For the past 14 years, Trịnh Thị Sơn has bathed her son and fed him. She has carried him to the rice fields because he can barely walk and to the market because no one is willing to watch him. At home, she has to watch him constantly or he will crawl away.
“I feel sad that my son has this disability and sometimes I don’t like it at all,” says Sơn as tears flow. “I wish I could give him my brain so he would know everything.”
Huỳnh Quang Phi Long’s mental and physical disabilities, like most suffered by people in Quang Ngai Province, Vietnam, are linked to the extensive use of dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange, one of several herbicides used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. For Sơn, though, the cause is not as significant as the emotional and economic pressures of today.
With Long needing constant care, Sơn could not do much to help her husband, a security guard, support Long and their other son and her elderly in-laws, with whom they live. Until recently, the family had only just enough money to feed themselves, she says, but not for Long’s medical care and certainly not for the care he will need in the future.
About 25,000 families in Quang Ngai Province live with disabilities, most associated with Agent Orange.
“I am afraid that one day I will die. Who is going to take care of my children?” Sơn asks, openly sobbing.
The cries of Sơn and others who have family members with disabilities are all too common.
MCC is responding by supporting two initiatives of partner Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA) — a daytime care centre and a cow bank program — that help families better support themselves now and increase their economic capacity for the future.
Sơn certainly is not alone. About 25,000 families in Quang Ngai Province have family members with disabilities, most associated with exposure to Agent Orange, according to Phan Thanh Long, chairman of VAVA in Quang Ngai. (See an MCC video showing stories of more families.)
The province was sprayed heavily with Agent Orange to clear vegetation during the war, affecting civilians and soldiers on both sides of the conflict. And the horror continues, with birth defects, cancers and neurological disorders affecting young people born long after the war ended.
Collective evidence from multiple studies has led scientists, doctors and others, including the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, to associate a variety of health conditions with exposure to dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange. The effects can be passed on from parent to child and can even skip a generation.
Huỳnh Quang Phi Long, 14, whose disabilities are attributed to his grandmother’s exposure, started going to VAVA’s daytime care centre three months after it opened in February 2015. Each day, caregivers greet him. They support him while he walks or help him into a wheelchair, feed him lunch, interact with him and help him to use the exercise equipment.
While Long is taken care of, Sơn can focus on her work in the rice field. And she took on a second job, cleaning a secondary school, which earns her an extra 800,000 dong (U.S.$40) each month.
“Now with this money, I can buy vitamins, and when my children are sick, I can bring them to see the doctor and pay the bill,” she says. Eventually, she would like to start a small business selling candy at the school.
MCC provided a clean water system and exercise equipment for the centre and funding for local doctors to train staff and families in physical therapy techniques. In 2016, a new MCC worker, who is an occupational therapist, is scheduled to begin working with the centre.
“It’s like we have a spark that has started burning,” says VAVA’s Chairman Long. “MCC made it like a flame. We want to have that flame to help many other people and care for other people.”
That’s how MCC works alongside partners around the world — helping an initiative to grow by matching the expertise, passion and local connections of the partner with MCC’s funding, people and experience in development.
“When designing and implementing projects, we want to invest in building a partner’s capacity throughout the project,” says Karen Treadway, an MCC Vietnam representative from Hillsboro, Ore. “That way, the partner is equipped to keep fanning and feeding the flame long after MCC’s part of the project is completed, and even to begin new sparks in other areas of their own communities.”
The cow bank that MCC supports through VAVA started with another small spark in 2015, with just 20 families who received a female cow, a larger investment than families could make on their own.
When that cow has its first calf, its owner gives the calf to repay the loan. Female calves are given directly to other families affected by Agent Orange. VAVA sells male calves to help purchase a female calf for a family.
In 2016 and 2017, 40 more families will get cows and they will pass on the firstborn calf.
Ultimately, the hope is that every family affected by Agent Orange in this area will own a cow, says Vương Quốc Chiến, MCC project manager.
“Even though the investment of the cows is very small, it has a lot of meaning,” says VAVA Chairman Long. “The final results will become very big.”
That’s exactly what Phùng Thị Tuyết hopes for. Her 19-year-old son, born with brain damage and a disfiguring muscular disease, spends his days lying on a woven grass mat, communicating by smiles and moans.
Tuyết supplements the family’s income by growing specialty mushrooms, but she worries about a crisis, like the flood that damaged their house a few years ago, and about how her son will be taken care of when she and her husband can no longer do it.
“I want to have a saving pot, like cows and more cows, and one day when we need money, we will sell them,” Tuyết says. “When I die in the future, there will be some money for someone to take care of him.”
Selling a year-old cow can bring as much as 20 million dong (U.S.$890), says Chiến, which can buy a good motorbike, pay for education or provide startup funding to open a small business. Cows can be fed inexpensively if people grow elephant grass.
Families are pouring their hopes into the project.
Lê Mạnh Châu’s body is covered with fleshy growths, a condition that started when he was young, probably because of his father’s exposure to Agent Orange. His 20-year-old son has mental disabilities and has just begun to develop growths on his body too. Châu used to rely on earnings from heavy construction work, which he can no longer do because of an accident that broke his legs, one so badly it still has six screws in it.
As his wife works extra to keep the family afloat financially, Châu throws his energies into giving his cow the best life he can, hoping it will be his new source of income. He attended VAVA trainings on how to raise a cow and is carefully applying what he has learned.
His neighbours, who used to comment on how small the cow was, now tell him he has already gained money because of how healthy and big the cow has become. She is three months pregnant.
“I don’t know how to express with my words how happy I am, but I want to show it with my action by taking good care of the cow. I am waiting for the moment when I have the first calf and I can share it with other people.”
Linda Espenshade is news coordinator for MCC U.S. Matthew Sawatzky is a photographer in Winnipeg, Man.