Friday, January 09, 2009

How to Help

I have so many thoughts and such inadequate words related to the poverty we have witnessed in the past month and a half. I’ve spent quite a bit of time avoiding writing a blog about it because the topic is so unanswerable and uncomfortable.

There is much written about what kind of generosity is systemically helpful versus crippling (for example, giving anything other than opened food to children begging encourages a “pimp” system of abuse; opened food – ie, a peeled banana – cannot be resold, and is often “allowed” to be eaten by the hungry child). And, of course there are innumerable “scams” (the woman with the “broken leg” who stands up, checks her cell phone messages and walks home at the end of the day). But, that doesn’t make it easy or right to walk by person after needy person. I feel painfully aware of the complexities of aid work.

One thing we have discovered in three separate locations bears mention. Rather than simply offering money or assistance, several organizations run businesses that train, support and launch needy kids to self-sustaining futures.

We first encountered an organization called Sozo in Saigon. They run a Western-style bakery that employs deaf Vietnamese and uses all the proceeds to provide education to street kids.

In Hanoi we found KOTO (Know One Teach One). It is a fascinating organization that takes in street kids, provides housing, mentoring, education and job training. They run several high-end Western restaurants that cater to tourists and use the sites as basically “internships” for them before they graduate. When they have completed the program they are very well equipped to support themselves with job skills in the highly coveted hospitality industry.

Although we didn’t get a chance to visit it, we discovered Friends in Phnom Penh that has a similar model of providing work training through a restaurant and proceeds used to help needy kids.

We were both impressed and excited by these organizations that are combining creativity, generosity and practicality so well.

Photos from KOTO...

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