors include Atlas, Kizciti, Flowerstudio, United Vietnam, Santa Fe and the Caravelle Hotel. Further information about the event is available on the organization's website

Race for Vietnamese children

The Thang Long School was established in District 4 in 1993, just one year after SCC was founded. It is among several charity projects carried out by the organization which has maintained the facility's active operation over the years thanks to SCC sponsors and donations made through the annual Saigon Cyclo Challenge events.

According to SCC, the school currently has an enrollment of 300 children between the ages of 12 and 19 who either cannot or do not attend mainstream public school.

"The students are chosen not only for their lack of material wealth but also according to the circumstances in which they live," the organization said.

Besides English, the school offers vocational training in a range of subjects like informatics technology, hairdressing, office administration, photography, motorbike repair, florist training and accounting.

Phan Thanh Thuy Hang, SCC's project manager, said hundreds of the school's graduates have found good jobs.

"We just opened a new class on hospitality training this morning with 37 students," she told Vietweek on Wednesday.

Hang said SCC follows the academic progress of the students at Thang Long closely to ensure that the training they receive is of the highest quality.

"Our courses are for disadvantaged children who are supposed to have many reasons for skipping classes or being absent minded," she said, adding they often communicate with the students' families to better understand each student's unique situation.

Besides English and vocational training at Thang Long, SCC currently provides scholarships for more than 3,500 students attending school at all levels, from kindergarten to university. It has also built 225 classrooms nationwide and has been working with other NGOs to help underprivileged children in Vietnam for more than 20 years.

Hang said they have even followed the progress students after they graduate from the school, making sure they find employment.

Doan Lanh, one of the students, met Hang on Wednesday at SCC's office and joyfully informed her that he had just signed a contract to work at an American coffee chain outlet in HCMC's District 1.

"I dropped out of school at grade 10th due to poor grades. Without a high school degree, I thought I would never be able to find such a job," he said.

Motivated by new opportunities after graduating from Thang Long's hospitality course last year, the 19-year-old man is planning to take night classes in order to finish high school in the near future.

"They [Thang Long School] provided a really good educational environment with diligent teachers and practical courses and activities. I just want to tell others who have disadvantages like me to take such courses and hope for a better future."

Finnis, SCC director, pointed out that stories like Lanh's prove that change is possible and real.

"There are so many examples of young people who I know would have struggled in life, who as a result of sometimes only small amounts of advice or support, go on, instead, to lead productive, happy lives and be positively engaged with the communities they live in," he said.

But he also said there is yet much work to be done.

"I do worry about young people growing up here and especially in Ho Chi Minh City where there is or at least appears to be so much wealth around unless we help these young people and give them a chance to participate in the new opportunities that are here, then we all run the risk of these same young people growing up to become more and more bitter and disillusioned and ultimately destructive," he said.

"The divide between the wealthy and those in poverty is too wide and seems to continue to grow not just here but in many places around the world and I fundamentally don't understand why."

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