Eileen Vo defines native land as a place where she has stayed long enough to develop an attachment to it.
Saying cheese: US high school students volunteering in Viet Nam pause for a photo. Photo cuuchienbinh.com.vn
So, it was not surprising when the Vietnamese Canadian national said that she has more than one native place, and Viet Nam plays a significant role in her life.
"My parents were born here. Many people are still poor here, so I want to give them more opportunities to improve their lives," Vo said, looking into the distance.
Her wish came true, when in 2008 the Putney Travel Student advertised a vacancy for someone to work with US high school students they were sending to Viet Nam to gain insights into its history, culture as well as involving them in community service, teaching languages and travel.
By a strange coincidence the organisation chose Quang Ngai central province where Eileen was born to implement its programme.
As Eileen harboured a desire to get back to Viet Nam to do charity work there, she took the advertisement as an opportunity and applied. Fortunately for her, she was soon offered the job.
Her journey back to Viet Nam had begun when she had accompanied her parents to their homeland when she was 21. This visit gave her an idea about how deprived the country was.
It was in 1987 when Vo and her family had sought shelter in Canada. She had a faint memory about her native land. She remembered that there were long ranges of plants running along white sands.
She also remembered that nearly every afternoon she went to the beach to see her parents fishing.
"It was a pleasant coincidence that the programme was implemented in my poor, native land," Vo said.
A trip for life
Leading the first batch of 14 students to Viet Nam in the summer the same year, Vo said it was a trip of her life because its success would pave the way for more opportunities to bring US high school students here.
"I did not know whether I would be able to handle a group of teenagers who were supposedly not willing to obey," she said.
Yet, everything ran smoothly and beyond her wildest expectations. Not only did the programme achieve its purpose, but it also contributed towards making changes in the lives of the beneficiaries.
In the beginning, three new houses were built, giving shelter to needy people.
"I was struck by the living condition and loneliness of a 12-year-old boy whose mother had died of illness and father lived far away from him," Vo recalled. He was one of the first beneficiaries of the programme.
"But, he looked happier after being settled into a new home," she continued, her eyes shining with happiness and pride.
So far, 33 'compassion houses' have been built for poor families and needy young people since the Putney Travel Student collaborated with the Quang Ngai Youth Union and Provincial Youth Association to implement the programme in Duc Pho District, Quang Ngai Province in 2006.
By donating more than VND1 billion (US$47,000) from their own pocket money, participants to the programme also helped build two kindergartens in the area.
This amount did not include working hours the participants had put in for three weeks to build each house.
As the programme also aimed at teaching languages the participants began several English classes for young people here.
Vo accompanied the first batch of US high school students to Quang Ngai six years ago. She has, since then, brought more than ten student groups to the province to build homes and teach English for free.
Vo said she was proud of what the students and she had accomplished for the community.
"Only when the poor are settled in new homes do they feel secure about making a living. The students have contributed immensely to change the lives of the people here," she said.
Through helping the needy youth, the participants have also created strong bonds with the locals.
It was in mid-July when the students and Vo were found toiling away to loosen stones by using mattocks, shuttling back and forth carrying concrete and mortar, under a boiling sun.
"I was very surprised to see them gathering around my ruined house, and wondered what they were doing here. Later, I saw them carrying bricks and cement and got to know that they were here to help me build a new house," a poor resident, Tran Thi Si, reminisced.
Poverty and poor health deterred the thirty-nine-year-old woman and her family from building a house for four members. They were forced them to stay with her father in a 30-square-metre old house which was rotting at the joints.
Born with a congenital heart disease, Si had no alternative but to eke out living as a seasonal labourer. Her husband is a fisherman. Though both of them worked hard, they were hardly able to make ends meet.
"Needless to say, I am so glad to hear my family has been chosen to receive their support that I haven't slept with relief for the past few days," Siõ said.
"Until now, no one had provided us with such support. I feel sorry for the students because they have to live like us."
The locals admired Vo and her students because they worked so hard. In return, they sometimes treated them to cakes and fruits to show their admiration and gratitude, said Quang Ngai Youth Association Deputy President Pham Ngoc Thanh.
The students usually started working at 7.30am and worked till 11am. After a two-hour break at noon, they resumed work at 2pm and ended the day at 5pm.
For Vo, her normal day usually began at 5.30am and ended at around 9pm when she went to bed.
"I frequently go straight to bed after toiling away the whole day," she said with a smile.
Her work is varied, ranging from preparing meals for students to cycling between construction sites to allocating jobs and getting involved in building houses.
"I am very happy to see that our efforts have borne fruit. Through working with students, I have helped connect them to the locals to create strong bonds," she said.
For the 31-year-old woman the job is most important, at least at present. Though success is the core that many people aim at, it is not so with her.
"I don't care much about the outcome. Instead, I am more interested in how I have endeavoured to do the job," she said.
Talking about the future, Vo said she wanted to connect young Vietnamese living in Southeast Asia to Viet Nam so that more "compassion houses" could be built for the poor.
Vo is a final year postgraduate student in Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, majoring in Asian studies.
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