AO victim's library spells out hope for rural children

When Huynh Thanh Thao was a child, she had to stay at home while other kids in her village went to school every day.
When Huynh Thanh Thao was a child, she had to stay at home while other kids in her village went to school every day.

Although she was eager to learn, her mother had decided that a child with a disability should stay home.

So, she asked her mother to teach her the alphabet and spelling, and whenever relatives or friends visited, she begged them to help her learn. And she got her hands on every available newspaper, eventually becoming a fluent reader.

Thao, whose family lives in rural Cu Chi district, over 70km northwest of the Ho Chi Minh City's centre, was born with a genetic disorder called brittle-bone disease, characterised by fragile bones that break easily.

She cannot walk as her legs are abnormally short and weak from myasthenia, likely caused by Agent Orange, doctors have said. Despite her struggles, she says she never feels sad or desperate now as she sometimes did as a child. Today, she is often seen smiling. "With my stature, only smiles can help people feel closer to me," Thao said.

As a youth, she empathised with disadvantaged and disabled children in the community who had no opportunity to learn or even attend school. So when she was 14, she began holding classes at her home for them.

Initially, she taught maths and language skills to a group of 10 children, but later her classroom grew to 30 students, many of them attending university. Today, in her hometown of Rang village, students call her "Co Ba" (Aunt Three), and view her as both a teacher and friend.

Although Thao has difficulty walking, she has travelled to other areas of the country to bring gifts and scholarships to children. She uses the money from library dues to fund scholarships for disadvantaged students or students with disabilities in Ho Chi Minh City and neighbouring provinces. "If I give everything I have, happiness will come to me," she said of her outlook toward life.

Mini library

When Thao began holding classes, she saw that many of her students could not afford books. Her dream to start a library with a small bookcase was realised when, after appearing on a Ho Chi Minh City radio programme, listeners began giving her books.

Then, in 2009, an American woman who had seen photos of Agent Orange victims taken by her friend, visited Thao at her family's home. When the woman returned to New York, she raised funds to build a freestanding concrete library in front of Thao's home.

Today, a large sign reading "Thu Vien Mini" (Mini Library) stands above the building that houses more than 3,000 books. Thao charges 500 VND for book rentals. Indigent students do not have to pay.

Ninth-grader Bui Tram Anh is one of many children in the commune who regularly visit the library. "My family cannot afford books or comics, so the Co Ba library is necessary for me," Anh said, adding that many of the books are related to what she is learning at school. Anh says she also borrows comics from the library to relax after a hard day of studying.

The gratitude of thousands of students in the area like Anh has helped soften Thao's mother's attitude about people with disabilities. "I am happy to see Thao full of joy," said her mother, Nguyen Thi Xuan. For her teaching efforts, Thao was honoured three years ago at the Fifth National Patriotic Emulation Congress held in Ho Chi Minh City.

"The things that my daughter has done helped change my thinking about people with disabilities," Xuan said. "They can have independent and useful lives, and they have the right to have an education and a job, just like those without disabilities.".-VNA

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