Aline Rebeaud with needy children and adults in the Central Highlands province of Dak Nong, where she planned to build a shelter / PHOTOS COURTESY OF MAISON CHANCE.
"Perhaps I used to live here in my previous life."
Aline Rebeaud smiles as she tries to explain her decision to stay in Vietnam for two decades, doing a lot of charity work.
Similar answers have been given by foreigners who have felt a deeper connection with Vietnam and rendered yeoman service to improving the lot of the nation's disadvantaged citizens.
However, Rebeaud has made a striking difference. Last month, President Truong Tan Sang granted Rebeaud Vietnamese nationality as an appreciation for her contribution to supporting underprivileged people in Vietnam.
Her Vietnamese name now is Hoang Nu Ngoc Tim.
Getting citizenship has tied the knot firmer between the Swiss woman and the country, where she has lived more than half her life. She speaks the language fluently.
Earlier this month, her charity organization, Maison Chance (Lucky House), made its official debut in Vietnam. Founded 20 years ago, the organization has provided accommodation and vocational training for orphans, street children, and poor or handicapped people in Ho Chi Minh City, with donations from benefactors around the world.
It was time Maison Chance sought contributions from the Vietnamese community to grow steadily, said Rebeaud, better known as Tim in local circles.
She said the organization has helped thousands of people over years, but there are many more people in need of supports in distant areas.
Maison Chance's next step will be to reach out to those areas, she said, adding that the plan is to open a shelter in the Central Highlands province of Dak Nong.
There is no social welfare center in the province at present, according to Tim.
The shelter will be a place where animals are raised and trained to aid in ameliorating the lives of people with disabilities, she said.
Research has shown people with mental problems tend to interact with animals, Tim said. Pet therapy has also become a popular treatment for people with physical disabilities, she added.
From the heart
When she came to Vietnam in 1993 on a trip seeking inspiration for her painting works, she met a 12-year-old boy named Thanh in a suburban area in Ho Chi Minh City.
He was dying of various diseases that had affected his heart, liver and lungs, so the 21-year-old Rebeaud took him to a local hospital. But doctors there refused to treat him, saying that his condition was too serious.
Rebeaud then took him to the Nguyen Tri Phuong Hospital in District 5.
Thanh was admitted to the hospital on condition that she had to take care of him, because the boy had no family. Rebeaud spent three months with the Vietnamese boy till he recovered.
While he was being treated, Rebeaud got to know other people in the hospital and they began calling her Tim, which means "heart" in Vietnamese. It is not only because she had a good heart, but also because she was constantly in the cardiology department with Thanh.
Tim's frequent visits to the hospital helped her realize that the suffering of many people was being ignored by society at large. She ended up extending her stay in Vietnam to do what she could do to help the needy people.
She started with a house in Binh Hung Hoa Ward, Binh Tan District, taking in street children as well as adults with disabilities who were too poor to meet their daily needs. She called it Maison Chance Shelter.
Kim Van Phuoc, one of the first members, said it was a thatched-roof house in a small alley and hosted more than ten people. Except for a few beds for the people with disabilities, all of them, including Tim, had to sleep on the floor, he said.
"But everyone treated each other warmly like a family," Phuoc said.
All the expenses of the house came from the sale of Tim's paintings and her acting in TV commercials. When she was jobless, they ate rice with soya sauce or with fish that the children sometimes caught from nearby places.
No matter how difficult the situation was, Tim never forgot the education of "her children." She hired people to teach them to read, write and even paint to earn a living, while she herself worked hard to learn Vietnamese so that she could understand the children better, Phuoc said.
Later, when she was totally out of money, she asked for help from family and friends. Since such help could not be a long-term source, she established charity booths of Maison Chance in her homeland Switzerland, and other countries like France and the US to raise funds.
Thanks to the donations, Maison Chance Shelter was able to move to a new and bigger place. It is now home to 50 people who are provided with free accommodation until they can afford one by themselves.
Rebeaud was granted Vietnamese citizenship last month with the name Hoang Nu Ngoc Tim.
In 2005, Tim opened the Take Wing Center, where adults with disabilities and grown children are taught computer skills, sewing, making handicrafts, and other professional skills.
Meanwhile, Village Chance a 3,500-square-meter site built two years ago takes care of people with disabilities and their families.
Unlike the Maison Chance Shelter, which provides accommodation for free, residents of the "village" have to pay a nominal rent.
Besides 40 apartments designed specifically for people with disabilities like wheelchair lanes, the village also has classrooms for children who cannot go to school for various reasons like not having personal documents, or being too poor to afford tuition.
All the three places are located in Binh Tan District and not far from each other. They stand out with their blue paint. Tim once said blue symbolizes hope.
Recalling his first encounter with Tim, Phuoc, now a married man with two children, said he met her in 1993. He was eight years old and begging on the streets.
When he approached Tim for money at a café on Pham Ngu Lao Street, District 1, she told him, "I don't have money to give you, but I can give you a family. Do you want it?"
Born without knowing who his father was and abandoned by his mentally unstable mother, Phuoc followed the foreign woman to the shelter.
Phuoc used to live with his grandmother, uncle and aunt. He refused to go to school and insisted on selling lottery tickets.
He left home after someone robbed him off his tickets, fearing that his uncle would beat him. He lived on the streets for more than a year before meeting Tim.
Since he was more familiar with life on the street, Phuoc occasionally left the shelter, but Tim would always look for him and take him back. She kept paying his tuition for vocational classes, even though she knew that he would quit shortly after.
When the shelter's manager wanted to expel him due to his stubborn and rude behavior, Tim protected him.
"Among mother Tim's children, perhaps I was the most perverse child, but she always tried to change my behavior with patience and love," Phuoc said.
The only time that she hit him was when he was "excessively impertinent," Phuoc said.
"She slapped my face in anger, but burst into tears immediately after - it made me realize how disappointed she felt."
From that day, Phuoc's attitude changed. He behaved better and studied hard, and finally got a job. When he fell in love and wanted to get married to a girl who lived nearby, "mother Tim" represented the groom's family, and organized the whole wedding.
"Once you truly want to help a person, you cannot do it half-heartedly. You have to determine that it is a long lasting thing and pursue it till the end," Tim said, referring to Phuoc.
Tim smiled away a question about her personal life, saying she was too busy taking care of others.
"Moreover, I have many children at the Maison Chance; they all call me mother Tim."