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Expatriate women find helping children in charity homes is fun, rewarding and empowering

American volunteer Amy Moyers-Knopp (in black) with children at a dance class at Sunflower House in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: To Van Nga

There is a hint of Friday morning excitement in the air at the Sunflower Charity House.

It is the day of the week when the girls who stay there get to receive and spend time with a special guest.

Last week, Vietweek was there when the guest arrived.

Space had been cleared in what appeared to be study room for the girls to create a "dance floor." Tables and chairs had been pushed to a corner.

Soon a computer began playing some dance music and Amy Moyers-Knopp, the dance teacher and guest of the day, started the lesson with stretching movements.

The enthusiasm and energy of the teacher was infectious. Soon the atmosphere was vibrant and energetic as students followed the teacher's movements as best as they could. It was evident they were having a good time and enjoying themselves.

For the moment, it was difficult to believe that these young girls had no real home and their parents were too poor to look after them. The Sunflower Charity House in Ho Chi Minh City's District 6 offers shelter, food and education for girls, usually under 18, in such circumstances.

"I teach them modern dance and I want to teach some hip hop," said Amy, as she declared a break after around 50 minutes.

Then she started a quick yoga lesson to help her students relax. For around five minutes all the participants lay relaxing on the mat with their eyes closed eyes as the teacher softly walked from one corner to another as Zen music emanated from her computer.

"I feel happier since I joined the dancing class. And dancing also does my health good, said Le Thuy Ngoc, a 16-year-old girl.

"I like the friendship and relationship that we build. They (students) are very open and welcoming. I like the bond that is created and to share experiences with them," Amy said.

Amy is a member of Sunshine Volunteers, a group of female expatriates, typically housewives, who spend their time at charity houses like Sunflower Shelter, teaching the children different skills including dancing, yoga, art and crafts, English and so on.

Jayanthi Nielsen, a Singaporean who is the coordinator of the group, said Sunshine Volunteers was established 10 years ago by expatriate women wanting to contribute to the local community.

Jay, as she insisted on being called, said Sunshine Volunteers now helps seven charity homes in Ho Chi Minh City and are constantly on the lookout for people who can add to their force. That their presence makes a difference was obvious.

When Jay entered the dancing class, most of young girls called out her name and rushed out to hug and kiss her.

"On special occasion, we go to cinema with aunt Jay. She also organises Noel, Tet (Lunar new year) and birthday parties for us. Sometimes she passes by to visit us and gives us some chocolates and gifts," said Thien Nhien, a 20-year-old girl at Sunflower House, who is also a student of the Ho Chi Minh City Technology College.

Jay said the group, between 30 and 40 strong, sends volunteers to different charity house in Ho Chi Minh city (Thien Phuoc, Mai Tam, Hoa Lan, Little Rose Shelter, Sunflower, and sometimes to Cancer hospital) every weekday.

"Sometimes we have a Saturday session. Volunteers can do it once a week, twice a week, once a month. It is really up to them how much time they would like to volunteer."

Having fun

Jay stressed that the volunteers do not think of what they do as work. "Life is a routine, so we go and do something fun," she said.

"I would say that the benefit for the homes and for us as volunteers is that we get to spend time with all these wonderful children. The kids have fun when we go there and we really love spending time with these kids.

"Some of these homes have their staff who do so much of work during the day, feeding, bathing and taking care of their daily needs that sometimes they don't have time to play with the kids. So we as volunteers try to go to the homes to do some fun activities for the children.

Asked if she found it difficult sometimes to face the circumstances of the people she tries to help, Amy replied in the negative.

"I really don't experience or see too many difficulties with my particular kind of volunteering. But if I had to choose one, I would say language. With dance/music/yoga, you can get by without needing many "words"... we try to keep things basic too. There are times when we would like to explain something in more detail or express our emotions more clearly--and this is when it would be nice to have more local Vietnamese volunteers joining our sessions. That way it can help bridge the language gap a bit more, and also hopefully encourage the local community to stay connected to these orphanages and serve as mentors.

How different it is for volunteers to work with people with different disadvantages, I asked.

Amy answered: "I think being yourself--your true self - is important. If people with disadvantages sense you feel sorry for them or if they sense that you're uncomfortable around them then it's not beneficial to volunteer. I think because I've worked with orphanages for many years now (before in Japan), it's really not something I think about. Of course you need to be aware of people's situations and have a certain respect for their obstacles in life but I try not to let it dictate my thoughts or drive the relationship. It's good to remember to bring positive energy to any volunteer work...

"I think what's best is to focus on a person's true spirit, true potential, and engage in positive ways rather than dwell on the difficulties. That's not to say their life's struggles aren't significant or difficult - or that we as volunteers can even begin to understand all that they might be going through but I do think bringing an energy that can help empower these kids is something that works rather than treating them like they are different and too fragile."

Added value

For their part, the people who run the charity houses are highly appreciative of what the Sunshine Volunteers are doing.

"They come to help and take care of disabled children. They talk to them, massage and even though some of them can't talk, they feel the love and social communication. It s good for the development for these children," said one lady who runs a charity house offering shelter for disabled children who are orphans or have parents who have divorced or too poor to take care of them."

"These volunteers take care of the children as if they were their own kids. Children really like them. Thanks to them, these children become more confident," said another woman whose charity house benefits from Sunshine Volunteers. Both women did not want to be named.

Added Amy: "When an adult can consistently take time and share positive experiences with a young person, this can have great impact on their lives. At the same time, it's thoroughly enjoyable to hang out with these girls and see them laugh, smile, build their confidence and curiosity.

"Volunteers often get even more from the experience than the kids!"

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