October 2, 2017
May 18, 2017
December 13, 2016
September 14, 2016
Nov 1, 2015
In our Vietnam and Cambodia program guests have the opportunity to visit three incredible organisations: KOTO Restaurant, LifeStart and Phare Circus. These organisations provide a fantastic support network for the local community, including their youth, and allows them to share their culture and talents as well as giving them a sense of ownership and pride. We spoke to Huong Dang from KOTO and Sinh from LifeStart to give us a little insight into their lives. The Phare Circus have a terrific blog featuring their performers. You can read their story at www.pharecircus.org/category/blog for fascinating “Meet the Stars” interviews.
Can you tell us about yourself?
KOTO: My name is Huong Dang, I’m now the Trainee Sponsorship Coordinator for KOTO Vietnam and KOTO International Marketing & Communications Manager.
LifeStart: My name is Sinh, I’m an artist and the art teacher of the Lifestart Foundation painting class. In addition I also work as a volunteer at the Lifestart Foundation Workshop.
What was your life like before you joined KOTO/Lifestart?
KOTO: I left home at 13 from the country-side in north-west Vietnam to Hanoi and worked as a babysitter to earn money to support my mum and siblings. My mum worked hard on the farm all her life bringing us up on her own while suffering from a kidney infection and many other illnesses.
After four and a half years I saw myself without a future but my childhood dream to be a teacher was still strong so I returned to school and studied at night. I had nowhere to live, no job, no family support, no relatives or friends. Every day was a struggle to survive. When I had to sell sticky rice on the street, I slept two hours at night and awoke at 2am every day. I was lucky enough to meet a young girl at my night class who told me about KOTO and that simple conversation completely changed my whole life.
LifeStart: Before I met Karen Leonard, Lifestart Foundation Founder, I lived in an orphanage in Hoi An. My mother died when I was six months old and my brother Tu was four years old. My father deserted us shortly after and an aunt was left to raise my brother and I. She cared for us for four years but due to her own poverty, she couldn’t continue to support us so my brother and I were placed in an orphanage where we spent the next 11 years.
At 18, I left the orphanage with a mere $15 and travelled to 40 different cities in Vietnam where I learned how to survive. I had many different jobs to support myself and sometimes when there was not enough money, my home was a park bench at night. After that I returned to Hoi An, I worked as a waiter working seven days a week earning a little over $1 per day.
What is life like now and how has it changed?
KOTO: The biggest change is the self-confidence I’ve gained. Also, the opportunity to earn an international education, to live a life with dignity and pride, and earning a stable income to support my family. Not only has my life changed but my whole family’s life has changed in many positive ways too. I couldn’t have asked for more as I now have the opportunity to live in Melbourne, the “World’s Most Liveable City”. I completed an Associate Degree in Commerce and I’m now doing my
Master of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Swinburne University of Technology. I work part time for Sofitel Melbourne on Collins and I’m also the Victorian Government’s International Student Ambassador and Breast Cancer Network Vietnam (BCNV) Pink Hat Ambassador. I work voluntarily on projects and fundraising that benefit international students in Melbourne and support BCNV in Vietnam. I’m also actively working for KOTO.
LifeStart: My situation changed when I re-connected with Karen Leonard in 2006. I joined the Lifestart Foundation Jobstart Program where I was sent to Ho Chi Minh City to study alongside well-known professional artists. I now have my own art gallery and sell my original artwork all over the world.
What is the best thing about your experience at KOTO/Lifestart?
KOTO: That’s hard to describe - what is unforgettable at KOTO is the family oriented environment. Whether as a trainee or a staff member at KOTO, the sense of belonging to a family lasts forever.
LifeStart: I have the opportunity to learn great painting skills from well-known professional artists which I can apply to my work. In addition I learn professional business skills from Karen which is very helpful when I work with international customers.
What are the other favourite things about your role?
KOTO: The greatest part is the chance to work with the trainees where I learn about their lives and can be inspired by their stories. Working with sponsors, key partners and donors globally gives me such a great learning experience not only relating to my job but the cultural exchanges as well. I can then inspire my team who work hard every day toward this great cause.
LifeStart: I enjoy interacting with customers from all over the world and sharing my story with them. I also love being a part of the Lifestart Foundation Team and doing volunteer work with them.
What can you tell us about your future plans?
KOTO: I’ll be graduating in July 2016 and plan to stay in Australia for a couple of years to earn some international business experience before returning to Vietnam to apply my knowledge to KOTO Vietnam. I may even start up my own social business or community project in Vietnam!
LifeStart: My biggest ambition in the future is to have enough money to build a good orphanage for abandoned children in Hoi An.
What advice do you have for evergreen guests who visit KOTO/Lifestart?
KOTO: KOTO trainees provide most of the food and beverage service while they are learning, so ask them questions about their story. By sharing their story, it reminds them of who they are, where they came from and why they still have to work hard. It also gives them a chance to practice their English as well. I would advise friends who travel to my country to get exposure to the local experiences, to visit rural areas and see the different parts of Vietnam, and to see how real Vietnamese people live. Also you must try Vietnamese food - it’s something you can’t miss… and finally, don’t be scared by our traffic!
LifeStart: A visit to the Lifestart Foundation guarantees an authentic and memorable cultural exchange as well as an opportunity to learn about the organisation. You’ll meet our members and see first-hand how our products are made.
From (AUD) $3,195
From (AUD) $3,395