HUẾ — Graham Buckley first came to Việt Nam as a volunteer in 2006 and soon fell in love with the country.
He had signed up to teach swimming on Chàm Island in the central province of Quảng Nam, but the programme was cancelled and he transferred to work as an English teaching assistant in Huế.
“I didn’t really like working as an English teacher, but I loved Huế and Việt Nam,” he told Việt Nam News. “As part of this work though I came to know Huế Children’s Shelter – which back then was a very different place.”
“There wasn’t adequate supervision, food or education. Many children were leaving the shelter without a full education and without any support, which led to a lot of difficulties,” he said.
Graham Buckley (third from left) meets Vice Chairman of Thừa Thiên Huế Province, Nguyễn Dũng, and authorities in February. — Photo courtesy of Graham Buckley
He decided to start Hue Help to address these issues. Since then he spent his time between Huế and the UK before moving to the city in 2016 with his wife.
Drowning is one of the top causes of death of children in Việt Nam, with more children drowning here than any other country in Southeast Asia.
Buckley at a lifeguard training for Laguna Lang Co Resort. — Photo courtesy of Graham Buckley
That’s why he focused on Hue Help’s Swimming for Safety programme on teaching local children to swim and learn water safety skills.
Lifeguard Training for Laguna Lang Co Resort. Photo courtesy of Graham Buckley
“The World Health Organisation describes drowning as a ‘silent epidemic’ – and the WHO recommends teaching swimming and water safety to school-aged children to reduce the burden of drowning,” he said.
He teaches first aid for a charity organisation. — Photo courtesy of Graham Buckley
To date, Hue Help has trained nearly 500 swimming teachers and more than 11,000 children.
Buckley admitted that there have been many challenges in terms of scheduling, funding and facilities.
“The winter can be too cold for swimming lessons in the facilities that are available – and the opposite is true in the summer!” he said.
The only time the organisation can effectively run swimming lessons is during the summer holidays in the early morning or late afternoon.
“To make the programme work effectively, we have to work closely with communities and schools to plan the programme schedule very carefully,” he said.
Besides, funding for drowning prevention is scarce.
“We address this by raising awareness of the drowning issues in the community and showing that there are interventions that are proven to prevent drowning – just like a vaccine for a disease,” he said.
To overcome the problem of lacking proper facilities for swimming, the organisation uses thoroughly risk assessed open water sites where possible like lakes and the beach.
Buckley said the organisation has trained more than 10,000 children in open water but it can’t always find a suitable option for every area.
“I remember one time, a mother visited one of our rural swimming sites to ask if her son could join the swimming lessons,” Buckley recalled. “She told us how two of her daughters had recently drowned at the same time while playing in a river. She wanted to make sure the same thing never happened to her son.”
Buckley with a child from Huế Children’s Shelter on a summer trip organised by Hue Help. — Photo courtesy of Graham Buckley
“We hear of drowning stories all the time and we know how tragically high the numbers are - but when we meet people who have been directly affected by it and hear about them tell their stories, it certainly makes it very real,” Buckley said.
Hue Help’s second programme is Hue Children’s Shelter, which is a social support centre run by Thừa Thiên Huế Department of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (DOLISA) – a home for children without parents or family that can care for them.
“Every child at the shelter has their own story,” Buckley said. "One example is Bình, who grew up with his mother at a social supporting centre, and was later transferred to Hue Children’s Shelter.
“He missed a lot of school in his early childhood and ended up dropping out of school at 15.
“Our team worked with him to explore options and helped him apply to a hospitality vocational school in Hội An.
“He was successful, and after a year of study, he went on to get a job as a baker at a 5-star-resort in Huế."
Life in Huế
“For me, Huế is a wonderful place to live,” he said. “I’m fascinated by the culture and history, I love the food, the people and I love how green the city is. Being able to head out of the city and swim in the river, visit the beach or cycle out in the countryside is really important to me.”
Even though he first visited Huế in 2006, he's still learning more about the city.
Buckley's wedding photo with Vice President of Vietnam Nguyễn Thị Doan, and his family. — Photo courtesy of Graham Buckley
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in Huế over that period of time and there are a lot of exciting developments – but at the same time, Huế has escaped the rapid over-development that can sometimes occur in very fast-growing economies,” he said.
Like the rest of the world, Buckley hasn't escaped the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
“While we are currently unable to run our core drowning prevention programmes due to COVID-19, we will do all we can to continue to raise awareness about child drowning and the specific risks at this time,” he said.
“Our funding has also been affected,” he said. “It’s not possible to run conventional fundraising events at the moment, and many individuals and organisations have fewer funds available.
“We will continue to support drowning prevention efforts nationally as well as education at Hue Children’s Shelter, and ensure we are ready to restart and continue to grow our programmes in full at the earliest possible time.
This year, Hue Help plans to train 1,200 children to swim in Thừa Thiên Huế through its Swimming for Safety initiative in partnership with LuxDev.
In addition, it aims to run swimming programmes in Thanh Hóa province, as well as support swimming teacher training at a national level in partnership with the Vietnam Aquatic Sports Association (VASA) and the Vietnam Sports Administration.
In Hà Nội, working with the Department of Education and Training, the organisation plans to train 30 school teachers as water safety educators, who will then go on to train about 1,800 school children in vital water safety skills. — VNS