The Lifestart Foundation is one of few charities based in Hoi An working with people suffering disabilities due to the lingering, horrific effects of dioxins used around this area during the American War.
Hoi An, a magical, lantern-strewn city wrapped in the protective arms of Unesco, resides slap bank in the middle of Qunag Nam, one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam. This is an area that had 1.3 million litres of Agent Orange dumped upon it during the war's Operation Ranch Hand, from 1965 till 1971. It was also home to the largest dioxin storage facility in the country, which still seeps harmful chemicals into the soil and water -- 38 years after the end of the war.
Quang Nam has one of the highest incidents of disability in the country; a recent survey of the province estimated that out of every 10 households, one was home to someone affected by some form of disability. Of those households, 89% lived in such poverty that their homes were classified as non-permanent structures.
You’d like to think that almost four decades after the war things were improving, but sadly due to the high incidence of past generations coming into contact with dioxin, birth defects are still high. As well, the social stigma attached to having an affected child is such an unbearable weight to carry for many family members that children -- and adults -- are either hidden away or put into overcrowded government run ‘care’ establishments and orphanages.
Traditional belief (which involves reincarnation of the soul) is that to be born with a disability is punishment for bad deeds or sins committed by family ancestors. Only those whose disabilities were caused by accidents are, in general, looked at in a different light and seen as deserving of pity.
For most, education is unavailable, health care is poor and the social and financial impact on families who care for affected members can be devastating. There is little help; many of those affected by disability never leave their home.
Lifestart does tremendous work to give those affected an opportunity to integrate into ‘normal’ society, by providing rehabilitation, vocational training and support that allows them to have a sustainable career. Created back in 2000 when an Australian traveller, Karen Leonard, passed through town and was affected by the story of a young boy living in a Hoi An orphanage, Lifestart gained charity status in 2004. Since then Karen, Lifestart and a group of changing (often returning) volunteers have helped hundreds of families and individuals gain a foothold in society and carve a new existence for themselves. They have changed people's lives.
Lifestart also works to help disadvantaged families and provide scholarships for kids, a free school, a workshop and a retail outlet in the old town, as well as a disability centre. Each case the foundation deals with is done on an individual basis. If child is not attending school regularly because the distance to school is too great, for instance, Lifestart will provide a bicycle; if a family can't afford for a child to attend school, a scholarship programme can help from grade six up.
Karen has planned from the start that the foundation become a sustainable business, where the retail operations support the needs behind the scenes. It's a work in progress; the need for talented volunteers and donations -- no matter how small -- is great.
In Vietnam, giving isn’t quite as easy as you might expect; some issues are very sensitive and few charities get involved as directly as Lifestart does. When you meet the people who have become part of the Lifestart volunteer family, it’s very clear to see why, although their work never ends, they keep on going. It’s a charity that's making a real difference in a town that’s become very good at keeping things behind locked doors.
Each month a Travelfish.org writer selects a charity or non-government organisation that they believe does excellent work on their patch in Southeast Asia. They write about them and we donate $100, a small way for us to give something back to the region. If you're looking to give back too, please consider giving a little cash as well.
By Caroline Mills
Last updated on 31st May, 2015.