'A mother cries because her autistic son can't come to my school in Vietnam'


I work at a school and support centre for children with disabilities in central Vietnam. When I arrive at work, Hang, our admin assistant, is filling out an admission form with a young mother who sits answering questions, tears rolling down her cheeks. She has a four-year-old son on the autism spectrum; his behaviour is extreme and she has no idea how to help him. Hang dutifully takes her details but with 200 children on our waiting list, it is unlikely her son will be coming to our centre any time soon. She is poor and cannot afford to send her son to any of the private special schools springing up.


It is time for me to update donors about some of the children they sponsor. Some of them want frequent updates which often tests my creativity, as our students do not generally develop quickly. But there is some progress to report. One of our students who has autism has uttered his first words, and a little girl with cerebral palsy who could not walk is now taking her first wobbly steps. The milestones may be few and far between, but when they come, they remind all of us why we do what we do.


Among today’s emails is one of the frequent requests from a tour operator to allow their tourists to visit our centre. I try to explain that our pupils are not a tourist attraction, but they always just think I am mean when I refuse. Following this, me and my manager, Quyen, meet with the mother of one of our non-verbal pupils and try to persuade her not to spend her life savings on expensive herbs that will purportedly magically make her child speak. She remains unconvinced.


Three families are at the centre today, seeking help for their children. Their names go on the waiting list. One family has brought their child along, a six-year-old girl with Down’s syndrome. She is both delightful and delighted to be playing in our playground. It is always so much worse when people bring the children with them and you can see how easy it would be to help them. As usual, I turn to Quyen and say: “Couldn’t we just … ? Couldn’t we just fit one more in?” But I know I can’t do that to our already overburdened teachers, whose classrooms are already full to bursting.

Kianh Foundation in central Vietnam

‘It is always worse when people bring their children and you can see how easy it would be to help them.’ Photograph: Emil Hammarstrom


I have a meeting with my two British colleagues to drink a shedload of coffee and think of new ways to inspire people to support our centre financially, and not just with toys, clothes and sweets. My motorbike breaks down on an empty road five kilometres from the meeting place, but luckily in Vietnam, help is never far away. A fellow biker stops and pushes me to the meeting with his foot on the back of my dead bike.

Chris tells me about the grants he has been working on that have come to nothing and the emails which have been ignored, while Nick presents me with a sobering view of our accounts, which is something I, in return, try to ignore. It is too depressing to tell them about how the waiting list continues to grow, so I don’t. We drink yet more coffee and await wild inspiration, convinced that money and support for all the children we work with is out there if only we can find a way to reach it.

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