Mr Tuan and Uncle Toan both passed away last week.
Mr Tuan died in hospital, his lungs wracked with tuberculosis. He spent his last weeks drifting in and out of lucidity, rarely recognising anyone or anything around him. His funeral was held in his hometown on Thursday.
We met Mr Tuan 2 years ago. He was sleeping in an ATM booth here in Hanoi with his 2 children, who were then aged 6 and 8. A son and a daughter, homeless with their father yet safe in his strong arms.
Blue Dragon became involved and helped this fragile family into a rented room. With some assistance, the children returned to school and Mr Tuan’s life was back on a steady path again for the first time in many years.
The message came through to me on Sunday last week that his struggle to protect and nourish his family was nearing its end. My staff were despondent; we have tried so much, cared so much, but for all of our effort we could not prevent this. Mr Tuan is not the first person to pass away who we have helped; not even the first to die because of tuberculosis. But there’s no point at which this becomes easier.
Late at night I rang one of the team to find out how Mr Tuan’s children were coping while their father was in hospital. The staff member answered the phone in a hushed voice.
Where are you? I asked.
I’m in the hospital, he replied. With Mr Tuan.
Mr Tuan was already well beyond consciousness. He had no awareness that anyone was by his bed. Even if he did know, it’s not likely he knew that this was a Blue Dragon social worker.
And when he died, he could not have known that the Blue Dragon team would be there at his funeral, standing beside his children.
Just days later came the news that Chu Toan had passed away.
Chu (Uncle) Toan was a very special person at Blue Dragon; he was one of our longest serving staff, working with us as a guard and greeter for over 10 years. Most people who have visited us at some time in the past decade will have met Chu Toan, even if only briefly. He lived a humble life and took his work very seriously. When he became ill with cancer earlier this year one of his first concerns was to sort out who could take over his job.
Chu Toan spent the last six months in and out of hospitals in Hanoi. When they could do no more for him, he asked to return to his ancestral home outside the city, so he could pass away in familiar surroundings with family.
Over the weekend, two busloads of Blue Dragon staff and children went to pay their respects. Nearly 60 people – including social workers, accountants, fundraisers, teachers, cleaners, and some of our teens as well – made the journey to say their final farewell to a man who has lived a difficult life, but gave his last 10 years in service of children whose lives were even more difficult than his own.
Chu Toan would have been honored to see the crowd that gathered in his memory.
Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is incredibly fortunate to have the support of some substantial funding organisations. We’re always writing grant proposals and talking to institutions and governments that fund development work.
While every application we submit is different, many of the questions we must answer are similar.
Does Blue Dragon have tax deductible status?
What’s our organisational capacity?
Do we have long term plans and strategies in place?
What plans do we have for leadership succession?
Is our work sustainable?
All of these are fair questions. I have no issue with any of them. But something is missing from the list:
How much do we care?
It’s almost easy for organisations to have sustainability plans and succession strategies and decent Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning processes in place. There’s something fundamentally wrong if any of these elements is missing or cannot be created.
But why are we so rarely asked if we care? If we will sit in the hospital on a Sunday night by the bed of a dying man to hold his hand so he is not alone in his final hours? If what we do actually matters to us, in our innermost hearts? If we will still care about the lives of those around us even when there’s no “sustainable outcome” to be had and no budget line to correspond with the tears that we will shed?
Aren’t these the most important questions of all?
Too much of the development sector has become afraid of basic human kindness, because it’s not measurable or scalable. “Charity” is now a dirty word. We’re all familiar with the old adage about giving a man a fish vs teaching him to fish for himself, and we all know that we must nod along with the conclusion that feeding someone is inherently the wrong thing to do.
Somehow we’ve come to think that this an either/or scenario; but why can’t you feed the man while teaching him to fish? And why is it disgraceful to accept that some people are too weak or too unwell to hold that rod, and may never be able to feed themselves?
Why is it that making the case for caring is seen to imply an argument against long term development work?
Early this year Blue Dragon went through an internal discussion about our mission statement. This wasn’t a “branding” exercise; we felt that our original statement, developed more than 10 years ago, could be improved upon to better capture who we are and why we do what we do.
And so we rewrote our statement to say:
Blue Dragon’s purpose is to provide exceptional care to Vietnamese children and families in crisis while creating long-term change for a better world.
In short: Exceptional care while we change the world. Charity and development, unashamedly hand in hand. With charity first.
Organisations like Blue Dragon – whether you call us a charity, or an NGO, or a non-profit – should not be measured by how well we tick the boxes and use the development jargon of the day. Our KPIs cannot just be about our spending and our income.
Fortunately, we already have plenty of supporters who judge us by the criteria of our heart: how much we care. Without their assistance and sponsorship, we could do nothing.
For Mr Tuan and his two beautiful children, and for Chu Toan who was laid to rest on Sunday, how much we care is all that matters right now.