Sam Russell has spent nearly 20 years in Viet Nam, working for the Viet Nam Children’s Fund. He has overseen the construction of 50 elementary schools.
Inner Sanctum: What made you come to Viet Nam?
I am an engineer and have travelled around the world to work on various construction projects. In 1992, my wife and I decided to do something different, and arranged to travel to Ha Noi, a city we regard as one of the most exciting and mysterious places in Southeast Asia.
When I first arrived here, I worked for the UN, but then in 1994, I had the opportunity to join the VCF and help poor children who live in remote areas.
Inner Sanctum: When you build schools for poor children, you look very happy. Can you describe that feeling for us?
Recently, we opened our 48th elementary school in the northern province of Yen Bai. This two-storey school has eight classrooms, providing an education for thousands of local children.
We are trying to build schools in all of the country’s 63 provinces. I have tonnes of reasons to be happy here, mostly because I love children and their bright smiles and shining eyes. To watch them learning in spacious classrooms excites me.
Another reason is that I have met wonderful people. They live in poverty but they are kind-hearted. I have seen an old man giving away part of his land to a school, and a mother emptying her pockets to build a bridge for children to cross a stream.
Inner Sanctum: As a person who has spent a long time in this country and has built 50 schools for children in remote and mountainous areas, how do you feel about the Vietnamese people’s love of learning?
I really admire the studious spirit of the Vietnamese. There is no place on earth like here. Everyone shows gratitude and respect to teachers, and care about their children’s studies.
The schools have changed people’s lives. Although the changes are slow and take time, they are meaningful. We are currently working with the Ministry of Labour, Invalid and Social Affairs to provide qualified teachers at new schools.
Inner Sanctum: Your project has brought happiness to many poor families. Where do you get your sponsorship from?
The money comes from the VCF, and is strictly supervised. Many Vietnamese benefactors want to make donations, but the money has to go through the charity first before it is disbursed. Most of the money is used to build houses for kids. We also ask local authorities to provide accounts of how the money is used to prevent losses. Local people are happy to provide equipment for the schools because their kids are getting access to an education. Most children are from poor families, so they have to work harder to contribute to their family income, but when they see the new schools, it inspires them.
Inner Sanctum: How do you manage to use the money efficiently?
The VCF works on a simple and economical scale. We work through e-mail, so we can save a lot. We wish to build as many schools as possible, so that the money we collect is not wasted. Working efficiently and quickly are parts of my personality. We also entrust the money to local authorities while we supervise their activities. The VCF is loyal to the principle of building a school of eight classrooms for just US$150,000, and we have always been successful.
Inner Sanctum: What do you think about Ha Noi today?
I’m really impressed with how Ha Noi has developed over the past 20 years. When I first arrived, there was no electricity. Now, not only Ha Noi but also the whole country has changed incredibly. I have never seen a country develop so fast, because Vietnamese are intelligent and diligent. I live with my family in France, but each time I come back here, I feel younger than ever. — VNS
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