When Holt staff member Billie Loewen delivers a uniform to a young girl in Vietnam, she also gets a glimpse of how one small act of kindness can forever change the course of someone’s life.
I know how powerful your gifts, as donors, can be because I’ve been blessed to visit families and children who have received them — and on one especially wonderful occasion, I got to deliver a gift to one particularly sweet and inspirational 15-year-old girl.
When I met Nhi, it was a hot, humid afternoon in late June. My husband and I traveled to Vietnam on our honeymoon, but took a couple extra days to visit with children and families in Holt’s programs. This is one of my favorite parts of working for Holt. I am inspired by the families in our programs. They have big dreams and work harder than most anyone I’ve ever met. They take the small investment or hand-up we provide and completely transform their lives and the lives of their families and communities. I meet mothers, fathers and grandparents who sacrifice everything to provide for their children and grandchildren the opportunities they never had. Many of the parents and grandparents in our programs have survived unspeakable atrocities. War, violence, oppression, the worst kind of poverty. And children seem so much older than their chronological age. They take on adult chores and responsibilities from a young age.
Nhi was no different.
At 14, she was tremendously quiet and absolutely beautiful, but understated in her appearance. In contrast to many American girls, Nhi didn’t wear makeup, anything brand-name or jewelry. Her slick black hair met at the nape of her neck in a low ponytail. She wore simple jeans, flip flops and a polka dot T-shirt.
Just weeks before I arrived at her home in Danang, Vietnam, Nhi received some incredible news. After weeks and weeks of studying for her high school exams, Nhi received her test scores.
She had done so well that she was invited to attend not just one, but her choice of several high schools for gifted and talented, top-performing students in the country.
As an orphan, this was an absolutely incredible accomplishment. With a good education, polite and shy Nhi could change the course of her future in a big way. This was her best possible opportunity to escape the clutches of poverty forever.
But there was one hurdle — and it nearly held her back from attending high school at all. The cost of a $15 uniform.
Nhi lives with her two aunts — middle-aged sisters who never married — as well as her three brothers and sisters and her grandmother. They share a small, three-room home in a bustling area of town along a thin street lined with rows of shops that are connected to concrete dwellings.
Nhi’s aunts are both short, stout women whose kindness is evident on first meeting. They took Nhi and her siblings in after their father died in 2014. Their mother had died years before and the death of their father left them all alone.
Nhi’s aunts didn’t make much money. Each day, they made traditional Vietnamese lunch foods and worked hard to sell it to neighbors or nearby construction crews. Sometimes, they would work for eight hours and make a dollar or two. Other days, they would work for 14 hours and make less.
So, while both women were willing to provide a home for their four nieces and nephews, they had no idea how they would provide for them. How would they pay their school fees, which can be as much as $100 per year? How would they provide enough food for four extra mouths?
Holt heard about this family and their difficult situation. We knew we could help, thanks to the generous gifts of Holt sponsors and donors.
One of Holt’s on-the-ground advocates in Danang visited the family to assess their space and their potential to earn a better income. Seeing the aunt’s food business, he knew he could help them grow it for a small investment.
With about $250, Holt helped the family purchase a food cart, some small tables and chairs and some other basic cooking tools to turn the sidewalk outside Nhi’s home into a lovely street café — much more welcoming to costumers than the basic setup they currently had. Holt’s staff in Vietnam also provided business training to the aunts so they could grow their confidence and grow their profits.
And it worked!
The aunts’ income more than doubled in a short period of time. Then, it tripled. Now they earn sufficient income to provide basic necessities for all their nieces and nephews. With the help of child sponsorship, the children’s school fees are also covered from term to term.
But still, money is very tight. Nhi’s aunts normally make her school uniforms to keep costs low. While it may seem nominal, $15 is a tremendous amount of money for many families living in developing countries — especially for families and children in Holt’s programs. This is more than they spend on food in a month. Often, it’s nearly a quarter of their monthly living expenses or more, depending on location.
In Vietnam, it is not uncommon for children to drop out of school very young to begin working — even children who show incredible academic promise. For a student like Nhi, there are many pressures to leave school and very few encouragements to stay. The cost of a uniform becomes an even greater barrier. Out of guilt, many children feel compelled to start contributing to the family income before they graduate, rather than spending extra resources on much-needed school supplies.
But for children growing up in poverty, their best chance at escaping it for good is to stay in school as long as possible.
Waiting inside the bottom floor of their small home, Nhi’s aunts greeted me excitedly and shook my hands. They hugged me again and again with big, bright smiles. When Nhi stepped forward — actually, she was pushed forward by both her aunts — she kept her head low and bowed politely. She spoke so quietly, I had to lean in to hear her words. At the urging of her advocate, Nhi spoke in English. Obviously uncomfortable, her cheeks flushed, but she spoke so well and clearly.
I told Nhi I had heard about her incredible test scores and she immediately dropped her eyes toward the ground in embarrassment. But a megawatt smile simultaneously erupted across her face. Her cheeks flushed even brighter.
I handed her a small, wrapped package, which she took with clear curiosity.
Open it, I urged her.
She politely tore one corner of the paper away to reveal a small piece of cloth. She pulled the paper back and, recognizing the item as the school uniform she needed, her eyes brightened. She looked at me in utter disbelief while her aunts chattered happily behind us.
She hugged me with one almost uncontrolled lurch forward. You could see the relief she felt. It nearly melted off her tiny frame.
That’s the power of a simple gift — a gift of hope, and a gift of opportunity. It lets a kid be a kid. It let Nhi continue to dream about what her future might hold.
Billie Loewen | Creative Lead