Doing good, three months at a time

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American visitor uses the duration of his Vietnam visa to do "˜real things in a real way' for poor people

John William Kelly serves rice to poor people at Nu Cuoi charity eatery. PHOTO: Nguyen Tap

Around 11 a.m. at the charity eatery Nu Cuoi (Smile) in Ho Chi Minh City's District 3, something odd can be observed.

A tall, thin elderly American man stands out among the crowd of Vietnamese people working to serve food to the needy.

Wearing an apron, a mask and nylon gloves, he goes along three lines of tables and briskly serves customers by offering them more rice or additional food. Sometimes, people give him a thumbs-up and a happy smile appears on the 60-year-old-man's face.

His name is John William Kelly.

Armed with a three-month visa to stay in Vietnam, Kelly has been volunteering at the restaurant for almost two months now, working as an unpaid waiter at the Nu Cuoi restaurant (6 Ho Xuan Huong Street), where lunch is offered to poor people and students everyday except Sunday for just VND2,000 (less than 10 cents) per person.

Every day, at 7:45 in the morning, he presents himself at the restaurant. Along with other Vietnamese young men and women who are also volunteers, he helps prepare the food for hundreds of "special customers" and does not leave until 1:00 in the afternoon, when there is nothing else left to do. 

"He is very very enthusiastic. Does everything I ask him to do without question," said Le Quoc Viet, another volunteer at Nu Cuoi, who is in charge of assigning tasks and monitoring compliance. "And he is very professional; he is always on time, never late even one day or not showing up without telling us."

Unlike some American men who have engaged in charity work here because they feel the country should be helped to heal the wounds of the Vietnam war, Kelly says he came to help Vietnamese poor people simply because he wanted to it. 

"There is definitely nothing to do with it [the war]. Everything I do, I do it the way it is supposed to be done," he said.
Kelly first came to Vietnam in 2004 when he was working as the postmaster of Palo Alto City's Post Office in California, overseeing 300 employees and earning an annual income of around US$100,000.

Soon, he fell in love with the country.

"For me, once I came here, there were no other places I wanted to go. It might be the way people are. It is very different from my country. Every day I'm amazed. At home, I have to say I get bored a lot. Here I'm never bored. It's always active, things are always moving, and I enjoy that. It helps me stay young."

Since he was already doing charity and volunteer work in the US, Kelly decided to do the same thing in Vietnam. But it was only in 2011, when he retired and had free time to think about what he wanted to do, including helping Vietnam in his own way.

He first contacted "Helping Hands Saigon," a Ho Chi Minh City-based group of local and overseas Vietnamese and expats united in their commitment to making a difference in the lives of disadvantaged people in Vietnam.

Kelly went along with the group to present gifts to disadvantages people and orphans. But the group schedules its projects every second week, once a month, so he was never busy, and it did not serve his purpose.

"My purpose when coming here was to volunteer, to be busy, and work to help people."

In 2012, he returned to Vietnam, spent a month looking for something to do.  Early this year, he tried one more time and did get one charity group who told him they would get back to him but never did.

Then a Vietnamese friend who lives in HCMC told him about the Nu Cuoi eatery after he told her he wanted to donate some money to a worthwhile charity. 

"How can they feed people with only VND2,000?," Kelly wondered, and decided to visit the shop to find out for himself. 

So he came to the eatery one Friday and gave them his donation. Then he noticed the kitchen at the back and asked if he could help out.

And just like that, the American retired postmaster became a volunteer waiter in HCMC.

"This is exactly what I wanted to do, even when I was still working in the US," Kelly said.

With a large number of customers at a lunch time, it is hard work and he has to follow orders, but Kelly is happy because Nu Cuoi neither charge its volunteers a fee nor have requirements for them. Everybody can sign and lend a hand.

More importantly, he gets to do "real things in a real way" to help poor people, and he knows what he does is of value to someone. 

Asked what he would do once his visa expired, Kelly said he would continue to come back and work at Nu Cuoi, as the manager there has agreed to welcome him whenever he is back in HCMC.

In the meantime, he is thinking of some way to legally extend his visa so that he can stay a bit longer than three months every year.

Back in the US, he still has an old friend, whom he thinks of as his father, to take care of, and three months away from that man, at the moment, is the maximum.

Overall, Kelly said he has quite a good life in the US.
"I also volunteer there, and play golf. My kids have all grown up so I am by myself now. Life is good, and I can do whatever
I want to do."

As far as he can figure out a proper way to do all the things right, Kelly said, he will return to HCMC and help out three months each year.

"I will continue with the job until I am physically unable to
do it."

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