Learning and growing

Nguyen is a pretty special teenage boy.

He can be an angel at times, and he has a smile that beams with innocence. His mission in life is to bring joy to everyone; he becomes visibly frustrated and worried when people around him are arguing. Nguyen just wants everyone to be happy.

And of course, being a teenager, he can also be a handful of trouble. He likes to hang out on the street late at night and has a habit of shouting at people who harass his friends. Just recently this escalated into him being stabbed in the shoulder by a gang who didn’t appreciate his lecture. It was a pretty serious wound, and could easily have been far worse.

Nguyen’s motivation comes from his upbringing: he has grown up in extreme poverty within a violent household where beatings, hunger and fear are completely normal. Two years ago he ran away from his home up in the mountains to find reprieve in the city. While living on the street he met the staff of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. When we took him back to meet his parents, it was clear that he was in constant danger there from his father, and his mother was unable to protect him, so now he lives with us and studies vocational training.

He has a beautiful love of life and wants peace all around him, but is still learning the basic social skills of conflict resolution and negotiation. As a child, he learned that dominance and shouting get you what you want, and until recently never saw another way.

Blue Dragon has many kids like Nguyen. When we first meet them, we don’t know the depth and complexity of their lives up until that point. We don’t know what has shaped them, who they have learned from, or what ideas they have about their world. Some of our kids come to us off the streets just wanting to get back into school. Others have experienced trauma and need time to heal before they’re ready to do anything. And plenty come with the bad habits they’ve learned from violent families or institutions or street gangs.

It’s easy to say that the answer for kids like Nguyen is education: Blue Dragon needs to offer classes and workshops in social skills, and provide a disciplined environment for them to learn how to fit in. We do all that – although we take a fairly broad view of “fitting in” – and it would be a pretty unusual week that our staff aren’t running group discussions on how to make friends, or sexual health, or one of any countless number of social skills.

Such classes are always useful, and easy to evaluate, but they are only a tiny part of children’s education. Kids don’t learn how to live by sitting and taking notes. You and I didn’t form our values and ethics through attending workshops.

In reality, we learn by being with others. We see what they do, we may try it out ourselves, and we see how it makes us feel. We imitate the values that we see around us; we find ourselves wanting to be like the people we trust. At Blue Dragon, it’s quite common to hear kids saying that when they grow up they want to be like one of the Social Workers – many indeed dream of becoming Social Workers – because they want to emulate the people who care for them.

So what does that mean for Blue Dragon? While the workshops and classes will always have a place, to really shape the young people in our care we need to be their role models.

We need to persevere when they take time to get it right.

We need to be calm when they are out of control.

We need to take time to explain, and ask questions, and listen.

We need to hope and believe that every child has good in  them, regardless of what they’ve done or where they’ve been.

And we need to show that we care for them, no matter what.

For Nguyen, there’s real hope that he will grow into a wonderful man whose children have a very different upbringing to his own: a childhood where they are safe and know they are loved.

To help him get there, it’s the daily work of the people at Blue Dragon that matters most.


P.S. We’re having our annual fundraising appeal right now, so if you want to contribute to the important work of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, now is the time! 



It’s that time of year again when Blue Dragon is in need of help.

Anyone who follows my blog, or keeps up with the Blue Dragon Facebook page, knows of our work.

We rescue kids in crisis. Since the start of 2017 alone, we’ve already rescued 64 victims of human trafficking from brothels, forced marriages, and sweatshops. That’s in addition to the homeless children we’ve reunited with their parents, the classes and shelters we run, and all the court cases we’ve been in to represent the victims of crimes. Altogether we’re currently working with about 1,500 children and teens all around Vietnam.

We do it out of love: this is what we believe and we’re driven by our commitment to making this world a better place.

But as they say, love doesn’t pay the bills.

And so, every May and June we hold our annual appeal. We ask that people around the world who share our belief that children deserve a childhood contribute what they can, so that we can keep this work happening.

This year we have a goal of $380,000 US. Raising this will mean our shelters and centre still have places for kids; our rescue team has the resources to find trafficked kids and bring them home; and the children in our care can keep going to school.

If you can help, please do: Blue Dragon Rescue Appeal.

And if you’re in need of some inspiration, here’s a TED talk by one of the many heroes I work with at Blue Dragon; Vi Do, who started out shining shoes and now leads a team that finds and cares for kids in crisis.






The Graduation

Today I found myself at Van Mieu, Hanoi’s renowned Temple of Literature, for a graduation. But I was there merely as a prop.

Vietnam has a long history of valuing formal education in the tradition of Confucianism. Van Mieu stands as the country’s oldest university, dating back to 1070. Presumably, student life was quite different back then!

I was called on this morning by Tan, one of the Blue Dragon boys whose girlfriend, Luan, has just completed her Grade 12 exams. I don’t know Luan very well, but she was coming in to the city from her school out of town with the entire class. They were all visiting Van Mieu to have their photograph taken, as many many other school groups were doing over the weekend.

The students are at a stage of waiting for their high school results and then they’ll be off to their university entrance exams – a whole new round of stress and waiting!

More than 80 of the Blue Dragon kids are in university or college right now, but many of the girls and boys we serve don’t even get through primary school. Too often, their lives are disrupted by family breakdown, sickness, or extreme poverty – or a combination of all three – which means their opportunity to continue with schooling simply evaporates.

As proud as Tan is that his girlfriend is on her way to university, he himself didn’t make it through to Grade 9. His own childhood traumas have interfered with his life, and yet he is thrilled for Luan and wanted to be there with me as she celebrated.

My role was to pose for photos – which is not normally a part of my job! But Luan had asked for me to be there, a little like a lucky charm, and so I dutifully had my photo taken while camera-shy Tan did everything he could to stay out of the frame.

Sometimes people think that Blue Dragon is a school. We do have teachers at our centre, but our role is to prepare kids: some for formal schooling, some for vocational training, and some for moving on to workplaces. As important as formal education is, we know it isn’t for everyone, and we need to help each of the kids in our care find what’s right for them.

With all the photos out of the way, I was set free to return to the Blue Dragon centre with Tan. Being invited to Luan’s graduation was a beautiful honour for me, and hopefully a lovely memory for her, that she can take as she moves on to the next stage of her life: university.