Volunteer Videographer for a Children’s Mission in Vietnam – Part 1

As I walked past our community TV station for coffee several times a week, I kept looking at their offices and wondering, “Is there a way I can give Laverne and her children’s charity some airtime and visibility? Her charity, No Ordinary Journey Foundation (NOJF) is doing such cool work in Vietnam, helping children stricken with cerebral palsy (CP). Working for western’s Canada’s primary cable provider, I already had an in, knew many of the TV production staff and was just transitioning into my own videography sideline, after years speaking in Toastmasters and running my podcast series TDKtalks Softskills.

Knowing it could be a lot of work, I first asked Laverne if I can drop her name to the program manager. Sure, she said. I contacted the station manager Joe, and explained, as they were always looking for local success stories like NOJF to feature on their community TV station. He was interested and I setup a 1 hour exploratory meeting with the 3 of us. When meeting day came, I met Laverne at our main office, introduced her to Joe, our station manager and the meeting began.

Over the full hour, Laverne explained how her charity and purpose started, having a daughter with severe cerebral palsy. With dampened eyes, Joe said, “This would make a great story for us to profile on our TV series”. We were in. With application in-hand, our meeting was a success and moments after, both elated, as Laverne and I were walking out, she turned to me and asked, “Would you like to come along and be our videographer?” Never in my life did I respond “YES” so fast. Her next mission to Vietnam was only 4 months away. Did I have all the video gear I needed? Could I get 3 weeks off work? How was I going to tell my wife? 

Laverne’s charity missions were simple. Gathering local health care volunteers, being of physiotherapy, nurse and caregiver backgrounds, I was to be a fly on the wall, hovering over everyone with my video camera, catching them in action. In total there were 8 of us plus several young health care professionals “to-be” volunteers from Vietnam. The mission was for 3 weeks and comprised of delivering 2-day workshops at various rehabilitation hospitals across Vietnam. Having a main contact in Vietnam, up to 40 mothers and their cerebral palsy stricken  children would be sourced, invited and attending.

Our volunteers would lead them and their children in rotating 2-hour one-on-one breakout sessions, showing first-hand how to exercise their children and use mechanical aids to help them lead better and independent lives. As we all stayed in the same hotel, our daily routine began with a 6 am team breakfast in the restaurant. By 7 am we were on the road for a 1 hour ride to the rehab hospital. Up to 9 am the parents were arriving on their motorbikes with their children. With the local staff and officials, we would have a full room of near 60.

Introductions and an explanation of what and how NOJF does was done ceremoniously, with their local officials attending. But the best part, was when we handed the mic in orderly fashion to each mother, in sequence, to have them share with everyone, THEIR story; their story of how they first learned that their child had CP and would never get better. Several mothers broke down and cried. Than, our local expat who was our lead interpreter, leans over to me and says, “Some of these mothers are telling their stories in public for the first time. No one has ever asked them; No one has ever cared!” That revelation moved me and I knew my video story being captured is something the world needs to see and hear. Seeing those mothers holding their children, ranging in age from 8 months to 15 years was heart-breaking. But I knew this is what I wanted to do – capturing stories like this – their stories.

Our travelling 2-day missions took us from 2 hospitals in Saigon to 2 in Hue. Our days were long, arriving back at our hotel by 5 pm. I was on my feet the entire day, always moving and finding the most optimum video shot. I didn’t want to miss anything. During those full days we got to meet, talk and play with their children. The parents and children were treated to morning and afternoon snacks, including a full lunch, fully covered by the charity. It was a time for all of us to connect. At end of day, arriving at our hotel, we would all take 1 hour to freshen up and meet for dinner in the lobby. The best part was our daily debriefs during dinner, where each of us would talk in-turn about what we saw, learned and felt that day; sharing our feelings and observations. I was not left out, as I watched (and captured) everything on video. As a team we would always pick a different restaurant, café or street vendor to dine from. It was a time for all of us to bond and build. We were all here together, giving of our time, for these parents and children, of very modest means. By 9 pm, we would turn in, having spent the full day in non air conditioned rooms. With temperatures near 30C, it was the high humidity that was a killer. After most every lunch, many of the parents and children would have a 1-hour siesta, before starting our afternoon workshops. 

Back in my hotel room, my work was just beginning; doing backups, viewing my days videos and charging all my batteries for the next day. By 11 pm I was turning in. Never have I awoken to an alarm clock. So here, I always slept with the room lights low and the TV quietly on a local TV station I couldn’t understand. I slept until my first awakening, which was usually aroud 3 am. Arising, I would begin by constantly sipping water to prep for another long hot day. I archived each days videos into chronological folders, updated my index page, made notes and reviewed what I may have missed so I could capture that scene today. Each day I would shoot about 100 segments totalling several hours. By 6 am we would all gather for our buffet breakfast and chat. 

By 7 am we were on our van to start our new day. I kept that routine for nearly 3 weeks, sleeping only 4 hours daily. Never once did I ever feel tired. I was on a videographers’ dream mission of being embedded in the middle of this mission. Evenings and week-ends we would spend touring around Vietnam, shopping, talking to many locals, exploring their culture and trying their different foods. That is where my love for Vietnam began to build. I was raised happily and modestly in an agrarian prairie village of 400 back in Canada. So this was like going back to my childhood.  I loved the food, the smells and the people. Visiting markets and steet vendors I was always captivated by the many smiles. I made good on eye contact, as I couldn’t speak a single word in Vietnamese.

Another fantastic thing our mission did was have us break into groups of 3 or 4 and do home visits. Each of our groups would visit a pre-selected family, so our therapists can assess first-hand, what the parents and their children have for aids in their house and what their children may need. Some were within 15 minute walking, but some, like mine were especially challenging. If the 1 hour bus ride from our hotel to the rehab hospital wasn’t enough, it was the final 20 minute motorbike ride we made on a 5 foot wide concrete pathway meandering through lush growth and waters in the Mekong Delta. A final 10 minute walk across a monkey bridge to a 2 room, grass walled, hard packed dirt floor to meet a 16 year old boy, Canh and his family. Born with his limbs mangled, he had to be carried everywhere and placed into his sitting position.

Once inside, we were met with nearly 15 of the family and friends for a 2 hour meeting and interview which I was excited to video. When we came into the house, a quick tour led us to meet Canh their son. When I shook his hand and first made eye contact, my father-in-law’s face flashed before me. My father-in-law back in Canada had a similar warm glow with soft smile that Canh reminded me of. My father-in-law was also severly stricken with a cousin neurological disease, Multiple Sclerosis. It was both moving and significant; leaving an impression on me which was to fully develop next morning.

A highlight for us was that a producer and cameraman from VTV4, Vietnam’s International english broadcaster based in Hanoi, would be following us for several days to do a documentary about No Ordinary Journey Foundation for airing on their local stations. With my 6 minute tribute video to our team, “Hue in a Day Part 1” it was decided by our local TV station back at home to use mine as an intro to their documentary, and with their permission, it was aired on Global Calgary in Western Canada. For extra video clips, I created “Hue in a Day Part 2”. To view other videos I made while in Vietnam, please visit “Video-Connects” on YouTube.

It was now Friday, the last day of our mission. After the week-end of cultural exploration we would be flying back to Canada early Monday morning. Slowly pulling ourselves together at 7 am in the lobby of our hotel, to collect for breakfast, I called my wife back in Canada to say hello and update her about our mission. Long before I left, we both decided to make a donation for a wheelchair purchase on this mission; a wheelchair that would be given to a most needy CP child who could not walk. But we never spoke about this anymore. On that call my wife said she finally went online and contributed, which was confirmed by Laverne with thanks, moments later.

I shared my meeting Canh on our previous day home visit. I told her how her fathers’ face flashed before me when I met and shook Canh’s hand. She replies, “Funny thing – this day of March 4, was exactly 4 months to the day, that her father with MS that I spoke of above, passed away. Being in Vietnam nearly 3 weeks, today being the last day of our mission, all tired and achieved with many memories and experiences, as this revelation now confirming “a sign” – that what I was doing in Vietnam was right and good. I was in my element – what I was born to do – and I wanted to continue to do going forward – capturing real stories of real people – on the ground floor with video camera in-hand and narrated stories – hearing stories no one has ever heard, no one has ever shared, because no one has ever cared to ask.

After our 1 hour drive to our last rehab hospital workshop, we sat outside watching all the parents bringing their children on motorbikes for our last session. On this mission we were fortunate to have from Australia, Dr Barry Rawicki, Medical Director of Paediatric Rehabilitation at the Monash Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia. Dr Rawicki was assessing the CP children with severe mobility on his flat table. Canh was being carried up the stairs. It was now his turn on the table. After his 10 minute assessment while twisting, turning and flexing Canh’s limbs, Dr Rawicki turns to Laverne and says, “There is nothing we can do for this boy, but he does need a wheelchair”. That’s when Laverne enlightens Dr Rawicki with the arrival of our wheelchair donation just that morning. She turns to me and asks, “Do you want your wheelchair donation to go to Canh?” With passion I say, “Yes, of course. Canh is the 16 year old boy we did our home visit with just yesterday”. Small world – how the dots connect.

With our 3 week mission winding down, everything came together for me. On that last day, my story not only surfaced, but solidified and was confirmed. My father-in-law’s passing 4 months ago was but a gateway of “paying it forward” to Canh here in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam, with our gift of a wheelchair. This wheelchair would mean his parents wouldn’t have to carry him around and would give Canh independence so he could wheel himself around their yard. My story was just scripted. I came here to capture a story, but as a bonus, and even bigger, my story of signs, purpose and mission surfaced. For me it was a clear “sign” which I turned into a speech delivery for several of our local speaking events back in Calgary. This children’s charity mission was also the official birth and launch of my videography business – Video-Connects.

This 3-week volunteer mission was an eye opener for me. I got to experience first-hand the challenges that parents and their children with Cerebral Palsy (CP) endure. Not only did I learn the power of video, I also learned about the warm culture of Vietnam, its’ people and their food. I was certainly sold and already wanted to come back and do more work capturing these stories on video. Nothing could beat the closing sign I had on my very last day of our work shop when my home visit was in meeting Canh and his family deep in the Mekong Delta of Southern Vietnam.

Signs is what I firmly believe each and every one of us has, to help guide us forward with what we should do in our life journey. It was a story I now had to capture in video. With that closing day, Laverne invited me to come back with them a year later to video my story on their follow-up mission. That would be my 2nd mission with this charity in August of 2015. Stay tuned for Part 2.

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Written by My Huynh
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As a local expert of Vietnam, born and raised in Saigon, I am proud of my homeland's majestic mountains, dreamy rivers, and abundant forests and seas. Every corner of Vietnam carries a heroic historical story I always wanted to share.