Van Thi Nguyen

November 2015; Hanoi, Vietnam

I drove around for about 20 minutes trying to find the location I was sent to. I journeyed through a maze of neighborhoods and schools with children still playing on the playgrounds. I finally asked a street stall owner for directions and she turned to one of the customers for help. He directed me to where I needed to go, but then proceeded to get on his motorbike to lead the way to my destination. He took me about 10 kilometers in rush hour traffic to where I needed to go. 

I arrived in front of a series of stores. I circled around the side to what looked like an apartment building and followed the address I had to the appropriate floor. I didn’t know what to expect when I exited the elevators into a dark hallway. I arrived at the last apartment that I was directed to go to. The door was open and I knocked before letting myself in. I found two people, a boy and a girl who looked to be in their late teens. “Is Ms. Van here?” I asked. One of the girls led me into a room where I found a woman sitting on the ground on her computer.

I extended my stay in Hanoi to meet as many social entrepreneurs as I could. I wanted to learn more about the private sector and how development works in Vietnam. Although I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked, I was led to some amazing people through an article that I read by Kate Welch from Social Enterprise Acumen. From here, I was put in touch with Social Acumen Fund (Check out the article here). From here, I was put in touch with Kate Welch who led me to the Will to Live. The Will to Live Centeris a social enterprise focused on supporting and assisting those who are physically handicapped through training, orienting and consulting in order to find jobs The organization is partnered with 200 companies that accept individuals with disabilities as employees. They provide benefits and provide them with work on a project by project basis. They are now at the point where partners are reaching out to them through word of mouth. The students pay for their own food and accommodation, but it is 100% free for study.

Will to Live was the brainchild of Van’s brother, Cong Hung Nguyen.

 Van, her parents, and brother

Van, her parents, and brother

When I sat down with Van, she showed me a picture of her and her brother before telling me his beautiful story.  She, her brother Hung, and her elder sister were born in a village about 300 kilometers from Hanoi. Van and her brother were born with the same disability which doctors still don’t exactly have a cure for.

When we sat down, she recalled the hardships her and her family faced. She spoke sweetly of her brother, talking of who her brother was and the legacy he has left behind. She had always questioned the fate of her and her brother growing up. She couldn’t help but think what would happen if anything were to happen to her parents. Although they are still alive, she worried. She had grown up seeing other disabled people begging for food and money on the street. She wondered if that would one day be her fate.

Her family received criticism, she was physically abused in school, and she felt guilty for having her disability.

She was in 6th grade, 12 years old, when she stopped going to school for about a year and a half. During that time, she tried to commit suicide. She had seen her mother working from morning to night and did not want her mother to work so much. She did not want to be the reason for the struggles her family faced. She said she was not scared of death, she was not afraid of anything when she was committing suicide. From that, she changed a lot internally. She now faces each problem and authentically confronts how she feels, what she thinks, and why she does what she does.

When she was ready, she enrolled in school. Years went by and her parents allowed her to study far from home starting from 11th grade. She opened a small internet shop, studied, and made money to send back to her parents.

Can you tell me about your brother?,I asked. “My brother was a perfect person”, she replied. Will to Live was his idea and he used his own life for the center. He was smart, kind, passionate, and spent most of his time for the Will to Live. His center was in their home village and was 100% charity based.

Her brother was named one in seven in Vietnam for social impact. He was the first person with a disability to apply to work for the government, but he was too weak. He was the first person to say that the government should have people with disabilities.

Hung was only 31 years old when he passed away, but he achieved much more in the years when he was alive. People in Vietnam called him a hero and he had an impact on people from all walks of life whether they were old, alcoholics, sick, or disabled. When he passed away, their family had a 3 kilometer long line from their home. He received more than 30 awards for his work.

After Hung passed away Van’s ability to run the organization. That didn’t stop her. When she gets criticism, she chooses to brush it to the side and continue on. In the Will to Live center, each student is beautiful and confident in what they do. They are proud when they say they come from Will to Live and many eventually come back to mentor current students.

 “Any last words?”, I asked. She replied by saying, “The power inside you and the people involved in your life are very important. It is not just about having a skilled job, but it is about their ability, their dream, and their ability to follow their dreams and recognize the power within. Many individuals come to our center and stop after a month. They realize a computer is not their dream. I always ask people what their dream is and why they want to apply to be a part of the Will to Live. Many say they don’t know. All they do know is that they want money and independence. They don’t know what they want, what they can do, or what their dream is. When you give them a job, it must not be for what they WANT to do, it must be for what their dreams are.

Now at 28 years old, Van faces the same fate of her brother. The doctors tell her she has less than 4 years left to live and she is already feeling the symptoms within her body. She has seen some of very good doctors from US and each one tells her the same thing. Day after day she continues to feel weak. I asked Van if she is ready and she instantly replied yes. Her last wish is to have a Will to Live school built. 

If I’ve learned anything this past year it’s that we all live, beating to the rhythm of our own calling. We all walk on paths knowing that there is an unknown in the next moment. Our lives can flutter past us or we can choose to be in the beauty of the moment. It’s been powerful, knowing these beautiful souls and learning how they choose to ‘be’ and accept each truth that passes through their life. This is just one testimony of the innate capacities we as humans have. Thank you, Van and Cong Hung, for showing me that this, this is the point of life. 

You can find the link to learn more about Cong Hung Nguyen

Check out the Will to Live Center here: