Stars in the Limelight

Lu Thi Le Nuong worried that not every child in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, had access to education. Many were required to work in the streets with their parents, others lived in homes with no electricity, and no means of traveling to and from school each day. To create opportunities for those “loving young and disadvantaged children,” Ms. Muoi, as she is more commonly known, began offering free classes in a safe and stable environment. Now, 20 years later, the Ba Muoi Children’s Shelter continues to provide educational resources and services to disadvantaged children in Ho Chi Minh City. For the past two summers, Ben Le ’21 has returned home to Vietnam to serve as one of Ba Muoi’s most dedicated volunteers. 

“There are many children in Ho Chi Minh City growing up with really difficult backgrounds,” says Ben. “Without the Ba Muoi shelter, I don’t think they would receive the kind of education that could really prepare them for the future. Ms. Muoi founded the shelter through love and kindness, and with the intention to educate impoverished children on fundamental subjects. We sought to teach something just as important, but out of the regular rubric.”

Ben, along with four friends from Ho Chi Minh City, spent two and a half months working with second and seventh graders at the Ba Muoi Children’s Shelter, helping them build effective communication skills and self-confidence through public speaking and drama. They conceptualized the unique program and wrote the curriculum.

“I think the idea started with my work in theater tech at Taft,” Ben says. “I shared it with my friends in Ho Chi Minh, who began contacting schools and shelters about our idea.”

Many, Ben says, were reluctant to consider the proposal.

“I think there is a mindset in our country that these subjects will not help students lift themselves out of poverty in the future, or achieve success in a materialistically. Our core message was that in fact, they do. Confidence in communication and public speaking is important for success in every area. That’s why we did this project.”

Ben arrived at the shelter each day with carefully crafted, object-driven lesson plans. For the first two weeks, he focused on teaching his students how to speak confidently and clearly, first to a partner, then to a larger group. Eventually, they would draft responses to prompts, present them to the class, then field questions from their peers. 

“We also gave the children different scenarios—like a classroom, a soccer field, a coffee shop, or a vendor stall—and have the children work in groups of three to act out a story for the class. It was very casual, but our aim was to build their confidence,” Ben says. “Then, for the following two months we focused on working with them to mount a play. Our goal by the end of the summer was to invite everyone in the city to come and see our performance. It would be a way for the community to learn more about the shelter and about our project.”

The play was an original work, scripted by Ben and his fellow volunteers. Cỏ Dại, which translates loosely to Wild Grass, included roles for each of the seventh-grade students in his class. It tells the story of children overcoming difficult circumstances in their lives to achieve dreams they never thought possible. 

"It was a very challenging process but we had a great team,” says Ben, who, along with his four friends and fellow volunteers, worked 12-hour days six days a week to write the play. We all worked very hard.”

But it was the children, Ben says, who worked the hardest. He recalls one young student who missed many classes, as her parents required her to work with them in the streets of the city. 

“Although she didn’t have the amount of time to work with us that the others did, she worked very hard at home, on her own time, to take up her role. We didn’t pressure her or any of the students. I think they understood that if they put in the effort to work toward a goal, they really could achieve it. It was also clear that, despite their circumstances, these children loved coming to class. The shelter offers an escape from their hardships—it becomes a world where they can forgo their difficulties.”

Wild Grass was not only well-received, it was well attended: proceeds from ticket sales and fund-raisers totaled $1,200, which will be used to help improve the shelter’s facilities and to fund cultural and educational field trips. Many of those who came shared a special bond with the children.

“The moment the children saw one of their former teachers in the audience was very moving,” recalls Ben. “She taught them three years ago, and she marveled at how much they have grown. I could see in the glow of the children's eyes as they ran up to her and in their smiles that they knew they had made her very proud. They had been stars in the limelight.”

Ben’s 2018 and 2019 summer work with the children at the Ba Muoi Shelter was supported in part by a William W. Hatfield '32 Grant and a Robert Keyes Poole ’50 Fellowship. Established in 2010, and made possible through the generosity of Guy Hatfield ’65, Ross Hatfield, and the ongoing support of William W. Hatfield's family, the Hatfield Grant celebrates the ideals of Horace Dutton Taft—service above self—and is given annually to one or more students whose commitment to volunteerism brings to life the message behind Taft's motto: Non ut sibi ministretur sed ut ministret—Not to be served but to serve. Robert Keyes Poole '50 Fellowships were established in memory of Robert Keyes Poole '50, Taft master from 1956 to 1962, and are awarded each year to enable Taft students to engage in travel or in projects consistent with Mr. Poole's lifetime interest in wildlife and the environment.