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  Some of Tò He's products with patterns created by disadvantaged children

Children tending buffalos, playing football, and going out with their happy families are among the subjects of paintings done by disadvantaged children at a creative class organized by the Tò He Joint Stock Company in Hanoi.

The subjects the kids choose and the message they seek to send through their works are inspiring, so inspiring in fact that their teachers and the founders of Tò He Nguyen Dinh Nguyen, Pham Thi Ngan, and Nguyen Thi Thanh Tu started more and more classes to provide a creative outlet for disadvantaged children.

The company was established in late 2009 as a social enterprise, and now teaches drawing and making toys and accessories at 10 centers and villages around the country.

These include a fishing village in the middle of the Red River, the Phuc Tue Center for children with mental illnesses; and the Sao Mai Center in Hanoi; a village in the mountainous district of Ky Son in Nghe An Province; and the Vinh Phuc Center for disadvantaged children in the northern Vinh Phuc Province.

More than 250 disadvantaged children have been attending them.

"The three of us volunteered at centers for disadvantaged children in Hanoi, and were deeply troubled by how [they] are marginalized and deprived in Vietnam with limited access to resources, love, and opportunities to play," Nguyen, chairman of Tò He, says.

Nguyen Dinh Nguyen teaches autistic children at Phuc Tue Center in Hanoi
After graduating with a BA from the Hanoi University of Industrial Fine Arts, Nguyen's interest in working with marginalized children led him to take a course "Art for Community Development" organized by David Class Ensemble of the UK.

He began to work with disadvantaged kids and accumulated experience of teaching them creative arts.

"Now, as members of the creative industry, we want to give children an opportunity to experience creative arts and play in their lives and to discover their unhidden talents," he says.

Like Nguyen, Ngan has also worked in the creative industry for more than 10 years. The two co-founded Nguyencomm, a successfuladvertising/communication start-up.

Tu has worked in the development field for more than 15 years for the Women's Association, the Department of Cooperation and Development, and the Italian embassy. She has experience in managing development projects and has travelled to many rural places around Vietnam, working extensively with disadvantaged children.

When the three decided to establish Tò He, they received unstinting financial and technical support from the British Council and the Center for Social Initiatives Promotion (CSIP).

Explaining the name, Nguyen says tò he is a popular traditional toy made from glutinous rice flour and food coloring that children first play with and then eat.

Their Tò He is similar, they explain it gives children the opportunity to learn and play first and then benefit from the activities.

Learn and play

Through these arts classes Tò He's teachers bring the unfortunate children opportunities to learn and play at the same time.

"We believe that children attending our classes will have a better view of the world and we want to encourage them to create art from anything they see or feel," Nguyen says.

Disabled children living at the Thuy An Center in Hanoi's Ba Vi District, where Nguyen, Tu, and Ngan went for a charity trip in 2006, were among the first students of the art class.

According to Nguyen Thanh Thuy, who is in charge of the class at the Thuy An Center, all the students have some difficulty in studying but are happy and eager to learn. The class monitor, Phong, who was abandoned by his parents when he was a child, is a bit small for 15, but is the brightest and most active of the lot. Thuy says that Phong is a good and creative student, who creates beautiful works.

The works of some of the students have inspired the company to create products lines like clothes, hats, bags, and bedcovers under the Tò He brand name. The best of the sweet and innocent works are chosen to use as prototypes.

Ngan has a favorite quote from painter Picasso: "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child."

"Paintings by children are always beautiful," she says. "We decided to take [them] and ask our French designer to follow that style."

Nguyen says Tò He products are distributed both in Vietnam and internationally. The profits are used to provide scholarships for the best students, supporting their centers, and opening more classes for disadvantaged children.

Tò He's products are mainly sold through their website (www.tohe.vn) and Facebook (facebook.com/tohe.vn) and at Et la Cafeteria de L'Usine, 151/1 Dong Khoi Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. It is opening a showroom at 70 To Ngoc Van Street, Hanoi.

Asked about the company's future plans, Nguyen says they hope to get children from five to seven more centers in the capital and neighboring provinces by the end of 2012.

"We are trying to take Tò He products to more people so that more disadvantaged children will have a chance to learn and play and their innocent and pure world can be taken to adults."

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