HCMC Dining Guide

Saturday, May 14, 2011


"...It is our mission to restore dignity and hope to young people in Vietnam affected by AIDS, through financial, educational, moral and psychological support, and to help prevent the spread of AIDS." - Smile Group mission statement.
Tucked away in a quiet alley in District 1 is the Smile Group, a local organization that works with poor children, and their families, that have been impacted by HIV/AIDS. 30% of the kids are infected themselves, and 100% either have infected parents, or have already lost parents to the terrible disease. Some of the children live with adopted families, while others live with relatives, and all fall under the poverty line.

Fighting HIV/AIDS is difficult enough in a rich country like the U.S., but in Vietnam, where the average annual income is just over $3,000 (Compare that to America's average, which is $47,000.), few people have the financial resources to pay for the treatment necessary to battle the condition. Not to mention, the health system here is still "third-world", so even if one could afford the latest treatments, they may not be available. While Smile Group does not have the funding to simply pay for full treatment, they offer a wide variety of assistance: they visit homes to determine how the children are doing; they give advice on possible treatment options; they educate people on HIV/AIDS prevention; and they provide scholarships and micro-loans for students.

A few weeks ago, I began volunteering at this amazing organization. I've been wanting to give something back to the community for a while, and Smile Group offers the perfect opportunity to do just that. I teach some of the younger kids English on Saturday mornings, and I've participated in a few other activities with them as well. The kids are wonderful: respectful, enthusiastic, hilarious, and extremely friendly. After my class, which is in the morning, another volunteer comes in to do an art activity with them. After that, the children are served what is, most likely, their best meal of the week. Last week we had a feast of rice, steamed spinach, boiled fish, hard boiled eggs, and tomato soup. That is one of the things I most like about Smile - it is a place where the children can come and feel like they are at home: eat a good meal, play with the kittens that live there, get smothered in affection, etc.

On the first Sunday of every month, everyone goes to the zoo to play games, such as a relay and a three-legged race. Afterwards, we go swimming at the pool behind the zoo, which at that time is open only to those associated with the organization. This summer, some of the kids will be able to go on a trip to Da Lat, a mountain town a few hours north of Saigon. This will probably be the first time any of them have left the city.

Interacting with the kids that end up at Smile is an amazing experience, although it can also be heart-breaking. For example, a few weeks ago I was doing a lesson on things in a house: bed, sofa, TV, sink, toilet, etc. We were going around the room, taking turns saying what we had in our house, when one of the girls piped in with "But teacher, I don't have a bed!!" I'm not really sure how you respond to something like that. Despite the hardships these children have endured, and will continue to endure, they are almost always laughing or smiling, and their enthusiasm for life, especially in the face such difficulties, is infectious.

The Smile Group was founded by Thay Hung, a Vietnamese man that contracted HIV through a heroin addiction. He cleaned up his life and decided to help those that were going through the same ordeal that he was. To learn more about Hung, check out this documentary, which is part of PBS's 'Global Voices' series: http://itvs.org/films/teacher.

If you would like to do something to help those affected by HIV/AIDS in Vietnam, please send a donation to:
"Friends of Thay Hung" - The Smile Group
Dr. Christian Le
402 NW Dover St.
Portland, OR 97210
There is also far more information available on the group's website: http://www.smilegroupvn.org/.
Here are some pictures from what I've seen so far:
My eager students.

Huy practicing his signature.

Game time at the zoo!

Last week, Duoc, the affable Vietnamese fellow that runs the programs (and doesn't have the use of his legs), played a Vietnamese folk dance on the TV, while the kids acted it out in the classroom. Here is one of the videos I took of their performance. I have another one where they do a hilarious dance involving some impressive breakdancing, but Blogger's video uploader is being stupid.
And, to give your heartstrings one final tug, a typical story involving the people Smile Group helps: Huy (from the pictures above), who is HIV+,  has been raised by his mother (Thu), who is also HIV+, for most of his life. His father died of AIDS. Thu met a man named Ngoc a year ago. Both Ngoc and his young son have AIDS. Ngoc and Thu are set to get married in June, but last week Thu was diagnosed with aggressive cervical cancer. The doctors won't operate on her, since she has AIDS, and chemotherapy is incompatible with the medication she is taking. So, Thu has chosen to be treated at an area church that claims to perform miracles. She is awaiting further medical advice.

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