When a college student returns home from study abroad, one could expect them to maybe have a sunburn, probably some cool souvenirs, and most likely some more student loans. But for three students from Loyola University Chicago, it was not only normal to return to the U.S. with stories, but also their own NGO.
Trevaughn (Trey) Latimer, Anna Dexter, and Anna Weiss all studied at Loyola’s Vietnam Center during the spring of 2018. During the semester the college students, ranging from sophomore to junior year and all interested in public policy, began to intern for a homeless boys shelter in Ho Chi Minh City called Green Bamboo. It wasn’t until a few weeks into the program that they found out about the organization’s financial troubles and decided to take direct action.
Green Bamboo is a shelter run by the Ho Chi Minh Child Welfare Association (HCWA). Since the shelter opened over 20 years ago, its purpose has been to help serve the homeless youth population of the city by providing beds to sleep in, education, English language courses, and workforce skills. Most importantly, Green Bamboo is where boys are welcomed into a stable and loving environment. Until they are 18-years-old, boys are free to drop in to the shelter for either short or long term care, and the staff typically see about 15-20 boys living at Green Bamboo at a time.
For Latimer, Dexter, and Weiss, it began as a straightforward, rewarding internship: helping out with the shelter’s lunch service business, facilitating English language classes, building connections with the boys, and learning the ropes of operating a nonprofit.
“We started to get more involved and we tasked ourselves with working more on the sustainability of Green Bamboo,” said Dexter. “We worked on trying to make the English program something that could be sustained better between different cohorts of volunteers and we worked on the business side with finances and donors.”
The three worked closely with Green Bamboo’s Director, Mrs. Phat. They began to forge solid relationships with the boys at the shelter. They were noticing some areas for improvement at the shelter, specifically with volunteer coordination, that they were excited to tackle.
Just when they were beginning to find their footing at the shelter, Mrs. Phat told them she was leaving. And, facilitated by her broken English and emotional state, convinced the three interns that Green Bamboo was closing down.
“We all panicked!” recalled Weiss. The students raced across Ho Chi Minh City to the office of Chris Albright, the director of the Loyola Vietnam Center. “Then, through some more communication, we realized that it wasn’t immediately closing,” said Weiss. “It was just that the gravity of their financial unpredictability and instability had become a lot more apparent and the sight of them closing was on the horizon.”
In response to this, Albright told the students they should do something to help. Maybe, he suggested, they could step in an fill that financial gap with their own nonprofit. After all, who better to help out the boys and the shelter than people who had already been working there?
Latimer with two of the boys at Green Bamboo. Photo Credit: Vietnam’s Children Shelter Fund
It turns out that Green Bamboo had not been receiving much of their requested funding from the HCWA — not because they were being denied, but because the HCWA was running out of adequate resources for all of the shelters and organizations they oversaw. The steady donor base that had given to Vietnam, mostly from Western countries, had been shrinking. Roughly speaking, Green Bamboo was consistently short 400-500 U.S. dollars every month…an enormous gap in a country such as Vietnam, where a typical street meal costs $1.
To Latimer, it felt necessary to make the jump from interns seeking college credit to founders of a nonprofit because of their deep connections to the boys at the shelter. “We weren’t people who went there for one day and were like, ‘Oh, they have such terrible conditions here and we should do something about it.’ We actually developed relationships with the boys.”
As soon as they heard the news of the shelter’s financial situation, they tried to process the situation logistically. After all, they needed to have a place to intern for the rest of the semester. Additionally, there were other volunteers at Green Bamboo who’s schedules were managed by the three students that had to be accounted for.
Latimer said they thought over Albright’s words, reexamined their predicament, and decided, “Okay, what can we do to help sustain this. We see that there’s financial instability, so what can we do.”
And then, the Vietnam’s Children Shelter Fund (VCSF) was born.
But, surprise surprise, building a nonprofit from the ground up, as twenty-year-olds without the proper experience, while residing in a different country, isn’t exactly easy.
While in Vietnam, the students had to file Articles of Incorporation to become a nonprofit in the state of Illinois. Then they trudged through the drawn-out process of receiving 501(c)(3) federal tax-exempt status. Paperwork and bylaws had to be filled out and submitted back in the United States. Donations had to be raised for the legal work that was needed. Plans had to be drawn up and a board had to be established. The logistics, at times, never seemed to have an end.
During that time, the three also sought out contacts and relationships in Vietnam by meeting with the HCWA. “We met with their director to kind of explain who we are, what we were planning on doing, making sure they wanted our help, telling them what our plan was, how we foresaw our involvement with them, and seeing if they had any input,” said Dexter.
Through it all, a vision for what kind of organization they wished to create slowly began to manifest as a reality. VCSF is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, meaning that the United States IRS has recognized them as tax-exempt, and the money that they raise goes to the basic needs of the boys at Green Bamboo.
“It’s a two-pronged approach,” said Weiss. First, VCSF supports Green Bamboo, with funds raised domestically in the U.S., through a partnership with the HCWA. Their main goals with the funding is to keep the environment stable by helping to pay the rent and keep the doors open, and by providing food and hygiene products for the boys. Eventually VCSF would like to sponsor larger projects, such as a fixing and replacing all of the broken computers at the shelter.
Because of the relationship between nonprofits and Vietnam’s communist government, it’s incredibly difficult to begin anything new in the country. So, since the HCWA is the umbrella organization to Green Bamboo, it is most-legally-sound for donations to be facilitated through them. “We want to reassure our donors that all of our money does go directly to Green Bamboo,” said Weiss. While the HCWA channels the money, VCSF gets detailed reports of how every penny is spent, so that they know it’s going to the boys and the needs that they specified.
“It’s harder to tug at people’s heartstrings, I think, with a 14-year-old boy who’s a little rowdy and kind of loud than, perhaps, a UNICEF toddler,” said Weiss. While a few of the boys are around five or six, most of them fall in the 12 to 16 age range, which is where homeless youth become even more at-risk of gang activity, violence, and economic exploitation. “We wanted to help raise up their voice and their story since it’s a demographic that’s hard to reach.”
The second portion of VCSF is to help facilitate volunteerism. “Looking back on our own experience as volunteers, it was a little bit jarring, as Americans, to be in a whole new environment. There was a lot of adjusting that wasn’t the fault of Green Bamboo, but just adjusting to a new culture,” said Weiss. So now, the group wishes to be advocates for new volunteers at Green Bamboo as a collector of contacts, a platform for discussing new experiences, and as a source of advice and guidance.
Weiss with several of the Green Bamboo boys. Photo Credit: Vietnam’s Children Shelter Fund
Since returning back to America, the three have also discovered how tasking it is to try and run a nonprofit while being enrolled as full-time students. However, there is no shortage to the big plans they have in mind for the VCSF. They regularly stay in touch with Green Bamboo, the boys there, the HCWA, and their Vietnamese contacts, as well as hosting online donation campaigns through their website and their Facebook. Work is being done to maintain their own operating costs, although the three of them don’t receive any type of salary or compensation for the work they are putting in.
For all three of them, Latimer, Dexter and Weiss, this project isn’t something that is going to be thrown away anytime soon. While they haven’t made their first donation yet, they are steadily marching toward the day when they can consistently send over money. They have dreams of branching out to other HCWA shelters, expanding the board, and possibly employing interns in Vietnam, just as they once were.
“I see myself, as long as we can sustain it, having a role in the nonprofit,” said Dexter. “I don’t know if it’ll be the same role that we hold now, but ideally, we’ll still have a voice and how it runs and hopefully it’ll become easier to run as we get going and we’ll have some more people to help us out.”
Someday, they all wish to go back to Vietnam and revisit the shelter, the staff and the boys that they all fell in love with.
“We wanted to be proactive and make sure that the donations were facilitated correctly,” said Latimer. “Because we know the boys. We know the situation. This is all coming from people who have been there and have done the work.”
And the hardest work, said Dexter, is being done everyday on-the-ground in Vietnam by the staff at Green Bamboo. “I think those are the people who are figuring out what needs to be done and knows what needs to be done. We’re just trying to provide all of the resources that they need to get that.”
When asked what it was about these children that especially stuck with them, the three students all brought up the brotherly connections the boys share. To Latimer, it was like watching himself grow up with his own brothers. “I saw how close they were and how they played with each other. It was how they would joke around and punch and wrestle each other. You know, simple stuff that is normal, but is so fragile.”