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 Quang Nam, one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam. From 1965 to 1971, this is an area that had 1.3 million litres of Agent Orange dumped upon it during the war's Operation Ranch Hand. It was also home to the largest dioxin storage facility in the country, which still seeps harmful chemicals into the soil and water – four decades 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 estimates that out of every 10 households, one is home to someone affected by some form of disability. Of those households, 89% live in such poverty that their homes are 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 that both 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. Lifestart began in 2000 when Karen Leonard, an Australian traveller, passed through town and was moved by the story of a young boy living in a Hoi An orphanage. It gained charity status in 2004 and since then Karen, Lifestart and a group of changing (often returning) volunteers have helped hundreds of families and individuals achieve a foothold in society and carve a new existence for themselves. This has helped change many lives.
Lifestart also provides 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. For instance, if a child is not attending school regularly because the distance to school is too great, Lifestart will provide a bicycle. If a family can't afford for a child to attend school, a scholarship programme can assist from grade six up.
The plan from the start was for the foundation to become a sustainable business, where the retail operations support the needs behind the scenes. You can support them by shopping at their store (open daily 09:00-19:00) for beautiful handcrafted goods that include cards, jewelry, bags, stuffed animals and their own brand bath/body products. Do their Vietnamese painting (09:00-10:30/14:00-15:30) or lantern making class (10:30-12:00/15:30-17:00). Each session is 330,000 dong (minimum two persons required to run the class). Do a free tea tasting and take advantage of their free daily Vietnamese language class, a great primer for travels in the country. The fun half hour session at 11:00 or 16:00 includes cultural do’s and don’ts, how to shop and bargain and other useful tips.
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 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.
By Caroline Mills
Last updated on 23rd September, 2016.