November 2020 was an unforgettable month for Loreto Vietnam. During weeks of travel across An Giang province in Southern Vietnam, we were overwhelmed with happiness and pride to see how our mission of “Education for Change” was having a real impact on children in some remote and significantly disadvantaged communities.
Some of our trips took 8 hours of driving one way from Ho Chi Minh City; we counted 15,000 steps a day on average and worked from 6am till 7pm in very poor villages. These tiring numbers were compensated by the successful delivery of several key projects; school sanitation works, bicycle and helmet handovers, and STEM consultations. More importantly, we were lucky to meet incredible students and teachers who made our challenging trips meaningful by knowing that their educational journeys and lives will experience positive change thanks to our Loreto programs.
During one trip into An Phu District, we met Lan (below left), a happy Year 5 student, who could not hide her surprise and joy at being one of the first visitors to the new toilet blocks exclusively designed for the girls at B An Phu Primary School. For the last five years, Lan, her friends, and teachers shared a toilet block with no formal separation for boys and girls. It had no door, no ventilation, and sadly no clean water. Loreto Vietnam worked closely with the local authority and school on a needs assessment and situation analysis and came to the decision to build a new and separate toilet block exclusively for girls and renovate the current block for boys. Safe and clean water systems were installed. Furthermore, health promotion and education modules were delivered to the school’s teachers and students to help them stay away from hygiene-related diseases and inform the community about new ways to ensure COVID-19 prevention. Lan said, “All the students are so excited about this new “friend”. I cannot wait to get back home to tell my parents too. It is even more beautiful and cleaner than my family’s. My parents must be happy and jealous!”. Under the School Sanitation and Health Education Program, Loreto Vietnam has rebuilt and renovated toilet facilities for 20 schools with separate blocks for boys and girls and trained 16,000 students in practical health knowledge and skills.
Two hours’ drive away from Lan, in Nha Bang village, we met Dat, a Year 6 boy, and his grandmother, Mrs. Vang, aged 68. The two of them live together in a temporary shelter on a hilltop. Mrs. Vang has taken care of Dat since his parents divorced and left him some years ago. The poverty and lack of basic living commodities in their shelter cannot take away their laughter and love for each other. Mrs. Vang walks her lovely grandson 5 km to and from school each day. Through the work of Loreto Vietnam, a small miracle happened. A new bicycle and helmet provides Dat a quicker, safer, and much more enjoyable ride to school. Dat told us he would teach his grandmother to ride this bicycle too. Mrs. Vang burst out laughing, saying she was too old for this! But Dat assured her it would easy; he would help her every day, as he pursued his dream to study hard, find a good job, and take care of her in the future. Like Dat, another 3,500 poor children have been supported by Loreto Vietnam to transform their journey to school under the Wheels for Education program. Easy bicycle transportation (and a new helmet!) ensures students attend school regularly and travel safely. A new bicycle also supports other family members, like Mrs. Vang, with family duties and market trips and benefit many village families.
Our November trip concluded with a beautiful STEM fair, the first-ever in An Giang province. We have been pioneering the introduction of STEM programs in schools to help underrepresented and under-resourced students advance in these essential areas of study, inspiring the next generation of great leaders, thinkers, and creators in Vietnam. More than 2,000 primary students and 150 teachers in 4 primary schools participated in the fair, excited, and curious to learn, practice, and create their own STEM products. An important figure for Loreto Vietnam is that 2/3 of the “young scientists” from the 4 STEM clubs in these schools are girls. To To, a Year-5 student who demonstrated her excellent solar energy fan project, said, “I’m so proud that our girls can learn well science and be great innovators. Living in a land full of sunlight, I dream of being a scientist or inventor creating more solar energy-oriented projects to support local people”. Doesn’t she sound amazing? Many Vietnamese people think about STEM as abstract and complex as they do not understand its definition or what kind of activities it includes, particularly in schools. Together with local partners in rural communities, Loreto Vietnam intends to change this mindset and prove that STEM is relevant, practical, and necessary.
These November trips were unforgettable as each day we worked to fulfil our mission to empower children and communities through quality education programs. Most importantly, we met hundreds of wonderful children living under adverse conditions but striving for educational opportunities. Their smiling faces, their incisive sharing, and their beautiful dreams about a bright future for themselves and their communities inspires us to maximize our efforts and build on our capacity at Loreto Vietnam, to continue our commitment to Education for Change.
Author: Dung Nguyen
Executive Director, Loreto Vietnam
Feature Image: Students of B An Phu Primary School delighted with their new toilet block. Centre: L: Lan enjoying the new girls toilet block, R: Dat and his Grandmother Mrs. Vang on their new bicycle. Bottom: Students at the STEM Fair, An Giang Province.