By Judy O’Gorman Alvarez |
Four or so times a year, Alex Paulus leaves his home and family in Switzerland and – armed with suitcases of school supplies, children’s clothing and toys – travels to a remote area of Vietnam to provide the children and teachers with much-needed essentials.
Through Volunteers for Education (VFE), a charity Paulus founded in 2017, he works to build a better and sustainable life for people in need in the mountainous provinces and remote rural areas of Vietnam in a simple way: through education.
The charity focuses on educational conditions because of the basic belief that better education leads to a better life.
Paulus’ career in international oil has allowed him to visit and work in various cities around the world, such as Singapore, London, Hamburg, Zurich and Red Bank, where he still has ties to good friends. But it was on a business trip to Vietnam where Paulus found poverty so striking and disturbing, it inspired him to create VFE.
Vietnam has a population of more than 90 million people, more than 30 million of whom are under the age of 18; more than 7 million are under 5 years old.
According to U.N. statistics, almost 20 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line, a mere $1.25 per day. Of the ethnic minorities, almost 50 percent live below this level and a total of almost 75 percent face the risk of poverty.
“Cities like Hanoi and Saigon, economically, look pretty decent,” Paulus said. “But if you go outside these big cities, the world looks quite different. There’s a lot of poverty. Conditions are extreme and it’s rough living.”
The key to helping them live a sustainable life, according to Paulus, is education. “Education is men- tioned as a key right in the international child convention by the United Nations,” he said. So VFE focuses on educating children and building and repairing primary and secondary schools in remote regions where education can take a backseat to surviving.
But launching VFE was no easy task. The heart may be willing, but bureaucracy can be extreme. The hurdles and paperwork involved to create and work as an NGO (non-governmental organization) in any country can be arduous.
“Vietnam is still a Communist country,” Paulus said. “”It can be very difficult and take a long time to set up a charity. You have to go to nine different ministries. Sometimes a stamp is more important than anything else.”
But these difficulties have made the charity’s accomplishments so far even sweeter. In March VFE built and opened a nursery school and kindergar ten for 51 preschoolers, personally financed by Paulus.
Although they star ted small, Paulus said VFE is beginning out-reach to make more people aware of who they are and what they are doing and hopefully inspire donors.
“Transparency is 100 percent,” he said. “We are audited on an annual basis so ever yone can see what we’re doing.”
Paulus, along with his wife Brigitte who is the charity’s head of finance, forgo salaries and absorb their travel costs. Currently the charity’s only expenditures are local ones – small salaries for the limited staff.
Paulus believes “placing people on the ground” and involving the community is key. “You want them to make it their own project.”
VFE is currently constructing a boarding house for the secondary school in Phinh Sang – a commune and village in the Dien Bien Province in northwestern Vietnam – a project which they hope to complete in mid-July, Paulus said. It will provide housing for about 140 students, which helps greatly, but many more are in need. “There are still around 200 projects and villages asking for similar urgent support in the province,” he said.
But Volunteers for Education doesn’t plan to stop at schools. “We’ll start by building schools and boarding houses, but we want to go deeper,” he said.
“After construction we will support the school by providing volunteers. They support the kids in their day-to-day lives as these children are away from home during the week. By showing them how to plant vegetables and raise chickens to provide eggs and meat, the children learn farming and to take responsibility.”
Teaching the next generation how to read, write and survive on a daily basis can lead to opportunities in their community. “I think the majority of these kids will stay where they are,” he said. An education creates opportunities within their community for sustaining a healthy life, through farming, teaching or other ways.
More importantly, Paulus believes, education is what helps form independent, critical thinking. “This is very important as this is the basis of all societies,” he said.
Without education, he points out, children do not grow up to know their basic rights and are more likely to fall victim to a host of human rights violations, such as child marriage, slavery, domestic violence or even killings.
“It’s also about their own life and how to behave in society,” he said. “What do I need to do? What do I have to do? What can I do? These are fundamental questions for people within a working society.”
Paulus hopes his message of hope will inspire others.
“I tell people, if you want to make a difference, visit our website and learn more about what we do.”
For more information on Volunteers for Education, visit volunteersforeducation.com.
This article was first published in the June 14-June 21, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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