Kristen Hastings - Occupational Therapist in Vietnam
I had the opportunity to volunteer with Projects Abroad for ten weeks in Vietnam. I have been practicing for four years now and had always wanted to do volunteer work overseas, since I was in graduate school. After gaining a few years of experience working as an occupational therapist I felt ready to find a way to volunteer overseas. When researching volunteer projects, I found Projects Abroad and, after looking into the Projects for Professionals and speaking to a programme advisor, I decided to volunteer in Vietnam.
I was able to volunteer at the Thuy An Rehabilitation Centre in Ba Vi, Hanoi, which is in Northern Vietnam 60 kilometres outside the city centre of Hanoi. This centre has an educational and rehabilitation programme providing services to children with Cerebral Palsy, Autism, Down Syndrome and children with a variety of developmental delays. I had the opportunity to live and work at the centre, so I had the experience of being immersed in Vietnamese culture. I thoroughly enjoyed having the opportunity to live in Ba Vi, which allowed for me get to know the local staff and have more time with the kids I was working with.
I felt very comfortable with the accommodations. There is a volunteer room at the centre. Volunteers have their own little kitchen with a refrigerator, tea kettle and sink. There are two large bathrooms, which include hot showers if needed. It was hot when I went in the summer and early fall, so cold showers were always preferred. The volunteers also have their own washer, so we could wash our clothes at any time. Projects Abroad has worked hard to make accommodations at Thuy An comfortable for the volunteers. They even got the volunteers an air conditioner machine after I had been there four weeks, which felt like a luxury by that point. Along with experiencing Vietnamese culture first-hand, came eating traditional Vietnamese meals which I thoroughly enjoyed and I became decent using chopsticks with all the practice.
The best part of my experience was working with the kids. I think I learned more from them than they learned from me. They are incredibly friendly, playful, funny, smart, and resilient. The kids I got to know at Thuy An have the capacity to be joyful and grateful for the little they have in life, which reminded me I have a lot to be grateful for myself. I spent a majority of my time working in the life skills room and fine motor room at the centre.
We worked on developing independence with self-care skills, developmentally appropriate play skills, good hygiene habits, and therapeutic strategies to increase overall well-being for the children. Sometimes I would work with a child one on one and other times I had the opportunity to run group activities. I found the children were very attentive and highly engaged in almost any activity I presented to them, especially with novel activities.
My PRO placement
Anything novel the kids would attend to for hours at a time. One morning the power was out at the centre, all the children and staff were sitting outside of the therapy rooms and classrooms because it is too hot inside without fans. I pulled out the bubbles I had brought from home. We played with bubbles for nearly two hours. Each child would sit and wait their turn to blow bubbles a few times before giving their peer a turn. At one point I think there was about 7 kids sitting in a circle waiting to have their turn. Blowing bubbles is a special activity for them, because they don’t get to do it all the time.
During my time there I also had the opportunity to work in the feeding area, which ended up being a big focus of the work I did there. I was able to collaborate with the local staff to implement strategies for safer eating techniques. This included pureeing food with a blender so the food was easier to eat for the kids with limited oral motor control, and positioning the kids in the best possible position so they are supported as much as possible.
It was great working with the staff and getting to know them. Even though I was only able to learn a little Vietnamese, we got by communicating with me speaking the Vietnamese I knew and the staff using the English they knew. I had a translator a good portion of my time there, which was very beneficial in allowing for time to train the staff how to use the therapeutic strategies I was using with the kids. At the end of my 10 weeks it became just as hard to say good-bye to the staff as it was to say good-bye to the kids. I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to get to know the staff if I was at a placement where you leave at the end of your work day. I am really grateful I had the opportunity to get to know the local staff and learn as much as I did about Vietnamese culture.
I enjoyed every moment I had volunteering Vietnam. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I would highly recommend anyone to go and volunteer in Vietnam through Projects Abroad. I felt fully supported by staff during my time and they were very attentive and accommodating to the volunteers and their needs. I am looking forward to going back someday soon and am rallying my colleagues in the US to go back with me.