Will Work For Smiles

The myth has been busted — apparently, I am capable of showing up early for work.

Today, though, work doesn’t mean putting on a frock and a pair of heels. Instead, I panic-packed several shorts, tops, and of course, my office’s official volunteer shirts, all before rushing madly to the airport to make my 6:15 am flight.

My love-hate relationship with my desk job is no secret, but one of the things that I am grateful for in my choice of corporate home, is that it’s big enough to offer a day of leave to dedicate to a cause of our choice. This year, I spent my charity day leave to join a volunteer group to Vietnam, off to finish the construction of classrooms and the playground in a remote primary school in Tra Vinh.

Tra Vinh Primary School Volunteers

Before we even got into the picture, a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done — and I am not just referring to the carpentry work. Volunteers, not just from Singapore but all throughout Asia, have already put in lots of time, effort and heart to raise funds, so that the kids of the Truong Tieu Hoc Hieu Trung B Primary School will greet their first day of school — not sitting in dilapidated desks under a roof that might cave in any second, but in clean, brightly-painted classrooms with shiny desks and new school supplies. This is the office’s fifth year in collaborating with Saigon Children’s Charity to empower children in the most remote corners of Saigon and the Mekong Delta through education. As someone who will be eternally grateful to be a scholar of quality public education, this cause is close to my own heart.

Early morning at the wet market in Tra Vinh
Early morning at the wet market in Tra Vinh

Our flight cruised into Hanoi Airport, and we shuffled from the tarmac into a beaming-pink bus, where we resign ourselves to another 5-hour bus ride until we reach Tra Vinh. I look around at all the expectant faces, and drew that there were two kinds of volunteers in our delegate: (1) the newbies, like me, who would later realize that we had no idea how much hard labor we signed up for, and (2) the veterans, who knew exactly what we were in for, but still pledged to continue the cause year after year.

The most interesting people I met, however, were barely three feet tall. As we ran around trying to understand the dynamics of laying cement, scraping old paint, and painting the walls anew, several children showed up in the school grounds. At first, they were there to meet up and play with friends, but later on, their teacher showed up as well to rally them into helping to mop the classrooms. School was out, and yet here they were, willingly spending their day to clean up what may as well be their second home in this neighborhood.

I was assigned on playground-cement-laying duty on that time, and the cheerful pastel colors on the ground must have caught their eye. The children drew close. I knew no word of Vietnamese, but somehow, a few minutes later, through smiles and a whole lot of gestures, we were all cooped together trying to squeeze all our faces into the frame of my camera. They scrambled onto my lap and hung their arms around my neck, as if they’ve known me forever; shot after shot, they’d giggle as they look at their funny faces and antics at playback.

The Kids

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It’s no wonder why the veterans come back; these kids just win you over instantly. A few of them, who can be no older than 9, actually already knew a few English phrases to hold conversation. Yes, these kids are going a long way.

The day of celebration came when the labor was all done, and the children could spend their time in the spruced-up school grounds. Every squeal of glee in the playground was heartwarming; every smile and clap that came from itty-bitty faces and hands made all the work worth it.

If you want to learn more about Saigon Children’s Charity and their programs, I encourage you to peruse the programs and videos, or maybe even drop them a question at their site: http://www.saigonchildren.com/. Our volunteer team leader has also already started a JustGiving campaign for next year’s mission. If you’d like to help, please do check out his page at https://www.justgiving.com/CS-SCC-2015.

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