Meeting Jackie Wrafter was one of the most gratifying things of my journey as I’ve mentioned here!
Jackie is an inspiring lady, a wonderful soul who created the Kianh Foundation in 2012, after moving to Vietnam 19 years ago to work with a local orphanage with disabled children. Her work has been changing the lives of hundreds of families in the region, because by impacting the child’s life she is also changing the lives of parents and the overall family dynamics.
I met Jackie Wrafter at the Hoi An Writers Group created by Kerstin Pilz from Write Your Journey, whose work I’ll be sharing in the upcoming weeks. Jackie is a vibrant human being with an easy and contagious laugher whose giant heart shines through her presence. Her writing reflects that same joyous light!
It was such an honor to interview Jackie and to visit the Kianh Foundation that I am very grateful for the opportunity to share her story. One of the things that inspired me the most is that Jackie is clearly an example of how “ordinary people are doing the extraordinary” by consistent daily action that impacts the community they live in.
In Jackie’s own words, let’s find out more about her path, what has lead her into moving to Vietnam and how is the Kianh Foundation positively changing hundreds of lives:
1 – What has compelled you into leaving everything and moving to Vietnam? How did you get involved with working with children?
In 1999, I was very bored with my job working in an editiorial department of a romantic publishing house and my boyfriend and I decided to take a year out and travel around the world. In March 2000, we arrived in Hoi An in Central Vietnam. A friend of mine, also called Jackie, also from England, visited us and asked me to go to the local orphanage with her. I was not interested in doing this but she made me feel guilty so I went along to keep her company. There were about 70 kids at the orphanage, but there was also 1 room where 16 disabled children lived. Going into that room was life-changing. The children led terrible, joyless lives, just lying on hard beds in this dark, smelly room, day after day. No one picked them up or played with them or talked to them and they never left the room. My friend and I desperately wanted to help them, although we were not sure at first what we could do. We started to raise money for them and we eventually set up as The Kianh Foundation, in order to try and improve their lives and the care they received.
2 – What were the main challenges you faced in the beginning and how did you overcome them?
The main challenge was being accepted enough to be able to make changes in a government orphanage in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam! Not an easy thing to do! I had to build up a lot of trust with the staff there.
3 – How did the School started to gain shape and how did this project happen?
After some years of working at the orphanage, we noticed that local families who had children with disability were starting to put them into the orphanage as the only way of accessing our services. We certainly did not want to break up families and so we had a dream of having our own day centre, where we could support families and children enough that the family felt able to keep their child at home. However, we were a very small organisation and we felt we would never have enough money to have our own centre. Then quite by chance, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology heard about us and gave us the money to build our own centre! Which we did, and we opened in 2012.
4 – Who are your main students? What challenges are they and their families facing?
Because we are the only school/centre of our kind and certainly the only one working in this poor, semi-rural area of Dien Ban, we try to serve the community as fully as we can, which means taking pupil with a wide range of challenges and a wide age-age range. We work with children aged from 1 – 18/19, who have Cerebral Palsy, Down’s Syndrome, Microcephalus, Deafblindness, cognitive delay and across the whole Autism Spectrum. The main challenges they and their families face are a lack of awareness, knowledge and understanding about their conditions.
5 – How many students does the School have at the moment? How many are in waiting list?
We currently have 100 children but there are a further 200 on the waiting list, and this list continues to grow. We are really just working with the tip of the iceberg.
6 – What would be necessary for the School to be able to take in more students?
Money, pure and simple. We have spent a long time training our local staff to be able to work effectively with a wide range of children. We have the expertise and knowledge to help, but we struggle financially to maintain even our current programme. We don’t have the money to take on more staff, which is what we would need to help more children.
7 – How did you manage to get staff for your School? What formations and/or tools were used to create conditions for the staff to be qualified for the tasks in hands?
There are no university courses for special education in the region where we work, so it is very hard to get qualified staff. We have two qualified special education teachers, three qualified physiotherapists but all the other staff are a mixture of mainstream teachers, kindergarden teachers or individuals with very different backgrounds, including farming or restaurant work. However, what they do all have in common is that they are compassionate people who really want to work with children with disability. We are very fortunate to have a good relationship with the Australian Volunteers International programme, who sends us long-term, qualified trainers to capacity-build our staff.
8 – What is the impact of being in the School for these students? How come their lives are changing?
I think being at the school makes a huge difference to the lives of our students. The alternative would be a lifetime lying on a bed at home, or in the worst case scenario, being given up to a government orphanage. At our school they get the chance to learn and to make friends, to have normal childhoods. We have seen many remarkable changes in our children, I often call these changes ‘little miracles’, because that’s what they feel like. We had one little boy who was very Autistic join us when he was 5 years old. He did not speak or engage and he was very destructive, his only interest seemed to be in breaking every single thing around him. His family were exhausted and defeated and we wanted to help them, but we told them we could only take their son on probation as were not sure if we could help them. Today he is 12 years old and studying in our mainstream class. He is well behaved and can speak and often tells his mother what has happened in the day when he gets home from school. Another student we have is a little girl who is deafblind. She had spent time in the local psychiatric hospital for self-harming out of frustration, because she was a very bright little girl locked in her own body. We were able to teach her sign-language by touch and then her development began. She participates in the class routine, joins in games with her classmates, rides a bike, paints and has a good level of independence.
9 – Can you share with us your Son’s story and how did you adopt him?
When I worked at the orphanage, I often thought about adopting one of the children with disability. However, despite how much I cared about them, I knew I was not strong enough to look after any of them on a full-time basis. Then a 6 year old boy called Khoa came to live at the orphanage. He had Cerebral Palsy but could not walk, barely talked and didn’t know anything. He had a family but they were poor and lived in the countryside and had no idea how to help their son. I clicked with Khoa very easily and loved to watch how hard he worked to soak up all the learning opportunities that were suddenly around him. He began to develop very quickly. I approached his family and asked if he could live with me, and they agreed. He is my adopted son, but he is still their son, too, and they visit him at our house every month. Khoa is now 18 years old and will soon start work as a teaching assistant.
10 – What are the main challenges that you are facing now in your daily activity?
Our main problem is raising enough money to keep all of this going. People like to give us material things, like computers, toys, food, etc. and although these are welcome, we are a human resource project. 95% of our budget goes on staff salaries. If we cannot pay our wonderful, experienced staff, we have no project at all.
11 – Who are the main supporters of the School? Who can support the School?
We receive one-off donations through our website and some of our students are sponsored. We receive a donation each month from a local hotel and sometimes we are lucky and get a big donation from a hedge fund or philanthropic family foundation. Unfortunately, these big donors never typically donate more than twice, as they say they don’t want us to become dependent on them and they want to help other new projects. But I think, why shouldn’t we become dependent upon them if they are rich, and we are not? If they go to help another start-up project, it will be initially great for that project but then they will end up in the same situation as us, struggling to maintain what has already been established. We really need committed support. If anyone would like to make a donation to our work, they can do so through the following link at VIRGIN MONEY GIVING: https://bit.ly/2S7gmGP
12 – What would be the path to follow now? How could the School grow and develop and what would that mean?
As mentioned above, money is our main obstacle. But we are committed to helping more children, with or without more money, and are currently training mainstream teachers in local schools on how to support the main children with learning difficulties in their classes; children who are usually kicked out of school after grade one.
13 – For anyone who wants to begin such life-changing project with a deep impact in the community and in so many lives what are your recommendations? How to start? What to have in mind? What words would you share with people who are starting within this path?
I think my words are sobering, rather than inspirational, because I feel that a project like this is not for the faint-hearted! For me, this project has become a lifetime commitment, which is certainly not something that I considered when I was swept up in the first passionate wave of enthusiasm 20 years ago. You cannot raise people’s hopes and let them depend upon you if you are going to walk away when it gets too hard/boring/not what you want to do anymore! Saying that, myself and a bunch of other committed people, without much money or relevant expertise between us, have managed to create something that has changed and is changing the lives of marginalized people in big ways. We are ordinary but we have done something extraordinary. If you are in it for the long haul, you don’t have to wait for the right set of circumstances to turn up. You can make the change happen.
Jackie Wrafter receiving the MBE, Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, for the outstanding service she has been doing for the community.
With the Children’s Day just around the corner make an impact in the world, by supporting this project. If you wish to support Kianh Foundation through a donation please use this link!
If you wish to know more about the work the Kianh Foundation has been doing visit the website!
I am very humbled and honoured to bring you this interview. A special thank you to Jackie for her time to reply to Skin at Heart’s questions and for showing me the school.