I remember the first time I visited the Phap Vo Orphanage with our students. We arrived with a box full of treats, some planned activities and the best intentions. It began quite awkwardly. The girls at the orphanage were shy. The students weren’t really sure what to do. Slowly some social interactions started happening and both sides tentatively participated in the games but considering that our students and the girls spoke the same language, it was clear that though our hearts were in the right place, we needed to reflect and redirect if we were going to develop an authentic community partnership between AISVN and Phap Vo.
Our breakthrough came when we started asking what they needed from us rather than telling them what we could do for them. We found out that the girls really needed rice and fruit instead of the candy and sweets other organizations were always bringing them. We found out that as they were all girls, supplying them with feminine products was always appreciated. And we found out most importantly that the girls needed ongoing time, dedication, and commitment more than for a group of strangers to show up and show off. The girls needed to know that we would be there more than once a year and that we cared enough to learn about their needs and wants over a long period of time. I realized we needed to shift our mindset from “us” and “them” to “we” if this new relationship was to turn into a long-lasting partnership.
Over the years with Phap Vo, they have taught us that:
Trust Matters: Community partnerships often involve complex interactions and an uncertain progression. Misconceptions and misunderstandings have naturally popped up on occasion as we have visited the orphanage more frequently. Trust would have been lost easily if both sides were not committed to achieving common goals and able to trust each other with our intentions.
Culture Matters: One consideration, with the girls and with our students, is what messages are we sending implicitly or explicitly when we provide a service or activity? We have learned to avoid promoting ideals that are too simplistic or materialistic and instead seek to establish a common culture of awareness, open-mindedness, respect, and positivity.
Consistency Matters: We have involved many teachers throughout the years but our local staff involvement has been consistent. Ongoing 2 way communication has been essential as Phap Vo informs us of when to visit the orphanage so as not to disrupt their routines and helps us better understand the changes that these girls may be going through over time.
Reflection Matters: We are constantly reflecting on our practices to make sure that the partnership remains strong and effective. For example, recently we found that our “craft night” was a bit too disruptive for their studies during the weeknights and so we moved it to the weekends, where the students could enjoy the fun and exciting activities more fully.
Establishing, building, and maintaining the relationship with the girls at Phap Vo orphanage has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I love these girls truly and am so proud when I see our students providing the girls with opportunities and activities that provide great memories that we will all cherish. It is not always easy but as we have learned to look at the relationship as an equal partnership, it has always been worth it!