Getting smart off the street

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 Patrick Desir and pupils receiving gifts from French school friends at Phan Huy Ich PointCom Center in HCMC, one of three centers of Poussières de Vie project in Vietnam during Christmas last year

Tran Anh Phuong has come a long way from selling gum outside the War Remnants Museum.

He used to rely on gestures to bumble through sales to foreign tourists.

Then he began to pick up some English with the help of a friend. He liked the language especially when foreigners started to understand what he said.

Now he speaks English fairly well, and that has not just given him hope, it has given him new dreams.

"I want to be a teacher or businessman in the future," says Phuong, 17.

He gets a stipend of VND350,000 each month from Poussières de Vie, an NGO set up by a Vietnamese-French software engineer.

Now Phuong hopes to get a scholarship so he can study at the Viet My Vocational Training College for free.

Patrick Desir says he created Poussières de Vie (literally "Dust of Life," a pejorative term for street children) to give Phuong and other poor kids the courage to dream new dreams and the help they need to realize them.

Poussières de Vie offers volunteer-taught classes in two subjects: English and IT. Desir believes computers have the power to open up several windows to the world. "It is important for them to understand that it is not the street but other things that bring real job opportunities," he said.

Desir was 15 when his family moved from Ho Chi Minh City to Paris in 1975. He returned in 1997 and set up an IT company in HCMC which developed software products and exported them to France.

Five years later, he co-founded the Poussières de Vie.

Since then, around 500 children have benefited from the project, but there have been serious stumbling blocks.

"Once, when I returned after a month in France, not a single kid was left. All of the first 20 street kids had disappeared."

FUND RAISER

On December 12, Poussières de Vie will organize the Kermesse 2010, an evening of fun with music (Vietnamese and French), dance, fashion shows, magic shows and circus performances. Proceeds from the event will be used to build a sports center in District 1. For details, contact cecile@poussieresdevie.org.

Desir says he got the project back on track and began to witness inspiring transformations. From unruly, combative personalities who would not hesitate to pick fights with their teachers, the kids became serious students, curious and eager to learn.

Thanh Nien Weekly joined a class at the Poussières de Vie last week. More than 10 eager students sat focused and well-behaved at their personal computers.

"My family is poor so I cannot take extra English and IT lessons. At school we just learn Word and

Excel, but here the class is interesting and we also have a teacher who is a native English speaker," said Le Thi Thu Hang, a 17-year-old student from District 2. Hang started studying at the Poussières de Vie center when she was 11 years old.

"Each and every one of them gets excited about finding information on the Internet. And with each success, they become more confident," said Tad Kincaid, the teacher, who is also country director of Orphan Impact, a company that provides teaching services.

As the project grew, Desir started hiring social workers to find street children and manage the three Poussières de Vie centers two in HCMC and one in the central province of Kon Tum.

"The social workers are important because they provide the link between the kids, their families and Poussières de Vie," Desir said. "Helping street children requires the understanding and support of their families as well."

Besides English and IT classes, the organization also offers recreation and cultural exchange opportunities.

Desir said that at the end of this month, the kids will mingle with the students from the British International School. "They can use the facilities, swim and play basketball with their friends at the British International School."

Emma Jane Morris, community service project manager of the British International School, was enthusiastic about the cultural exchange project.

"The project will be a collaboration of students of two age groups from the British International School, Year 4 and Year 6, matched with street kids of similar age from Poussières de Vie. The project will allow all children involved to gain an understanding of the concepts of music and develop skills in composition while forming friendships and sharing experiences with each other," she said.

"We have seen very positive results in our previous projects. The participants last year were very receptive and enthusiastic about coming to our campus, using the facilities, sharing their knowledge and experiences with our students and working collaboratively," Morris said.

Desir's greatest happiness is when former students of the center return to "discuss their plans with me."

But he has no intention of taking it easy yet.

He is already into his next project to help disadvantaged people, this time, helping the Ba Na ethnic minority households in Kon Tum use their land more efficiently. "They work all day, all year but do not have enough food," Desir said.

He has so far helped 50 Ba Na families offer homestay services in Kon Tum for visitors, giving them an extra source of income.

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