A Visit to the Ben Tre Work Camp
A Visit to the Ben Tre Work Camp – by Jay Roussel
My 2003 visit to the Sunflower Mission work camp at Ben Tre was my first visit to Vietnam. The trip was short, but in that period I fell in love with the beautiful country and became convinced of the importance of Sunflower Mission. I developed a sense of wonder at the richness of the culture, the friendliness and resilience of the people, the diversity of its agriculture, and, of course, the tastiness of its food. But at the same time, I was deeply moved by the poverty I saw everywhere—poverty that forces a person to think of survival at every moment.
Trying to explain why the poverty exists would only trivialize it. But I was struck by it. In Nha Trang, for example, I saw not only foreign tourists but also many begging children. At a restaurant I noticed that table scraps were placed outside the restaurant, not for cats and dogs but for hungry children. That was my moment of conversion to help the children of Vietnam. I wondered how much Sunflower Mission could do to change what I saw.
The Sunflower Mission school projects I visited were in Mocay District in Ben Tre Province. Every night our group of Vietnamese and American volunteers slept at a hotel in Ben Tre. In the mornings we would drive about 45 minutes (including a ferry ride) to reach the work site. Mocay District is a fairly rural area. The children are not accustomed to seeing foreigners. Anxious to speak English, they would often call out, “Hello” and “What your name?” A non-Vietnamese person stands out there, but the people were so friendly that I began to feel at home. People who had nothing were happy to offer much. I was deeply touched. I could not count the many coconuts I drank and ate. They insisted I take it easy and enjoy my time there. However, I was there to learn as much as to help. I wanted to see how they lived. I did. And on many occasions I had to resist the impulse to cry. Their desperation is often so stark (average house-hold income is $200 per year) that some residents flee to endure homelessness in Saigon. I sighed to think I spend that much at Starbucks each year.
It would be easy to ask, Why schools? Why not healthcare, sewage, running water? Farm equipment? All would be valid and noble. But without education, no other contribution can be made fully effective. Without education, all other efforts will fade or fall flat. Without education, the future will always be the past. At Sunflower Mission, we show children a bigger world and inspire them with the hope of prosperity. We are changing not merely the immediate condition of each child, but the future of the people.
Yes, during my visit I prayed for hope. For without hope, I could never again endure the faces of the children of Vietnam. There are no easy answers. But having a tangible, measurable tool for change in Sunflower Mission, I have more hope than ever before. I hope you do too.