Doing good to feel good

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 Marc De Muynck poses with children at Truyen Tin Orphanage in Binh Tan District, Ho Chi Minh City / PHOTOS COURTESY OF LES ENFANTS DU DRAGON

Over the last 12 years, the life of Marc De Muynck, a 64-year-old French veteran, has been ruled by the simple desire to help those less fortunate than him.

When he came to Vietnam in 2001 after retiring from the military, he was a tourist, but also on a mission of delivering gifts from a French veteran association to an orphanage in the Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap.

The Frenchman was stricken by the plight of the abandoned children. After the three-month trip, he returned to his home, Arras in Northern France, and interned with a volunteer organization engaged in humanitarian activities around the world.

He worked with several non-governments until 2007 when he returned to Vietnam and started projects on his own.

"My volunteering experience with some NGOs did not satisfy me. I did not really find my place. Very often, a volunteer is given a specific task and has very little or no involvement in projects or decision-making," said Muynck, whose friends call him Minh.

During his first years in Vietnam, Muynck initiated several different projects, from helping upgrade a nursery in his residential neighborhood in Ho Chi Minh City which was often flooded during torrential rains, to building houses for poor people in the southern province of Dong Nai.

The projects were conducted in cooperation with humanitarian organizations or his friends, acquaintances and even tourists who donated medicines, school stationeries, and toys.

Two years later, he founded the association Les Enfants du Dragon (The Children of the Dragon) with his friend, Bui Huy Lan, a Vietnamese-French dentist based in Northern France, to help poor people and orphans in the Mekong Delta and part of the central region.

With 11 core members, a dozen volunteers, and the support of local governments, other NGOs, and numerous fundraisers, the association tries to meet every need of the needy.

It has built houses, bridges, ensured clean water supply to poor localities,  provided scholarships and bicycles, opened free English and French courses for children, supported teacher training projects, supplied walking sticks for the elderly, entertained sick children and organized camping trips for orphans.

Les Enfants du Dragon also runs farms that culture spirulina a kind of nutritious algae usually recommended as food supplement to combat malnutrition and supplies it to orphanages and centers. About one-third of the farms' output is for sale to generate funds for the association's activities.

What motivates him is, Muynck said, the smiles of children when they are given gifts like bicycles, and the tears of happiness of a poor family when given a roof above their heads.

"Man can only feel happy when helping people who are less lucky than himself, when bringing joy to kids without parents."

After 12 years, what does he feel about his work?

"I have not finished my mission yet."

He said his "foremost" desire now is to carry out the association's "heart project" an orphanage for about 100 children in the southern province of Long An.

When the project is finished, he will see if he wants to take a short rest, he said.

"But, for now I still have enough energy to help other people. ["¦] There is always more to do, to do better."

Sweet lifestyle

While most of the association's core members are French and Swiss nationals living in their own countries, Muynck, despite having his own family in France, is among the few members who are based in HCMC so that they can work directly with local governments, volunteers, and beneficiaries.

"I am retired, and I like the sweetness of the Vietnamese lifestyle, and the southern heat."

He said one of difficulties he faced at the beginning was building a stable network of volunteers.

Initially lots of people volunteered, but many would also retreat quickly, either because they found the work hard and time-consuming, or because they did not get the recognition they expected from the association's leaders, and perhaps even more from beneficiaries, he said.

"But, in the end, we managed to form a small but strong and united team of loyal members."

Currently, there are a dozen of full time volunteers, both Vietnamese and French expats, working with Les Enfants du Dragon.

Occasionally, foreign donors also come to visit their beneficiaries and take part in volunteer work like building houses for the poor, and playing with children they had adopted by providing financial assistance.

These days Muynck is busy checking the progress of construction sites, visiting beneficiary families, attending meetings organized by local authorities, and updating the association's website and his personal blog to keep members and supporters informed.

He also joins other members in finding partners and donors online.

Dr. Lan, who is in charge of the association's work in France, said Muynck has done his job "very well," and thanks to him, Les Enfants du Dragon's activities are always "transparent."

Lan, who has always wanted to contribute to his home country, said he has found a kindred spirit.

"Muynck has a heart for Vietnam and its people."

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