Courtenay woman spends time volunteering in Vietnam as a gesture of thanks

Renee Friedman is indebted to Vietnam for giving her “the best thing I ever got.” Volunteer work in her daughter’s birth country was Friedman’s way of giving back. Inset (supplied photo) Shaina Friedman - Scott Stanfield
Renee Friedman is indebted to Vietnam for giving her “the best thing I ever got.” Volunteer work in her daughter’s birth country was Friedman’s way of giving back. Inset (supplied photo) Shaina Friedman
— image credit: Scott Stanfield

Some people uphold animal rights. Others care for the environment. Renée Friedman likes to help children and youth.

She also likes the idea of giving something back to the world. So she packed her bags and spent a few months working for non-profits in Vietnam — the birthplace of her adopted daughter, Shaina.

“I thought, ‘Why not give something back to Vietnam?’, because they gave me the best thing I ever got,” said Friedman, a case manager at the Creative Employment Access Society in Courtenay.

After growing up in a slum in Brooklyn, New York, Friedman spent many years on Cortes Island before moving to the Valley about five years ago.

When Shaina was seven, mother and daughter had spent a year in Vietnam, where Friedman had worked as an English teacher.

During the recent trip, she and Shaina, now 15, volunteered at orphanages. Friedman taught English while Shaina was a dance instructor.

Some orphanages are in fact temples which have become orphanages because people cannot afford to keep their children. Friedman noticed an abundance of litter around the temples, and a general lack of awareness about garbage.

So instead of sitting at tables, she decided to walk her students around the grounds.

The head monk — realizing he too was not being mindful of rubbish — told the children the next time they throw garbage would be like throwing rubbish at the foot of Buddha.

“Then he got garbage bags and everybody cleaned up the area,” Friedman said.

It all started with a comment from Friedman.

“You feel like you can make a difference there,” she said.

In Hanoi, the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation provides shelter and life-skills training to street kids and runaways.

It also raises funds to acquire registration papers, which are the equivalent to birth certificates, without which people cannot enrol in school and look for work. Many parents cannot afford the cost to obtain these papers.

“It hinders you for the rest of your life,” Friedman said.

“Families cannot afford that, so kids don’t go to school. They work instead. They beg on the street.”

In Nha Trang, Friedman connected people with the Lanterns organization, which operates a weekly food bank for cyclo drivers, women street cleaners and those living on the edge.

It also supplies food to orphanages and community schools, and raises money that has enabled more than 200 children to attend school.

Lanterns serves as a conduit for travellers and expats interested in volunteering in Vietnamese orphanages.

“You can make a difference to their lives,” Friedman said. “Trust me, I did.”

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