Free meals help poor children stay in school

Thanks to the kind hearts and innovative ideas of community members in southern areas, underprivileged children are being given the chance at a better life and education.

Disadvantaged students receive free rice at Ham Giang B Elementary School in southern Tra Vinh Province thanks to a charitable school program. Reducing poverty has prevented many poverty-stricken students from dropping out of school.

At the remote Ham Giang B Elementary School in Ham Giang Commune, Tra Vinh Province, 100 percent of students are from the Khmer ethnic minority. Most come from families who are desperately poverty-stricken, and often can’t afford food. Many of the children are forced to drop out of school to help their families eke out a living at home.

Golden Seeds

Searching for a solution to the problem, school Vice-Principal Son Nhuong and other teachers came up with the idea of a “Golden Seeds” fund to help feed students so they could stay in school.

During harvest time, students would collect leftover paddy seeds from rice fields.  Teachers also contributed rice and seeds for students in need and encouraged wealthier families to donate new clothes to poor students at the start of each school year.

After nine years of implementation, the Golden Seeds program continues to be a success. The school has accumulated more than 2.7 tons of rice, and has helped 132 disadvantaged students obtain new clothes, notebooks and pens.

Rice Jar of Friendship

Poor students at Ham Giang B School have also benefited from another charitable program organized by teachers. In May 2008, the school launched the “Rice Jar of Friendship” program, where every teacher was encouraged to contribute at least 5kg of rice and each student one or two cans of rice to help feed poor students.

In a small corner of the school library, a jar was placed to collect the rice brought in by students and teachers. Wealthier teachers volunteered to donate 10-20kg of rice, while students would ask their parents each day for one handful of grains. Within a month, the Rice Jar of Friendship had amassed 250kg of rice. At the end of the school year, 36 poor students were given the grains.

The program proved successful not only in terms of providing food for needy children and keeping them in school, but it also lifted community spirit. Feeling that their friends and teachers cared about their wellbeing, the disadvantaged students said they felt encouraged to study harder. 

Thach Thi Em Qui, a 5th grade student at the school, received a portion of the charitable rice last year. "After bringing my rice home, my grandmother was so happy! I promised to try my best not to betray teachers’ and friends’ good intention,” said Qui.

In the 2008-2009 school year, 9 students dropped out of Ham Giang B School, but after implementing the Rice Jar of Friendship program, there hasn’t been a single drop-out in the 2009-2010 academic year.

The school is now organizing a second phase of the program to help feed students during the upcoming Tet (lunar New Year) holiday in February and also at the end of the school year.

A café with heart

Since the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year, local café owner Ngo Nhat Dinh has also been doing his part to help provide food for poor children. Opposite the Phuong Thanh A Elementary School in What Province? Mr. Dinh’s small restaurant serves up free meals for 15 kids who would otherwise go hungry.

A former teacher at the school, Nguyen Thanh Chan, helped launch the program with VND6 million from his own teaching salary. School Principal Thach Thanh Long then asked teachers to make a list of the 15 most disadvantaged students likely to quit school and report to the managing board.

“Cooking for 15 small children is very hard but all of us are happy with this meaningful work. Seeing that poor students are eager to learn and learn well, we all participate in the movement to support them,” said Mr. Dinh.

Each day at around 11:00 am, a few 1st and 2nd graders always arrive early to help “Uncle Dinh” clean tables. They then wait patiently for their friends to join them for a meal. The free lunches are worth about VND9,000 each, considered a “luxury” to the young students.

Some of the disadvantaged children at Phuong Thanh A Elementary School have additional challenges such as physical disabilities. Lam Chi Nhan, a 5th grader with several siblings, lost the use of one of his legs. Nhan’s parents own a noodle stall and earn just a few hundred thousand dong a month.

”Only on the Tet holiday can I eat rice with fish and meat. On normal days I have very frugal meals. But now with the delicious [free] meals, I am becoming healthy. I try my best to learn in order to get a good job to help my parents and other poor students as my teachers and Mr. Dinh have done for us,”  said Nhan.
Thach Truong Quy, a 2nd grader, has three siblings – all of whom are disabled. Quy’s parents are freelance laborers and don’t have stable jobs. The lunch provided by teachers and Mr. Dinh allows Quy to continue learning without the burden of hunger.  Quy also spares some meat at each meal for his younger sister. Formerly, a very sick and thin child, Quy is now much healthier and hasn’t missed a day of school since the program began.

In the fall of 2008, a special ceremony was held at Mr. Dinh’s café to officially launch the free-lunch program. Commune leaders and program benefactors attended the event.

Watching the poor students eating slowly, some thought the children did not care for the food. But when asked why they ate the way they did, the students said they had not eaten a full meal in a very long time and were simply savoring the dishes. They were also trying to save some to bring home to their siblings, they added.

After listening to the children’s plights, many benefactors attending the event donated an extra VND1-2 million on the spot.

"At first, myself and Mr. Chan thought the program would last no longer than three months, but to our surprise, the benefactors showed enthusiastic support so the free lunches have continued until now," said Mr. Long.

"We will try to keep the program running until the end of this year. If funding from the benefactors continues, the school will continue to extend the program into next year to help poor students,” Mr. Long added.

By Dinh Canh-Translated by Truong Van Anh

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