|Encouragement and motivation: Needy people work at Lifestart Foundation's workshop
by Le Huong
Hundreds of needy people in the central province of Quang Nam have received support from the Lifestart Foundation run by Australian Karen Leonard.
For the past 15 years, Leonard has been working actively to raise funds in Australia for the poor people in this province to support their vocational training, health services, as well as their accommodation and education, to help improve their lives.
Before visiting Viet Nam as a tourist in 2000, Leonard ran a small private music school in Mel-bourne, Australia.
During her trip to Viet Nam, she met four small street children and their families. All of them were intelligent, but what upset her was the fact that they had already quit school.
Leonard soon encouraged them to return to school and paid for their education.
After returning home from her first trip and deeply affected by the plight of these people, Leonard made a commitment that she would return to Viet Nam and support these boys and many others like them.
At that year's Christmas party, she suggested that instead of buying the usual obligatory Christmas presents, everyone should put into a hat the amount of money they would normally spend on a present. The idea was wholeheartedly embraced by her family and friends and so began Leonard's Lifestart Foundation journey with AU$400.
However, as word got around, friends and family continued to donate more money to help children and families in Viet Nam.
"My days are very long. I work seven days a week between 7am and 7pm," Leonard told Viet Nam News, adding, "I could not be happier with our achievements."
There is no typical day as anyone can see her in a government meeting, or interviewing potential education scholarship students. Sometimes she is in her workshop with the workers, or visiting her free rehabilitation centre and outreach projects, or even visiting sites where houses are being built for poor families.
A handicraft workshop with more than 10 disabled women has been set up since 2008 in downtown Hoi An. It then quickly expanded to include diverse groups of people with and without disabilities, young and old, male and female.
The workshop offers souvenirs, jewellery and toys, apart from household wares from various materials including recycled items such as used bottles, cloth, newspapers and magazines.
"I lost the use of my legs at the age of 18 after an accident," Bui Thi Phuoc Hanh, who works at the shop said, adding, "My parents are getting old and they were afraid that one day they would be unable to help me anymore."
Things changed since Hanh met Leonard in 2008. Like other disabled women at the workshop, she received training, and a vehicle to travel to work by herself.
"Instead of staying at home bothering my parents, I now travel to work every day by myself, meet with people on the streets, and earn some money. My life is now more meaningful," she said.
The handicraft products have been sold online through the foundation's website (http://www.lifestartfoundation.org.au) as well as some silver boutiques in Australia, the US and the UK.
The workshop also produces shopping bags for the Spotlight retail franchise, which has 120 stores across Australia.
The women at the workshop are also able to look after their health at a free rehabilitation centre nearby that Leonard set up in 2011, which is also open to other needy people in Quang Nam.
It offers various therapies including acupuncture, physical therapy and massage to both adults and children with problems resulting from birth defects, injuries suffered in war, and accidents. Since it was established, the centre has hosted more than 100 frequent attendees who have received treatment for their long and short-term diseases from professional therapists.
"Doctors here work wholeheartedly," Nguyen Duong, who has been a frequent patient at the centre for more than two years, commented.
"My movements have improved significantly, though I can never regain 100 per cent of my strength," she added.
Leonard has received various donations from individuals and organisations from outside Viet Nam for the project. She often appears at the centre to stay in touch with everybody.
"Sometimes they just need some encouragement and motivation," she said.
Besides, she is running an education support programme for 84 poor students from 20 secondary schools in the province, who have received stationery, laptops and bicycles.
|Changing lives: Karen Leonard (right) with Thuyet Lan, who attends Leonard's rehabilitation centre.
Around 30 students and teachers from Australia have just visited the province to present gifts to needy students.
Sheona Pearson, a student from Australia, said she had never been so excited before to give her old laptop as a present to a poor friend.
"It is amazing, because I cannot imagine that things we throw away like an old laptop can bring so much happiness to needy people," she said.
Leonard has also found her cosy family in Viet Nam besides her daughter in Australia. She had adopted two Vietnamese brothers, who used to stay at a local orphanage. They are both married now, and have children.
"We play a lot of games, and have educational toys," Leonard said about her weekend with the children, adding, "We have a small pool. Playing with the children is what I look forward to on all weekdays."
"I am living my dream in terms of the passion with my work at Lifestart Foundation every day. I am so thrilled to help so many people," she said.
"My growing family gives me great joy, and I love being a grandmother," she added.
She further said she would like to encourage Vietnamese and international businesses operating in Viet Nam to launch corporate social responsibility programmes and to get behind her work and support her foundation financially. — VNS