In March 2006, local authorities in rural Vietnam told us about a community living at a garbage dump that "might need our help". Driving down the small road, we saw enormous mountains of trash with children roaming around barefoot, some carrying large metal hooks to help them break open the bags of waste. Adults were carrying large baskets filled with empty plastic bags to wash, sort and sell. A smiling, confident eight-year-old girl approached us, asked us why we were there and invited us to visit her home. Her home had old tarps for walls and just a small bed. She told us about her job, her family and her friends who had disappeared. Strangers had either abducted them or offered their parents money for "jobs" somewhere else.
We asked her and her friends what we ask a lot of students, "What do you hope to do when you grow up?" Sadly, they looked at us with an empty expression. No one had ever asked them before, and worse, they never had thought about it before. They thought their only option was to work in a garbage dump. None of the children we met in 2006 had ever been to school. They knew that other kids should go, not only did they lacked identity papers, but their family had no money to buy basic school supplies. And above all else, they had spent their entire childhood trying to earn that extra 25¢.
We met her father. The love and pride this man had for his daughter was a beacon in the filth that surrounded us. We were captivated by the inner strength of these survivors. He told us about their community of over 100 families living and working in the dump, struggling to stay safe. He described families so poor that children, starting at 3 years old, were obligated to work so there was enough food for the next day. Families were so poor that parents sold their daughters' innocence. Because these families were unable to obtain identity documents, they had few options. They were working 15 hours-a-day to earn less than $1.50. He told us that he was only one of few people there who knew how to read or write. Nonetheless, for almost 20 years the only job he could find was at the dump and every day he feared that someone would take his daughter.
There is no simple solution to alter such conditions of poverty and to stop human trafficking. We believe there is only a holistic approach to end this tragedy. We developed and have experimented with the concept of a "Core Group". These are respected members in the community to act as liaisons between the 100 families and our organization.
We asked them for their ideas on what would make the most difference in helping them. These ideas allowed us to create sustainable programs to provide basic needs, job opportunities, counseling and education to prevent the trafficking of their children. The community was initially wary of our involvement but a trusting relationship has developed over time and has allowed us to work collaboratively to confront child trafficking.
No other charitable organization, local government office or social services had ever sat down to listen to them, let alone actually ask them to be the decision makers. This aspect of our program is part of what makes it so unusual.
In the last 7 years, we have seen that the results are long lasting changes, which can be sustained by the community of over 400 people. We built a primary school to give back that most basic right, literacy. Our first class only had 34 children. This week we had 237 children successfully pass their exams! We built a school to give back that most basic right, literacy. We helped change a community that was 98 percent illiterate to now under 35 percent!
In addition, our role expanded to include supporting self-governance, obtaining identity papers for 100 percent of the children, providing education on basic hygiene, and pre- and postnatal care. We created a vocational training program that ultimately provided options so that none of our community members work in the garbage dump that they once lived in. We also implemented a community micro savings and loan program of over $5000. We also built permanent safe housing 60 percent of our community.
The community is now learning to move on without our help. Which was always the plan, Catalyst Foundation firmly believes that we teach someone to fish, and then move on to teach another.
We are also very happy to report that in the last two years there have been zero cases of our community's children being sold or trafficked.
The same children that had no hope and dreams just a few years ago now want to be teachers, doctors, social workers, motorbike mechanics, home owners and so much more.
We are excited to move on to work with our new community, and build a new school of HOPE.