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An investment worth thinking about

An investment worth thinking about

Monday, December 12, 2011, 14:53 GMT+7

Talking about charity work is a risky business. You run the risk of coming across as either unbearably smug or just plain pushy. I have worked in this city for 2 years now and it took me some time before I felt confident enough to volunteer. Arriving in Bui Vien initially, all I saw were backpackers and expats, and my world remained relatively small.

But you can’t live in Vietnam and fail to see the other side of life here. As with any country in the world, there are the rich and the poor, the advantaged and the disadvantaged, Vietnam isn’t any different. I remember the day when my comfortable holiday ‘bubble’ popped. I was sitting with a group of friends in a bar on De Tham, watching the world go by. My only worry was the street sellers and the guilt that accompanied every no to their sales pitches. As my gaze followed a passing car, a young girl came into view and all of a sudden my holiday feeling was gone. She was obviously trying to collect money, or maybe just wandering, but her face was so deformed and swollen it was hard to look at. It took my breath away and still to this day the image plays on my mind. I looked at my beer, my feet, anywhere to avoid another glance at the girl. She was around 7 years old, but it was difficult to tell. The first question that came to my mind was how I could help her. Should I give her money, if so then how much? But the rational part of my brain, struggling to make sense of the situation, came to the conclusion that while the few dollars I could give her might make me feel better, it wouldn’t do much for the girl. Of course it would be great to say I immediately rushed to the nearest orphanage and started to volunteer, saving the world in the process. But no, I returned to my hotel, had a restless night and eventually the girl passed from my mind. But it happened again and again, I saw homeless, sick people and gave some money if they asked for it, and in my head, sanctimoniously tutted those who didn’t, but the feeling of uselessness was still prevalent. The last thing these people want is someone crying all over them, especially those without any comprehension of their situation. What do you do next? This is where opinion is divided. You either get on with your life, as you have every right to do, or you decide that you have the time, and you wouldn’t mind using it to get involved in a more sustainable approach. It is far too easy to condemn those who don’t get involved, but everyone deserves to make that choice and get on with their life. Initially, I myself have been guilty of judging people who chose not to join me in volunteering, but the more I participated the easier it was to see that this type of activity is not for everyone. I started by working for a volunteer organization that organizes playdates in the children’s ward of the Ung Buou cancer hospital of HCMC. It bothered me initially, but then I realized that I wasn’t there to be upset for them. I felt angry at myself for making it about me, about my sadness, when the girl painting with me was laughing and getting on with her life, chemo or no chemo. My job was just to distract and to provide some escapism for the patients or relatives, stuck on the ward day in, day out. I did get used to seeing the effects of such a violent disease all around me, but what was more shocking than the facial tumors and the post-op bandages was their attitude towards their situation. They were still children, they still had brothers and sisters to play with and parents to annoy, they accepted their situation and got on with it. A close friend of mine, who arrived at the same time as I did, went the other way. She was quite happy to donate her money, but she had made a decision not to get involved in actively volunteering. When she said no to my invitation, I asked her why and her response was simply “because, I don’t want to.” I couldn’t help thinking ‘good for her’! When it came to organizing regular volunteering events, I constantly worried about the amount of people that would turn up, sometimes unable to plan exactly what we would be able to achieve if the numbers were low. But Volunteers aren’t cattle. They are people who are trying to relate to a difficult situation and help in the best way they can. Everyone has something to contribute. If someone has felt pressured or guilt tripped into helping, they aren’t likely to be invested in the work or have a good time and the same goes for the people they are helping. Although I personally am usually enthusiastic about charity work, I still maintain that it’s definitely ok to say no. Yes, charity work is a good thing to do, but throughout my time in different charitable organizations, I have noticed people who would rather have stayed at home, and I wish someone had told them that saying no doesn’t make them a bad person, just an honest one. It may seem like an obvious point to make, but it’s important for charities to have committed volunteers who are able to invest in the cause. Working at the cancer hospital, running bi monthly events and other shelters where we have gone as far as building chicken coops, I have seen a lot of people squirming in the corner of the room, clearly not enjoying themselves, and obviously they haven’t come back. If they wanted to give it a try, then good for them, it may have been a shocking experience and one that they hadn’t entirely expected. What I find disappointing are the “I’m really into this, I really want to do some charity work” people, who then never come back despite assurances to the contrary. When people tell me they are interested, I generally tell them to give it a go, but to really think about whether it is something they can see themselves doing. I have worked with some very dedicated volunteers, who turned up rain or shine. We have watched volunteers come and go, talk expansively about their good intentions, and instead of becoming too cynical, have just accepted that charity work is for those who really want or feel the need to take part, and that there is nothing wrong with those who don’t. I have since stepped down from the cancer hospital as well as a number of other projects I have been involved in. After a year of coordinating volunteers, helping to organize fundraisers and seek out new shelters in desperate need of funding, I took a look at what I had taken part in and felt happy. And although it is something I am still deeply passionate about, I have moved into a phase of my life where job opportunities have presented themselves so I decided it was time to pursue them instead. I don’t feel bad about my decision, I felt I gave a lot and hopefully helped to affect some change, no matter how small. Volunteering has always been a huge part of my life in Vietnam and I can’t imagine living here and not participating, so I still volunteer regularly at an orphanage, and help out where I can. But I have chosen to spend more time on my work and I am happy with my choice. There is no right and wrong here, just a matter of people deciding on a life changing investment, and everyone deserves the chance to hold their hands up and say “this isn’t for me”.

James Allen

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