These Children are Thriving

With the support of Holt child sponsors, nearly 1,500 children at seven daycare centers in Vietnam now have a safe place to learn and play during the day.  At one preschool and daycare center in southern Dong Nai province, free milk and nourishing school lunches have helped to drop malnutrition rates from 7.5 percent to less than 1 percent. When Holt staff members visited the school in early June of this year, many of the children were busy coloring pictures for their sponsors — a new feature of Holt’s sponsorship program designed to strengthen communication between sponsors and the children they help support.

Twenty miles outside of Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam, tucked between marshy fields of growing rice, stands a small preschool and daycare center. When we visit in early June, only about a third of the number of students who attend during the school year are present. Still, the sound of children playing is deafening as we drive up — with giggles and high voices joyfully resounding off the cement walls and through the open air doors of this four-room school. The air is hot and steamy from overnight rains, and children run barefoot on the cool cream-and-yellow tiles of the school — their shoes in a pile in the hallway. They are between the ages of 2 and 5, and the little ones are watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon in one classroom when we arrive. They are engrossed in the show and barely acknowledge us when we peek inside. The older ones are busy coloring pictures in the room next door, and they look up with bright eyes and toothy grins when we join their class.

Two years ago, the atmosphere at this school was quite different. When the Long Hung School opened in 2005 to serve the children of this rural farming community, many families failed to see the purpose or benefit of sending their children to preschool or their littler ones to daycare. In their community, the elders of the family traditionally care for children at home while their parents farm the land during the day. The school itself was run down and had no water supply for cooking or drinking, and the cost of tuition — $3/month, $23/month with lunch — seemed an unnecessary burden to many of the families in this low-income area. Only 41 children enrolled that first year.

Then, in 2012, the local authority referred Holt Vietnam to upgrade equipment as well as the quality of care and programs for the children — and, ultimately, to attract more children to the school.

“When Holt came, only 41 families had signed up their children to enroll,” the principle shared during our visit. “Two months later, it came up to 78. By the end of the semester, the number increased to 102. The next year, we were able to enroll 141.”

Responding to the needs of vulnerable families, Holt began partnering with the government of Vietnam in 2011 to strengthen and expand daycare and preschool services for children in rural areas. Holt supported our first daycare program outside Hanoi in the north, and quickly expanded to Danang and two provinces in the south. Today, Holt supports seven schools and approximately 1,500 children.

The challenges facing families vary from region to region. In some communities, the children are primarily from migrant worker families who are ineligible for social welfare benefits because they don’t have a permanent residence. In others, a significant number of children have special needs that require one parent to stay at home and care for them — reducing the family’s overall income. For these families, daycare provides respite and an opportunity for both parents to work. For all families — in every community Holt serves — daycare provides a critical early education, socialization, improved nutrition and a safe place for children to stay while their parents work during the day.

In rural Dong Nai province — where the Long Hung School opened in 2005 — the needs of the community have recently become more pronounced as the government has reclaimed much of the farmland for industrial development. Many families have lost their homes and their livelihood. Some live in temporary government housing near the school. And while some have found work in nearby factories, jobs are limited. To no surprise, the health and wellbeing of their children has deteriorated.

When Holt came in 2012, about 7.5 percent of the children at Long Hung School were malnourished — just accounting for the children from the community who were enrolled at the preschool. To strengthen their nutrition, Holt began providing free milk at school, which children rarely drank at home. By the end of the school year, malnutrition among the children had dropped to less than 1 percent.

As the principle shared during our visit, with warm eyes full of gratitude, “[Long Hung School] has been recognized by the education system for making a great effort to reduce malnutrition, with the support of Holt.”

To reach more children in the community, Holt also worked with local leaders to encourage more families to participate in the daycare program. Our staff in Vietnam emphasized the importance of early education and the opportunity for school lunch, and explained the concept of child sponsorship — the Holt program that provides essential funds for daycare and other services for the children. By enrolling their children at Long Hung School and partnering with Holt child sponsors in the U.S., our staff explained, their children would receive all of these benefits.

Soon, more and more families began enrolling their children in school. After Holt Vietnam staff reached out to families, the number who signed up for school lunch also grew from just 10 percent to over half the enrolled students.

“At school, children eat rice with vegetables and different proteins such as chicken or tofu,” the principle explained. “For poorer families, lunch [at home] is not as nutritious.”

Looking at the preschoolers, they are clearly well cared for and loved. They are full of playful energy and have that twinkle in their eyes — the twinkle of health and vitality. A few adorable little potbellies poke from beneath polka dot dresses, and they are as tall as 3 and 4 and 5-year-olds should be.

“They weigh and check the height of the children every three months,” says Ms. Dzung Truong, Holt Vietnam’s supervisor for the southern region. “At the end of the school year, the families thanked the head mother of the school because the children’s health had improved.”

At school, the children learn to write letters. They dance and sing and tell stories. They learn about hygiene and practice washing their hands while the teacher observes. And today, during our visit, they color pictures for their sponsors in the U.S.

This is a new feature of Holt’s sponsorship program and one that Holt Vietnam has led the way in over the past several months. Soon, sponsors of children living in Vietnam — as well as Cambodia, China, India, Mongolia, Thailand and the Philippines — will receive personalized updates such as colored pictures or letters from their sponsored child. Sponsors of children in Ethiopia will begin receiving these updates in early 2015. Most sponsors will receive at least one additional update from their child every year —adding to the quarterly updates they already receive from Holt. As Holt’s overseas program staff receive more training and improved technology, we hope to continue expanding and improving communications between sponsors and their sponsored child.

For the sponsors who will receive the pictures that the children at Long Hung School are now coloring, this small and heartfelt gesture adds meaning, helps remove distance and reminds them of the child they support through monthly giving. For the children in sponsorship, the coloring activity also helps them realize that their sponsor is a real person — a person who cares about them and who will lovingly tack their picture to their wall when they receive it in the mail.

Through their monthly $30 donation, the sponsors of children at Long Hung School are helping them to grow and thrive and reach their full potential in life. And as the children stand with their teachers in front of their school, waving goodbye, it’s abundantly clear how sponsorship truly impacts the life of a child. Because here, in this little farming community in southern Vietnam, these 141 children are happy and healthy and have everything they need to succeed in life.

“On behalf of the children,” says the principle, “we want to thank you.” We second that.

Robin Munro | Managing Editor

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