News - January 26, 2024 | 07:00 pm PT

Da Nang school opens new chapter for orphans

At a school dedicated to children orphaned by Covid, a distressing chapter of their lives is closed so they can move on to a journey full of hope.

At 5:30 a.m. one Sunday, 13-year-old Ba Thong asked his teacher to be excused from class so he and his team could complete their unfinished robot project. With the teacher's approval, the boy went knocking on each of his teammates' doors. Six children with drowsy faces then hurried to the robot lab.

"Let's take it all apart and redo it," Thong said, eyes fixed on the nearly completed robot that had yet to reach the test run stage.

The whole team agreed.

Having taken part in a robotics program the previous afternoon, they were aware of the shortcomings of their product, which they had built over four months of arguing and agreeing with each other.

With just over 10 days left until the national robotics championship, everyone wanted the product to be in its best shape.

The children’s participation in the tournament is the pride of Hope School - where 230 children orphaned by Covid, from 41 provinces and cities across the country, study and live together. More than two years after the pandemic, the children, under the guidance of their teachers, have overcome pains together, and each has matured in their own way.

Hope School was opened by FPT Corporation in Da Nang to receive Covid-19 orphans from across Vietnam, providing care and education for them until they turn 18.

Three members of the Robotics Club at Hope School: Ba Thong (R), Ky Hao (C), and Quoc Bao (L).

The kids are busy

The robotics club’s base was a 25-square-meter room, with the floor filled with plastic assembly bars, gears, pulleys, and metal shafts. Thong was the team leader, responsible for programming the "brain" of the product and overall coordination. Quoc Bao, Ky Hao and Le Phat, all 14 years of age, shared the installation tasks. Gia Bao, 12, was in charge of progress tracking, while Thanh Son, 14, monitored the whole process to detect and correct errors.

The children meticulously pieced together each plastic rod, gear, screw... Every part of the robot was carefully examined, ensuring there was not a single redundant detail.

"I set a goal of being in the top 50," Thong said.

At last year's National Robotics Championship, Thong's team ranked 56th out of 150 teams from 30 provinces and cities after their robot broke down while moving, forcing the team to reassemble it last minute. This time around, the team want to have everything under control.

When Thong set foot in the Hope School in 2022, he did not imagine himself assembling a robot. His biggest passion at that time was video games - something that soothed the sadness of losing his father, and then of leaving his mother and younger brother to live in a strange place. One day, his teacher caught him sitting in the hallway, crying silently. Many times, Thong asked the teacher to go home to "help my mother make money."

Thong’s father, a truck driver, died of Covid in August 2021, leaving his wife to pay installments for a loan he borrowed to buy the truck.

Ba Thong and his younger brother Ba Toan on a phone call with their mother. Every weekend, Hope School students are given two hours of cell phone access to contact their families.

Gradually, Thong grew accustomed to the new school. The robot club became a replacement for homesickness and gaming time.

His mother Nguyen Thi Ai Nhan was surprised to learn that her child could assemble his own robot and even make it to the national competition. Back at home, the two children just hung around their mother's food stall, spent time on their phones, and watched TV. Building robots is a luxury hobby because the price of a set of components can cost up to several tens of millions (VND10 million = US$400).

In the two years Thong has studied at Hope School, Nhan clearly saw her son's growth through every phone call, especially the way he became someone for his younger brother to rely on. Toan enrolled in Hope School a year after him, and also spent weeks missing home. Every night at bedtime, he would hold his brother and cry non-stop. Ba Thong would pat his head and comfort him: "Hush now, dad is still with us."

He taught his brother the method that had helped him pull through: study.

In addition to mandatory school activities, Thong signed his 7-year-old brother up for a variety of extracurricular clubs.

The children at Hope School lead a busy life. They are divided into 5 teams, namely, Huong Giang and Han Giang for girls, and Truong Giang, Tien Giang and Hau Giang for boys. Each group has roughly 40 students, led by a pair of supervising teachers (one male, one female). The teams are named after rivers since the teachers want their students to be as resilient as water.

At Hope School, students do almost everything they can themselves. Their mornings start at 5:30 a.m., when students wake each other up to do activities according to the schedule set at the beginning of the week: jogging, watering the plants, sweeping the yard, or gardening - in rotation. All activities end at 6:00 a.m. so they can prepare for regular classes. At 4:00 p.m., the children walk back together to their rooms. Before dinner, students have about an hour of leisure time, followed by self-study time or tutoring classes.

Nhat Quang, 13, started learning to play the piano after entering Hope School in August 2023. Now, he can perform 5 pieces.

The children are not only occupied with the tight schedule from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., but also with an array of afterschool activities: robotics, music, carpentry, growing succulents, baking, sewing, soap making, volleyball, badminton, table tennis, vovinam, taekwondo, basketball, shuttlecock, etc.

On weekends, their schedules are fixed with vocational activities or experiences in nature.

"If they are physically busy, they will have less on their minds," supervising teacher Phan Thanh Phu, 30, said of the tight schedule created to help the children recover from distressing memories.

After two years, Hope School has welcomed four batches of students, each of them experiencing initial homesickness to a certain extent.

Each person on a team plays a role - one teacher is as tough as a father, the other is gentle like a mother, and teammates are like siblings to each other. Each four students of different age ranges are placed into the same dorm room so that the older can help out the young ones.

"Teachers are only guides, they cannot hold each child's hand and lead them along. Maturity is each child’s individual process," said Phu.

The journey of growth

On the first weekend of January 2024, rain was still pouring when nearly 40 boys from the Truong Giang platoon flocked down to the Joy Garden. Their assignment was to reclaim the land in the corner of the garden to prepare for a new crop of plants. The garden is more than 2,000-square-meters wide and is divided among five teams to plant and take care of themselves.

Each assumed a job: the younger ones raked the ground and cleared the grass, the older ones carried the large wooden trees that were lying around and gathered them in a corner. Everyone was sweaty, their limbs smelled of sand and soil. On the other side of the garden, a few girls from the Han Giang team were surrounded by colorful palettes as they drew the names of each plant bed on wooden boards.

Among the five gardens, Huong Giang's vegetable beds stand out from the rest – the sand is raised high, neat and tidy. Vegetables are planted in straight rows like a troop lining up. 13-year-old girl Doan Truc Quyen is in charge of this "farming household."

At first, gardening felt like a punishment to Quyen. But over time, she began to fall in love with the garden.

"The teacher said that plants can talk. They can even grow quickly if you praise them. So, every time I take care of baby plants, I tell them 'grow quickly', and they grow more rapidly indeed," Quyen said.

After a month, Quyen became the team's skilled gardener, mastering every step of the plant growing process: from making beds, sowing seeds, watering, fertilizing, to harvesting. Quyen said whether a plant survives or not depends on whether the person planting it is lazy or diligent.

She supervises the team members in following the correct formula for each type of plant: spinach must be sown in a perforated pattern, Malabar spinach is sown in rows, and each plant needs a different amount of water... Gradually, Quyen won over many new plant-loving "followers" on the team.

"Every time I step into the garden, I feel relieved, I forget all my sadness," the 13-year-old girl said. She was speaking about her new passion while her bare hands dug through the sand on the newly planted vegetable bed.

Among the dozens of activities that Hope School teachers designed for its students, gardening was the most special. Hoang Quoc Quyen, Hope School Project Director - who has followed the children since day one, said the idea of a garden originated from the fact that teachers wanted students to learn how to coexist with nature.

The children orphaned by Covid are mostly children from working-class migrants who came from farming backgrounds, but left the fields to come to the city to work as manual laborers or informal workers, living in stuffy rented rooms measuring just a few square meters, dreaming of changing their lives. Growing up within the four concrete walls of a rented room, trees and plants, which were the children’s roots, became strange. Hope School teachers want to close that gap.

The journey was not easy. At first, most of the children were tired of doing dirty work. It was not until they harvested the first batch of vegetables and enjoyed the fruits they produced that the children began to feel the joy of planting.

Quyen said that the 30-45-day span from the time of digging the soil and planting the first seed, until the time of harvest, is a journey of experience for the children. Students learned discipline, because just one day of neglect will cause the plants to wither, They learned to cooperate with a team, because one cannot take care of the whole garden alone. They learned to understand, because if you care for it the wrong way, the plant will not grow. They learned to be patient, because results don't come right away, you have to wait.

"This is not only a garden, but also a place of therapy and healing for children. Education is similar to gardening. Only love and patience can make a plan grow lush. This can also be applied to children," said Quyen.

Definition of love

Hoang Quoc Quyen (blue shirt, C) spends time hanging out with students every day.

Hope School started with the goal of raising 1,000 orphans due to Covid, and the institution is now a fourth of the way there. After four enrollment seasons, from the first 34 children, Hope School now has 230 students, each with distinct personalities. Some did all kinds of things to incite their friends to violate school regulations. Some were addicted to video games and secretly used their phones without the teachers’ permission. Some even smoked, egging others on. Each age group has its own type of problems and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

But Quyen recognized a pattern in the children's behavior: it changes when they feel loved. For them, love is quantified by time. It is the time adults spend listening to them chatter away about all kinds of stories, and the effort they make to memorize each child's name, age, place of origin, background, talents, bad habits and suspended penalties...

Hope School only has 12 resident teachers, but students can find teachers anywhere, at any time. In each team's building block, the teacher’s room is always open, with lights on all night. Every night, the children come in and out countless times.

"What the children need is an adult’s time and companionship, we don't let the children feel abandoned. If each of their experiences includes your presence, they will feel loved," Quyen said.

"The kids don't realize how fast they've grown up," supervising teacher Cap Nguyen Thanh Nguyen talked about her students' changes.

The 28-year-old teacher still remembers her first day at school. The thing that surprised her the most was how the children welcomed a stranger. Anyone who saw her from afar would shout "hello," sometimes accompanied by an enthusiastic wave. Even though they didn't know who she was or where she came from, they still welcomed her as if they were family.

During half a year working at school, the children were also the "teachers" who taught her the most things. They showed her how to get used to the school's routine, taught her how to garden, clean... It was also the children who helped her ease homesickness when she first left her hometown of Vung Tau and moved to Da Nang for work.

"They saw that I was skinny, weighing only 37 kg. Every time we met, they would ask if I had eaten yet, or when they saw that I was sad, they would ask: 'Who made you cry?' Sometimes it felt as if they were protecting me," the young teacher said.

Even though everyone seemed more mature than their age, to her, they were still innocent children. During last year’s Vu Lan festival, which is an occasion for Vietnamese to commemorate their parents, dead or alive, Nguyen asked each child to write a letter to express gratitude to their parents. As soon as they heard the topic, someone innocently asked: "Are you writing for the living or the dead?" They all laughed, and the teacher froze - half amused, half downhearted because she felt sorry for the children. She admires her students - children who are not only tough enough to make their loss seem normal, but also soft enough to share it with those around them.

She doesn't know if time has healed their wounds, because there is no time limit for grief or loss, but she knows her students have persevered and stood tall.

The Tet Lunar New Year holiday is only three weeks away, which means the students get to go home. Everyone is excitedly counting down the days, preparing stories to tell their parents and relatives about their school journey in the past semester.

One student has meticulously sewn a cute little item for his mother, another painstakingly assembled a small model for his younger sister, and one hopes the vegetable garden will grow quickly so that it can be harvested in time to give to teachers for Tet. That's how the children "repay love with love," a phrase they also wrote on the wall of the school gate during the first days of school.

Story: Thu Hang
Photos and Video: Nguyen Dong, Thu Hang

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