Elspeth and Mike Cotsilinis
4 March 2013
Fifteen students and staff from St Mary’s College Thorndon spent four weeks of their Christmas holidays in Vietnam participating in a World Challenge expedition.
The most challenging part of the trip was the time spent working on a project. This work gave a vivid example of the St Mary’s special character and the Spirit of Mercy in action.
The girls had been hoping to work in an orphanage, but they were asked instead to work in a centre for the homeless and the disabled.
It is difficult to adequately convey how brave, supportive and mature our girls were in the work that they did there. Often overwhelmed by what they saw, many of them needed the strength of the group to walk through the gates each morning.
There were landmine victims, people born with the physical and mental effects of Agent Orange [a defoliant used in the 1960s United States war against Vietnam. Estimates put the number of deaths or people disabled by the chemical at up to a million] and people who in our society would be cared for, but who face a bleak and distressing future because of the lack of social and government support systems.
In the face of this, the girls of St Mary’s College bought nail polish and performed manicures and pedicures for the children, sang songs, played soccer games, drew pictures, did puzzles, laughed, hugged and chatted to the residents, admired at their rooms, marvelled at their treasures and showed them great compassion.
They paid for steel handrails on the stairs, helped sort rice for the kitchens, pulled water from the well, did the laundry, varnished furniture, painted plant pots and sanded and painted the front gate. They bought a Christmas tree, presents for the residents (shampoo) and cupcakes for a Christmas party. They rehearsed carols and songs with actions, put on a concert and made a difference.
On the Sunday before Christmas day, the girls were not at the Project, so they went to the market, bartered for cheap gifts and trinkets and took them to a local village to give to the children in the street. They handed out headbands and hats, mirrors, toy cars and balls and returned elated.
In Kon Tum they visited an orphanage and played with the children, and they stayed in a traditional bamboo house in Bahnar village. That night, local school children performed traditional dances for the girls around a bonfire and the girls sang our National Anthem, the School Song, and taught them some songs and dances of their own. The evening ended with the whole group singing ‘Silent Night’ – the girls from the village sang it in Bahnar and the St Mary’s girls sang it back to them in English.
The trek phases were beautiful and tough and the girls had to push themselves physically and mentally to complete the challenge. Some of them were unable to do the treks due to minor medical issues, but all emerged from the experience with a better understanding of themselves, their limits and potentials.
After the month away, many said if they were to do the trip again, they wouldn’t change a thing.