Relentless hope

In the face of endless suffering, how can we keep helping those in need?

People often ask me how I manage to keep going.

Blue Dragon’s work is intense. It’s rare for a day to go by without us receiving a desperate call for help from someone in slavery or meeting a homeless child in a terrible situation.

The numbers tell a slice of the story.

Since the start of this year, we’ve rescued 118 people from slavery: brothels, forced marriages, and forced labor.

In the same time, we’ve helped double that number of street kids – about 240 so far.

It’s only human for the constant exposure to traumatised, terrified people to affect us deeply.

Meeting children in desperate situations is both traumatising, and what keeps us going.

And it does. Among the staff of Blue Dragon – the social workers, psychologists, lawyers, counselors – there’s often someone experiencing their own stress or even burnout. On occasion, people need to take time off work or seek professional help to deal with their own emotions and psychological responses.

Both as individuals and as an organisation, we try our best but we have our limits.

Finding the way forward

Taking care of ourselves in the face of constant stress is the only way we can keep going. Being there for each other as a supportive team makes a world of difference. From an organisational point of view, there’s much we can do to provide for staff wellbeing and support people when they need it.

But in the end, the most important thing of all is hope.

We keep going because we believe it makes a difference. It’s worthwhile.

Even when we fail; even when we encounter cases that we’re unable to help; we know there’s still someone else waiting for us who we can help.

Should there come a day that I no longer think my contribution matters, I know I wouldn’t be able to continue.

What drives me – what drives all of us at Blue Dragon, from our frontline staff to our donors and partners around the world – is our relentless hope that our world can be better.

And so, no matter how hard things get, we continue.

Thank you to all who make Blue Dragon’s efforts possible. While our work continues, I’m taking a break from writing the weekly blog during July. I’ll be back with more stories of hope on August 4.

The truth about street kids

Years after coming to Blue Dragon, Long and Giang are leading lives they love. Their success challenges the misconceptions of who street kids really are.

Long and Giang were street kids when I met them.

Both were from provinces near Hanoi and came to the city as teens. They each had loving families at home but were looking for something more: an escape from the hardships of their daily lives.

Their experiences in the city were very different. Giang teamed up with a friend from his hometown and they were on the streets for many months. Long was a street kid for just a short time before he met Blue Dragon. A week later, he was happily home with his parents.

However, calling them “street kids” is a little complicated. It’s a label that summarises a whole set of traumatic childhood experiences, while saying nothing about the person.

Perception and reality

Whenever I speak in public about Blue Dragon’s work, I come across many different views of street kids.

Some people assume that they must be from dysfunctional families; others believe that they’re bad kids who just need some discipline. Of course, some show great sympathy, seeing street kids as victims of family breakdown.

So what’s the truth?

After 20 years of meeting and caring for street kids, I can confidently say this: Street kids are regular young people, no different to anyone else.

I’ve met street kids who are intelligent, ambitious, kind. Some are passionate about sports, or love music, or enjoy hanging out with friends. And yes, I’ve met some who are bad tempered, spend too much time playing online games and get into trouble with the law.

All of which makes them no different to any other teenager.

At the same time, I don’t deny that street kids do have one fundamental difference to others, and that’s their time living without the proper care and protection of a home.

That experience is traumatic for any person. For children who spend time separated from their family – or out on the streets with their family – the trauma of living in danger and poverty can stay with them for a long time. This is why getting help and care to street kids is a matter of urgency. The longer kids are exposed to risk and harm, the harder it will be for them to heal.

The next chapter

Long and Giang have been “street kids,” but their lives are not defined by that experience.

By chance, both Long and Giang – now in their early 20s – caught up with us at Blue Dragon in the past week.

Long (on the left) catching up with Blue Dragon co-CEO Vi Do.

Long has started a small business of his own, designing and installing shop interiors. Giang works in Japan, but was back in Vietnam for his engagement ceremony. He’ll be getting married in a few years, and until then will keep working abroad with his fiance.

Neither has forgotten their time on the streets. Both have worked hard to overcome the challenges of their teen years and make something great of their lives.

Being a “street kid” doesn’t have to be a life-defining experience. Because Long and Giang received the right help at the right time, their days on the streets have become a chapter in their lives – not the whole book.

Every child deserves to be safe and protected. Then, as they grow up, they can be the author of their own story and not be defined by any label.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is on a mission to end human trafficking. Protecting street kids is a vital part of our work.

Against the odds and the doubters

As a teenage girl, Yen was determined to overcome hardship and get an education. But how could she believe in herself when nobody around her did?

Many people know Blue Dragon for our rescue operations.

In the past year, we’ve rescued over 300 people from slavery. Most were trafficked from Vietnam to neighboring countries and forced to work under threat of violence in guarded compounds. Their stories are haunting.

Every person rescued has a chance to start their life over.

But from day to day, there’s another part of our work that’s equally as important and impactful.

The dream chasers

As an organisation, we don’t want people to “just” be safe. We want every child to have the opportunity to make of their life whatever they choose.

Much of our work involves seeking out young people in hardship or danger, and helping them pursue their dreams. This typically involves a long journey to explore what their dreams are.

Because this year is Blue Dragon’s 20th birthday, we’ve been compiling stories of some of the young people we’ve encountered along the way and writing about where they are now.

Yen’s story is a particularly inspiring one.

Yen on a hike in Finland.

A girl on a journey

She was in her early teens when I first met her: a smart, kind girl who took hold of every opportunity to learn.

Like all of the kids we meet at Blue Dragon, Yen had grown up in hardship; she was still in school but it was a struggle. Without a helping hand, she faced a very real risk of dropping out.

More than the lack of money and opportunity was the message she heard from so many around her: Your life will never be better than your parents’ life.

How could she believe in herself when nobody else did?

Today, Yen’s life couldn’t be more different. She lives in Finland, where she works as a civil engineer while raising a family. Nobody could doubt her now.

Against the odds and despite the doubters, Yen found a way to turn her life around. Completing her education was key, but equally important was having people who believed in her.

Yen’s story is shared in full over on the Blue Dragon website. Her journey to a satisfying, successful life was harder than it should have been. And although she got there with help from Blue Dragon and others around her, all of the credit for what she has achieved is hers alone.

Blue Dragon will continue to rescue those who call for help; and we’ll also continue to give kids like Yen the chance to live the great lives they deserve.

Blue Dragon is celebrating 20 years of transforming lives in Vietnam. Read more stories of the lives we’ve changed here.

Ready to receive

Nam was in danger on the city streets. But the offer of help led to some unintended consequences and even greater danger.

I knew he was in danger the first time I saw him.

Nam was begging by the road, in the shadow of a giant statue overlooking one of Hanoi’s many lakes. He was 16 but looked much younger. Many passersby on motorbikes, stopped at the traffic lights, took pity on him and threw money into his outheld cap.

In the blistering heat, dressed in dirty rags, Nam looked pitiful. And his reason for being there was tragic. His mother had died many years ago and his father was brutally violent.

As a beggar, Nam could make good money each day. Even though it was boring and repetitive – and his daily income was dependent on the weather – he felt free. He didn’t have to care about following anybody else’s rules. If things ever got difficult at his begging spot, he could simply go elsewhere and start again.

Nam felt safe, but I knew that he wasn’t.

As a boy out begging on the street, he was extremely vulnerable to gangs, pimps, and traffickers. Many kids just like him had been taken advantage of: used, abused and spat out. Often left with drug addictions, sexually transmitted diseases and physical injuries.

A boy begging on the city streets. Children working like this are highly vulnerable to harm and exploitation.

And so I did what I could to help. Over time, I got to know Nam and urged him to accept Blue Dragon’s offer of help.

I persuaded and cajoled. I wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

Until finally, Nam relented. He agreed to stay in a Blue Dragon shelter while we helped him move on to training and employment.

Getting Nam to leave the streets was a great success. But it soon turned to disaster.

Nam fought with other kids at the shelter. He stayed out overnight whenever he felt like it and nobody knew when he might return. He sat in the bedroom smoking and swore at the staff when they told him to stop. Nam missed the freedom of the streets and he had never been in a home with clear rules and expectations before.

Nam was safe, but this wasn’t his decision. He had agreed to join the safe house because of my persuasion, not because it was what he really wanted.

A hard lesson

My mistake was one that many of us make at some time.

When you know that someone is endangering themselves… when you can see that they’re going to come to harm but you have no power to intervene… what should you do?

After a few weeks, Nam left the shelter and went back to the streets. As predicted, he met with a lot of trouble and ended up involved in some petty crime. He was lucky that he didn’t go to prison.

Only much later, when he saw for himself the danger he was in, did Nam come back to Blue Dragon. This time, he asked for help. And of course, it was freely given.

This was a powerful learning moment both for Nam and for myself. 

Pushing someone to accept help is rarely successful. Helping them see how it might change their life, and keeping the offer open for when they are ready, is sometimes the only way.

But it’s a hard lesson to learn.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is on a mission to end human trafficking.

The best remedy: Nothing at all

Knowing when to help – and when to not – is part of the job for non-profit leaders.

When I was at high school, I had a geography teacher named Mrs Ratinac.

One day, our lesson was on how humans inadvertently make things worse when we try to improve on nature.

Cane toads were introduced to Australia in the 1930s to manage insects and other pests. Instead, swarms of them have harmed native wildlife and destroyed crops.

In more recent times, hydroelectric dams have been built to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Their impact has been to alter water supplies, destroy fish populations, and displace communities.

“Sometimes,” Mrs Ratinac said, “the best thing to do is nothing at all.”

As the founder of a charity that aims to make life better for people living in hardship, this is a lesson that I find both difficult and very important to remember.

When should we intervene? When should we not? Whatever we choose, there are consequences.

Here in Hanoi, there are informal groups around the city who get together to dance. They meet in public spaces like parks and community buildings.

Some years ago, I learned that a few of the Blue Dragon kids were dancing in the evenings outside a government building that has a long, uninterrupted covered space.

I went to see this for myself. Our kids were part of a teenage hiphop dance club. A few meters further along, there were elderly people practising ballroom dancing. Just past them were some girls dancing to K-Pop.

Each group had their own music playing and had set up in such a way to respect the space of everyone else. In a country such as Vietnam, where public spaces (like roads and footpaths) often seem totally chaotic, I marveled at the self-organizing nature of this.

The Blue Dragon kids love their hip hop.

There was nobody in charge and no lists of rules. Each group just set up spontaneously and got on with their dancing. And it all worked in total harmony.

Then my NGO-brain kicked into gear.

These kids who were hip-hop dancing: Blue Dragon could support them. We could easily get them a supply of snacks and drinks for while they’re practising. Maybe even help them get a better speaker for their music. And do any of them need to buy proper dance shoes?

But then Mrs Ratinac’s lesson came back to me.

These kids were fully independent and self-organizing. They not only didn’t need help; they were a model for others of what teens are capable of on their own.

Were I to get involved, I’d be taking away from what they were achieving. I’d be creating a dependency when none was needed.

There’s a time and place to help; knowing when, and when not, to get involved requires wisdom.

So I did nothing. Just watched. And marveled at the creativity of these amazing kids.

Thanks for reading Life Is A Long Story. Make sure you’re following Blue Dragon on LinkedIn and Facebook for more great stories.

Tides of change

This week, Blue Dragon’s Kim Miller writes a guest post for Life Is A Long Story. Her journey – and the challenge before her – are an example of true courage.

By my desk sits a postcard that starts with the words: ‘Pick the path that lights you up.’

I’ve come to believe that happiness and fulfillment, the ‘light’, doesn’t arrive in neat packages of peace and contentment. 

Rather, I feel most alive and alight in the moments of grit; when I’m being challenged, when I’m working towards something new, and when I can see a way forward that’s possible, but not necessarily a given, that it will be successful. 

Since 2014 I’ve felt that feeling of fulfillment most through my work with Blue Dragon. 

Every person on our team inspires me in their own way and makes me want to be a better person. 

I’ve seen the worst of what can happen when vulnerable young people are left to fend for themselves. I’ve also seen the powerful impact that a single person can have when they provide the care and scaffolding needed to support a young person to go from surviving to thriving. 

And the power of us working together to create the sort of change needed to do something as momentous as ending human trafficking? Unstoppable!

In 2020, yes mid-pandemic, I left Vietnam, where I was living, to return home to Australia. I still work for Blue Dragon, but I commenced a new hybrid role working mostly remotely from Sydney. 

I felt joyful to be closer to my Australian family and friends and I was excited about the impact I could have for Blue Dragon by collaborating alongside our Australian supporters… But I was left with a Blue Dragon sized hole in my heart from the absence of living and working at the epicentre of the action. 

In time, I learned to (mostly) fill that hole with ocean swimming (combined with semi-regular trips back to my Hanoi home).

Only in the ocean do I find the same level of immersion, challenge, perseverance, mindfulness and grit that I feel through my work. 

Qualifying for the English Channel swim involves spending long hours in frigid waters to prepare for the gruelling conditions in reality.

So what better way to combine these two passions than to use my passion for swimming to keep vulnerable young people safe from human trafficking? 

This July, I’ll swim 34 kilometres across the frigid water of the English Channel for Blue Dragon. I’m aiming to raise $200,000 AU, which is enough to protect 70,000 people from the horrors of human trafficking. Right now, I’m close to halfway towards that goal.

And when the swimming gets tough, as I know it will, I won’t stop, because it’s such a privilege to be able to choose our challenges in life – a privilege that victims of slavery and human trafficking aren’t afforded by the people who exploit them.

I want every stroke and action I take in life to bring someone else a little closer to that same freedom. 

You can donate to Kim’s Big Blue English Channel Swim here; and you can follow her blog, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram or email: kim@bdcf.org.

Starts here, continues there.

Alone in the shadows, San had no idea how he would survive. A chance encounter changed that; but his story is far from over.

San was sitting alone, just out of the glare of the streetlight.

Blue Dragon’s social workers are trained to spot street kids among a crowd. But San was easy to identify: sitting in the shadows, his shoulders slumped, a backpack by his feet.

Hai, the social worker, has an easy going nature. Kids instinctively trust him. He pulled his motorbike over, introduced himself to San, and within minutes they were chatting away like old friends.

Social worker Hai, on the ground, chats with 14-year-old San.

With some street kids, it’s hard to build trust. San, however, was different. He’d only recently come to the city and very quickly realised that he had walked into a terrible situation. He just wished he could go home, but he didn’t have the few dollars needed for the bus fare.

San is 14 and from the northern mountains of Vietnam. He and one of his younger brothers have already dropped out of school. His youngest brother, in Grade 4 now, doesn’t plan to go back after the coming summer holiday.

A familiar story

Their family story follows a pattern we hear all the time.

Dad was in an accident and now suffers from poor health. He drowns his sorrows with rice wine and then quarrels with his kids. Their studies have suffered and they just don’t see much reason to keep going with their education.

Finally, San decided to head to the city and look for a job. At last that way, he could send money home for his parents to survive and he would avoid arguing with his father.

But the dream of going to the big city and earning money is just an illusion for young people from the countryside. They leave home hoping to find paid employment, but in reality there are few jobs to be found for young, untrained workers. It’s much more likely that the kids will be tricked and exploited.

And so San found himself homeless, broke and hopeless. Until he met Hai.

Where to from here

San stayed at the Blue Dragon shelter a few days to catch up on sleep and food. Then he was ready for the long journey home.

When Blue Dragon reunites young people with their families – whether they’re street kids or survivors of human trafficking – we don’t just put them on a bus and wave them off.

A couple of social workers get on that bus with them and travel with the child. These journeys can take a couple of days in each direction, so they are a significant investment of time and resources. And they are always worthwhile.

It’s only when we meet the family ourselves, talk to the community leaders, and go visit the child’s school, that we can fully understand how to help.

San and a Blue Dragon social worker walking home.

And when all the key people in the child’s life know us, it’s a lot easier to get things done.

Through long discussions over shared meals, the Blue Dragon staff learned about the challenges that San and his family are facing.

They have critically little income – so we will help with some money for a few months to see them through. While we do that, we’ll work with the community to buy a few farm animals that San’s parents can raise to begin earning their own money.

San’s school teacher advised that he will need to reapply to go back to study, but knowing what he’s been through, she was very supportive and we’re confident he will be back in class shortly.

And on it goes

So is that ‘happily ever after’?

No. They take a bit longer than a week!

Helping San, his brothers and their parents will take sustained effort over the coming years. They might not need very much help from Blue Dragon, because they have a supportive community around them who is ready to help now that they understand the situation.

San’s family home.

We will stay in touch over the phone. We’ll check in with San’s teacher from time to time. And San knows that, should he want to leave home again, he can call us to discuss or ask for help.

With just this effort, San is no longer in danger of trafficking and exploitation on the city streets and his whole family has hope for the future.

But this story isn’t over. It started on the streets and it continues in a remote village, high up in the mountains.

Whatever happens next, Blue Dragon stands ready to help however we can.

The good work of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is possible only because of our amazing supporters around the world. Thank you to all who donate, volunteer, and cheer us along. Without you, San’s outlook would be very different.

Lesser known heroes

Young people who lived through homelessness and slavery are giving back by working with Blue Dragon. But their stories are rarely told.

I’m almost asleep when my phone buzzes to life.

It’s Cuong, one of the Blue Dragon “old boys”.

Sometimes our older kids, now with jobs and families of their own, get in touch to ask for help. Sometimes they just want to stay in touch or catch up for a meal.

Cuong’s call is for a different reason. He tells me that he’s on his way to the Blue Dragon shelter with a 14-year-old boy he has just met, sleeping rough on the city streets.

A former street kid (left, in the cap) accompanies a homeless boy to a Blue Dragon shelter.

Cuong works in a cafe and often delivers drinks or meals to customers. A former street kid, he has a keen eye for children hiding in the shadows and knows when somebody is in danger.

He didn’t choose to follow a career in social work and he doesn’t want people to know his history of escaping an abusive family and living under a bridge until Blue Dragon met him. But he wants to help however he can; it’s his way of giving back.

East v West

To a western way of thinking, Cuong can be proud of his journey. He has overcome incredible hardship, beaten the odds, to make something of his life. He’s a fine young man and has no reason to be ashamed.

However, Cuong sees it differently. He fears that people will judge him for coming from such a place of disadvantage. Perhaps people won’t trust him. And he knows that no girl’s parents would want their daughter to marry a former street kid.

Cuong’s way of thinking is not unusual among the Blue Dragon community. Young people who were trafficked, enslaved, abandoned and exploited rarely want others to know what they have been through.

This is more of an “eastern” way of thinking, if I dare to generalise so broadly.

Success stories

Blue Dragon’s co-CEO Vi Do is a well known “success story.” He was once a shoeshine boy on Hanoi’s streets and now, along with Skye Maconachie, shares the senior leadership of the organisation.

But throughout Blue Dragon, there are many staff who also have the “lived experience” of being a street kid, or surviving human trafficking; and most are unwilling to share their story with the world. So of course, we respect that. Their story is their own to keep or to share as they choose.

And then there are those like Cuong, who go out into the world to work and live independently, but keep finding ways to come back to Blue Dragon.

Several of our “old boys” work alongside staff at night on the streets as outreach workers. Their job is to go to places where homeless children might gather and offer assistance.

Our “old girls” similarly get involved as volunteers while they study and into their careers.

Each does this work out of their desire to help others, as they were once helped; and they entrust us to keep their stories confidential.

Survivors as leaders

Within the anti-trafficking sector is a wonderful movement to give survivors of trafficking more voice. “Survivor leadership” has recently emerged as a topic of much discussion.

This concept of “leadership” can take many forms. In some places, it means ensuring that survivors of trafficking have more opportunities to take on roles as advocates and public figures.

In Vietnam, it often takes a quieter, more discrete form. Those who have lived through exploitation and want to give back are more likely to assume leadership roles within their peer group or family – or their extended community, such as at Blue Dragon – than on a public stage.

Young people like Cuong are indeed “survivor leaders” even though the world may never know.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is on a mission to end human trafficking.

Go small or go home

A 14 year old girl rescued from slavery. A community just wanting to break the shackles of poverty. An opportunity to make a lasting change.

It was a misty, muddy day in the northern mountains of Vietnam.

I was on my way to meet Ma, a teenage girl we had rescued weeks earlier from forced labour in a factory. She was 14 years old and wanted nothing more than to be home with her family.

I knew that life for her was difficult, and arriving in her village I could see why. Their sheer remoteness – so far from services, proper roads, jobs and hospitals – made for a harsh environment.

Walking through an ethnic minority village.

It’s easy to enter a village and see their deficits. But the key to helping people is always to find their strengths.

On this day, the answer came quickly: Community.

The village seemed almost empty, but as we walked along a narrow track between timber stilt houses we could hear a muffled chattering nearby. And then we could see many dozens of plastic flipflops piled and scattered at the base of one such house, which was larger than all the others.

A woman’s head popped out from the door above us and called us up. Off with our shoes and up the ladder we went!

The gathering

While the air outside was cold and damp, inside the traditional stilt house of this ethnic community was much warmer. Packed into the single-room building were at least 70 people, mostly women, and all dressed in the colourful outfits that were customary to this community.

The chattering was in a language unfamiliar to me. This was an ethnic Thai village, and the local language was used far more widely than the mainstream Vietnamese Kinh language.

Through translators, the village leader welcomed me and my colleagues from Blue Dragon and in turn we introduced ourselves. Despite our attempts at maintaining confidentiality, they all knew who we were and that we had recently helped one of their teen girls escape from slavery and return home.

Ma was at school, they told us, so we would see her later. For now, we were invited to take part in their community meeting.

An opportunity suddenly presented itself. Here was a gathering of members from almost every family in the village. We knew that the villages all across these mountains were being targeted by human traffickers. They came to town promising hope for people to escape their poverty. False offers of jobs and training led to children and adults alike being trapped into unpaid forced labour, unable to escape.

Community education

Taking a mobile phone from his pocket, one of my colleagues opened up his photos of the sweatshop where Ma had been taken more than a year ago. Relying on a translator, we talked about what these factories were like: the long hours, the harsh treatment, the lack of payment.

As that phone passed from hand to hand, the mothers and fathers visibly gasped. Mostly they were silent with shock. Some muttered angrily to the people sitting around them.

This was not what they had been promised by the “successful job brokers” who came to their village.

The parents were appalled. Our photos, taken in the sweatshops where children from this region were put to work, showed the awful conditions in which they lived. Sitting on a concrete floor cutting cloth. Working at machines that were much larger than the children themselves. No parent wants that for their child.

We talked to the community about what they thought the ‘job brokers’ were offering. They shared their disappointment at learning they had been tricked. Many knew someone, or were related to someone, who had followed them for work.

Changing hearts and minds

When it came time to go and see Ma, I sensed that a shift had taken place in this community.

Next time the traffickers came to town, they had no chance. In fact, I wondered if there might even be violence. Now that these parents had seen the images and heard the stories, they would never be deceived again.

Efforts to prevent human trafficking are often focused on reaching the largest number of people possible. This is to save money, be more efficient, and achieve the holy grail of ‘scalability’.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with mass campaigns. Some undoubtedly work.

But time and again, I’ve seen in Vietnam that the most effective way of changing minds and behaviour is to do so on a very ‘local’ level.

Local does it

The people who are most vulnerable to human trafficking are villagers like those in Ma’s community. Ethnic minority communities are vastly over-represented as victims of exploitation.

So the question becomes: How can we help them to stay safe?

One thing I know for certain is that they’re not interested in hearing from celebrities. Messages from sports stars and singers don’t move them. Strangers in suits coming to town from NGOs and embassies to give speeches or put up posters have no impact at all.

What’s needed is much ‘smaller’ than that.

That morning, as we sat with the community and got to know them, we connected. Mothers and fathers asked us questions, shared their own stories. We listened and asked them questions of our own.

A community education meeting inside a traditional stilt house.

Even though we were strangers, they knew we had helped one of their children. We weren’t just promising help in the future; we had already proven ourselves by doing something they appreciated.

Local-level solutions like this are powerful. Scaling them up requires a more ‘back to basics’ approach: it’s all about working with people and building trust. And Blue Dragon’s work shows it can be done.

Ma was back at school, more than happy to cross the hills and streams each day to attend her classes.

Her family was delighted that their daughter was safely home.

And her community was determined that no more of their children would be lured away by the false promises of human trafficking.

Community conversations just like this one were key to ending the trafficking of children to garment sweatshops and are now central to our strategy for ending all major forms of trafficking in Vietnam. A donation to Blue Dragon‘s work will make a real difference in the lives of children and communities.

The Year That Made Me

This week I was asked to nominate a point in time that made me who I am today. My choice was easy – but for complicated reasons.

Sometimes, great things happen because of good planning and lots of hard work.

Other times, we look back with surprise and wonder how they happened at all.

This week I was delighted to be featured on an ABC Radio program called “The Year That Made Me.” You can listen to the episode here.

The premise of the interview is to explore the events of a single year that stands out as being pivotal in someone’s life. For me, that year was 2002.

The plan that was not to be

It was in 2002 that I left Australia with a few clothes and books, believing that I would set up in Ho Chi Minh City as an English teacher.

By the end of the year, I was living in Hanoi helping street kids get back to school; and in collaboration with some friends the idea for creating Blue Dragon was born.

Blue Dragon’s first shelter for street kids opened in 2003.

Since then, every year has been significant. I can’t think of a single year when “nothing much happened.” 2003 was the year we started our first shelter for homeless teens. In 2004, Blue Dragon officially registered as a charity. In 2005, we rescued the very first child from human trafficking.

And so on…

But none of this was planned. At least, not in the beginning.

In those early days when some friends and I went out onto the streets offering help to ‘shoeshine boys’, we didn’t know that our efforts would lead to something much bigger.

I recall the day that I counted how many children we were assisting in one way or another. The total: 30. I thought to myself: “Well, this is probably the limit of how many kids we can help.”

Today Blue Dragon is reaching about 20,000 people around Vietnam.

Similarly, I thought that our first rescue of a child from trafficking would be a one-time event. The boy, Ngoc, was 13 years old and had been trafficked to work as a flower seller on the city streets. I just wanted to help him go home.

Since that “one-time event,” we’ve rescued 1,550 people from slavery.

And it has all happened because, in 2002, my plan to start a simple new life fell apart.

A better plan

As Blue Dragon grows, planning becomes more important. After all, there are children and families who depend on us. Rescuing someone from a brothel or forced labor can’t be left to chance.

But the plan is never the master. It never has been. The plan is there to serve us; and when it no longer serves us, we make a new plan.

Because the needs of people must come first. Always. That’s the plan.

Taking part in the radio interview was a great opportunity to reflect on my personal journey as well as Blue Dragon’s growth.

As we mark Blue Dragon’s official 20th birthday, there’s much to celebrate.

I’m just glad that I didn’t stick to my original plan all those years ago.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation works in Vietnam to end human trafficking.