We started in late 2002, as a few volunteers helping out some street kids in our spare time. During 2003, we got serious about becoming organised and finding ways to help for the long term. We started the soccer team – originally Real Betis Vietnam, and now Blue Dragon United – and also started our first shelter, a boys’ home called The Big Room.
But it was in 2004 that we became ‘officially’ recognised as an NGO (ie a registered charity) both in Australia and Vietnam. So in a sense, this will be our 10th year.
During our first few years, we faced considerable opposition. Some organisations and NGOs were great, spending time advising and supporting us. Education For Development, Catholic Relief Services, and the New Zealand Embassy were particularly helpful in those first months and years.
But surprisingly, some organisations and people were outright negative. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” they’d say. “You have no track record. You’re not an expert.”
I don’t disagree with them. In some ways, they were right: those of us who started Blue Dragon had very little experience in working with charities, and no experience at all in setting up or running an organisation.
And yet, looking back on this time, here’s my conclusion: Our lack of knowledge and experience turned out to be our greatest strength.
We weren’t afraid to try something that others thought would fail. We weren’t afraid to ‘roll the dice’ and give something a shot, no matter how unlikely a good outcome seemed.
We didn’t start with plans and budgets and setting up bureacracy. We just got in there and helped, and let the money and the administration catch up later.
One example: in 2005, we started tackling the issue of domestic trafficking – ie the trafficking of children within Vietnam for labour exploitation – before it was recognised by the law, and before any other organisation (that we know of!) was dealing with it. We found kids who had been trafficked to work on the streets or in factories, and we took them home. What was once a little-known issue is now a well known problem which provincial governments are working to address. Blue Dragon played a key role in creating that change.
Ten years down the track, Blue Dragon is significantly larger. We have over 1500 kids in our care. We have social workers, lawyers, teachers and psychologists working together on cases throughout the country, and sometimes in China as well. We’ve rescued more than 300 trafficked kids and helped about 2700 kids attend school. Nobody can accuse us now of not knowing what we’re doing.
But do we still have that same drive and passion as ten years ago? Are we still bold enough to take the risks?
The danger, as Blue Dragon grows older and wiser, is that we become inward looking and self serving. We’ve taken so many blows; why not now take it easy? Deal with some simpler cases?
Last year in particular was a tough one, as I wrote about here: The Year of the Crisis. We focused heavily on finding and helping kids in serious danger: street kids vulnerable to sexual exploitation, and young people trafficked for labour and sex. We achieved some great results, but the cost was a year of incredible stress for my team.
And so, what of the year to come?
The start of a new year is a time for resolutions and dreams. As Blue Dragon enters its “official” 10th year, those pronouncements hold an even more important symbolic value.
My resolution is this:
To never be complacent. To stay hungry and determined. To keep pushing the limits, trying new ways to help kids in crisis, getting out of our organisational comfort zone and being where we need to be.
This will be a year for innovation rather than ‘more of the same.’ We will make great progress in the fight against human trafficking, and we will make sure that Hanoi’s street kids are safer for our presence.
And I look forward to sharing the journey with you right here on the blog.