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.
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 here:www.conghung.com
Check out the Will to Live Center here: www.nghilucsong.net
March 4, 2016; Rani Pani, Nepal
I had arrived to Nepal a little less than a month before to serve with an organization I had been working with in Ahmadabad, Gujarat called Manav Sadhna. After the April/May 2015 earthquake, they had sent a team to help with relief efforts. The coordinator and a dear friend, Bhaaratbhai (bhaimeans brother in Gujarati), put me in touch with Dineshdai (daimeans brother in Nepali) who is, quite frankly a jack of all trades- a lawyer and engineer by profession. I quickly learned that Dineshdai’s story lies way beyond his numerous professions.
I could immediately tell he was a unique human being. During our few brief conversations (which I had stumbled through with the little Nepali and Hindi I knew at the time), his blunt, booming voice always rung through the phone.
I had come to Kathmandu for a couple of days, so on my way back to Rani Pani, the village I was serving in, we took a bus together. During the one and a half hour ride, Dineshdai told me his story starting from 25 years back to present day. Although I couldn’t understand all of his Hindi, what I could understand was much more powerful. His spirit, the energy he had for his work was enough to say it all.
I’m going to try to summarize Dineshdai’s work into a couple of paragraphs. However, summarizing his work would be like writing a short story about the entire Harry Potter Series and doing it justice. Impossible.
Dineshdai Chaudhary’s life changed when he received recognition for his past service work from the past prime minister of Nepal, Babhuram Bhattarai. After, he put all of his time and technical skills into working in Bakultar, a village next to Rani Pani. He had stumbled upon this small village almost 25 years prior and has continued his work there ever since. From teaching the villagers different farming techniques to building shallow wells, Dineshdai has done everything. Using his background as an engineer, he wrote books on how to properly build an earthquake proof home and how to work with laws within the Nepali government. The various work he has done with the village has brought him to one conclusion: the change begins with the children.
Each Saturday, he takes a bus from Kathmandu to the village to teach them meditation and values. He tells the kids, “You are Buddh, you are Lord Rama, and so is everyone else”.
Formal, quantitative education is not the answer, he believes. It does not teach one how to live a happier life, nor has it helped the village change. Yes, the community can go to other countries to work, but how does that help create a supportive, integrated community? Only when the community learns to live with one another can they get up, work, and maximize the resources that they already have.
“Nobody is poor”, he told me repeatedly. “We all have hands, we all have feet, we can all work with the land we have”.
He continued to tell me that money is not the problem and will never be the problem. That is a secondary matter. The first is education. We often forget about the seeds that we already have in our communities. The children, the seeds, are our most powerful form of capital, he told me. If we plant the seeds properly, the community can transform in just one generation.
In the past years he has used an abandoned building from the local public school to create his space of learning for the children. There, he has blankets, a hot plate for cooking, and some food in case he needs to spend the night there.
His past two and a half decades in the village have been a satisfying battle. Although his family does not fully support his work and commitment to Bakultar, he told me he feels a sense of duty to be with the people in the village. His relationship with them has shifted as he has continued his work. During one particular event, he had felt it was time to build a space to work with the children. Prior to using the abandoned building from the local public school, he built a home out of mud and bricks. For days, he worked to build his home with in his own hands. After some time, the community members also helped him. However, he came back after a few days and saw everything torn to pieces. Although he didn’t explain the situation in detail, he told me, ‘They can break my house, they can break my office, but they will never break my work.” At times he felt resistance from the community, but he has continued on.
The day I interviewed him, he was holding an event for the children. Under one of the large Banyan trees, the children from Bakultar village started to gather. After two hours of playing tag/hide and go seek, the children started to clean the area. One by one, they started to collect plastic, clear the leaves from the base of the tree, and put their shoes in a straight line. After, we made a circle around the tree. Dineshdai and the older youth which he works closely with, brought 13 candles and lit them on the cement at the base of the tree.
I don’t think I’ve seen anything more beautiful in my life. Two to three children huddled around each candle. With the stars lighting up the sky and the candles lighting up the base of this tree, I watched as the kids closed their eyes and started chanting. After, some of the kids climbed up to the base of the tree and started to do various performances. One of the boys rapped while some of the girls danced.
After this experience, I truly understood the essence of Dineshdai’s work. I was taken through his journey by seeing fragments of his work throughout the village (the shallow wells, meeting the villagers he had worked with through the years, etc.).
We all view the world differently and from this perspective, we decide how we want to position ourselves to make it a better place. Dineshdai opened my eyes and showed me another side of service. Each day, I am reminded of what he repeatedly told me: They can break my house, they can break my office, but they will never break my work.
He is a man who has worked towards something that so many people have tried to stop. He continues and has continued for 25 years towards his passion, towards his truth.
Under the hot afternoon New England summer sun, we sat on a bench outside of the Dhamma Dhara Vipassana meditation center. After ten days of meditation, nine of which were spent in silence, three of us lingered around long after most of our new friends had departed.
There, Kim, an actress, comedian, and photographer from LA and Suprita, a dentist originally from Nepal, shared the journey of their lives with me. In just 4 hours, we covered almost every aspect of our lives. Through those hours, Suprita and I listened to Kim reflect on the experiences that have made her who she is today.
A northeast native, Kim Mulligan was born in the Bronx, but was raised in New Hampshire. At the age of 5, Kim’s mother, Iris, lost her hearing to Encephalitis, a swelling of the left side of the brain, during pregnancy complications. Sick for months, her mother suffered nerve damage, but fortunately lived through the complications. After this period, Kim recalls taking care of her mother for as long as she can remember. As she got older, she played the role as a daughter and a caretaker.
Her mother never learned sign language, which made communication difficult growing up. Through her creative attempts to communicate with her mother, Kim slowly became the bridge between her mother and the outside world. She used art to create a better understanding between people, further drawing her to storytelling.
She went to Massachusetts College of Art for Photography where she also took acting classes at Emerson College. Much to the dismay of her mother, she was fought on going to art school. Eventually, her mother came around and became her biggest supporter. Early experiences of serving as a bridge enticed Kim to join the arts. Early in university, she was bit by the acting bug. Using photography, comedy, and acting to tell stories have always been her passion. After university, at the age of 23, she followed her heart to California with her high school sweetheart to pursue a career in acting.
Prior to moving to California, Kim felt torn between following her heart and staying at home to take care of her mother. She decided to follow her dreams. Kim’s carefree life in LA eventually took a turn. Around two years ago, in her early 30’s, she had a stroke and became very ill. Her health conditioned forced her to return to New Hampshire for a short period. This is when she noticed her mother continuously forgetting things. Her family told her she had nothing to worry about, but a doctor eventually told her mother she had a mild cognitive impairment. Struggling financially, Kim returned to LA and was unable to visit home again for almost a year. The emails from her mother became less frequent.
This past October, Kim took her mother to Puerto Rico after her father thought it might be a good idea. Her father knew her mother wasn’t quite right, but didn’t say anything more. “She’s fabulous by the way”, Kim tells me, “She was born in Puerto Rico in a teeny town called Lajas. It is in the mountains of Puerto Rico..her uncle was a priest and her aunt was a nun. The family was very religious and spiritual”.
During the trip to Puerto Rico, her mother couldn’t remember who she was. When she left New Hampshire, she knew everyone, but when she got to Puerto Rico, she had no idea who anyone was. Again, she felt like her mother’s caretaker.
During the days in Puerto Rico, Kim and her mother went behind her aunt’s house. The grass was overgrown and the paint was peeling, but it was a quiet and peaceful place. Everyday, they went to pray the resory, meditate or play with play-dough or crayons. Kim tried different types of therapy to find out what would help her mother’s memory the most.
On one of the last days, Kim asked her mother if there was anything she wanted to tell her from the trip. She said, “I made a really good friend”. “So that’s our relationship now”, Kim tells me,” I’m her really good friend”.
Suffering from dementia which grows worse day by day, Kim’s mother has no recollection of Kim or her sister’s childhood. “She doesn’t remember us growing up so that’s really strange”.
Late last year, Kim moved back to New Hampshire for a couple of months to spend more time taking care of her mother. “Never in my life has my mindfulness or improv practice, which I feel go together, have been so important. What I realized is that I have to be present every moment. As a new moment I never know what to expect, I just have to respond with love and patience. It doesn’t matter how she is acting towards me…you know you just have to be in her world and be okay with that. I love her just as much and I know she doesn’t know me as much, but I know she still loves me. If she didn’t it wouldn’t matter, I would still love her”.
During her time at home with her mother, Kim took pictures during their walks of appreciation. “I point out things that I think she will think are pretty…a house, flower, path, tree, baby...” Sometimes her mother will get into negative loops where she will be angry at someone who is already dead or at something that never happened. When Kim has her in the present moment, she realizes that this changes her mother’s state of mind.
They also started painting together. The appreciation of colors and using painting as a mindful practice also helps when her mother is having a difficult time. “They’re mostly abstract, but those are becoming a part of our story”. Now going back to California, she worries about her mother and what it will feel like to leave. “There is definitely more coming as far as the story”. Kim is not sure where her mother’s journey will go, but she does know it tells a powerful story of the unbreakable bond between a mother and daughter.
She hopes to one day tell her mother’s story to the world- a movie, art piece, or even a book. As for now, she hopes to spend more time with her mother, getting to know her story. “The say when you have dementia it brings out who you are. She is so sweet and kind. She is always concerned for other people even when they don’t need it. That’s really her true nature and it’s been beautiful for me to see that”.