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Keeping a promise….

Don Thomson

Don Thomson

October 27, 2018

While holidaying in Vietnam in 2010, I spent a couple of days helping out at the Da Nang Social Support Centre. This centre caters for people that are unable to look after themselves because of bad health, they are too young, or too old, or just too poor.

The Social Support Centre is run by the Department of Social Service, which is well under staffed and relies heavily on volunteers to provide adequate care to the residents.

An organisation called Volunteer Vietnam, run by Dang Van Quoc Viet, is responsible for sourcing volunteers from all over the world to help out at the Social Support Centre. In addition, Viet organises outside training facilitators that provide the residents with a skill such as embroidery or incense making. This then, often opens up their world to the possibility of employment and independence.


Me, Viet and a some of the volunteers standing in front of the Social Support Centre


At the conclusion of my volunteer stay, I raised the idea with Viet about training some of the young adults at the Social Support Centre in gardening. Then possibly finding them work in one of the many new resorts being built along the South China Sea. He was excited about the idea and we agreed that we would pursue this worthy project at a later date.


The resorts along the South China Sea




The ground work

Fast forward to  2015. My children had finished school, and so I had the opportunity to  return to Vietnam to begin work in earnest on the horticulture project.

On this trip, I assessed the viability of the project. This included looking at the capacity of the residents at the Social Support Centre to undertake tertiary learning; gauging the interest of the hotel resorts for skilled gardeners; and surveying current gardening practises to get a picture of the status quo in Vietnam.

I returned to Australia, armed with this information and began writing a horticulture course that would cater for the residents of the Da Nang Social Support Centre, as well as deliver a valued product to the hotel resorts.

As the model, I used the Australian Certificate 2 in Horticulture, selecting units that were most relevant to gardening in Vietnam. This work was well supported by Swinburne University of Technology, and in particular Stewart Detez , Iain Harrison and Terry McEvoy. The horticulture course was completed and delivered to the authorities at the Da Nang Social Support Centre.

It is made up of five core units and 12 elective units. The program has been well received and was endorsed by the Department of Social Services on May 5, 2017.

Buoyed by the positive response from the Vietnamese authorities I returned to Australia to look for a well-regarded and established training provider to help deliver this course in Vietnam. The obvious choice was Swinburne. Reasons for this included my long association with the school across landscape, the support it had shown to date, and Swinburne’s global focus. Because the proposed horticulture course is a simplified version of the Australian Certificate 2 in Horticulture, Swinburne already had the resources in place to teach the course.


A board meeting with the head of social services


Exciting times

We can report that in 2018 the project has hit some significant milestones with Swinburne offering a three-year contract to support and develop the project. On the back of this we have started rolling out regular training for the 10 students in horticulture.

Stewart Detez and I deliver a class from Swinburne into the Social Support Centre every fortnight via Skype.

This has required that we set up a dedicated classroom at the Social Support Centre with a large monitor screen, camera and microphone.  We employ a full time translator on the ground in Vietnam … a young lady called Hien Nguyen … who has written a Vietnamese version of the five core units and the 12 elective units, and who sits in all the classes with the students translating from teacher to student and vice versa.


Stewart Detez and Hien Nguyen teaching the first horticulture class in Vietnam


We expect that these 10 students will complete this horticulture course by the end of 2019. We then hope that some of these students will go on to further horticulture study and/or become the horticulture teachers in Vietnam in the future.


A charity

In addition, I have started work on a Public Charity with my accountant Frank Petruzzelli from MDB Taxation and Business Advisors. This will be the foundation of the project moving forwards. A business name ‘Vocational Training SE Asia’ has been registered and now we are working through the structure and function of the Charity including:

  • The make-up of the board with possible representation from Swinburne University, Da Nang University, Viet from Volunteer Vietnam, Frank Petruzzelli from MDB, Luke Nguyen the celebrity chef, and myself.
  • The function of the board will be around directing the education programs.  Horticulture at the moment, but other courses such as plumbing, electrical, carpentry and hospitality may also be introduced.
  • The function of the board in directing the roll out of the education programs in Da Nang, across other parts of Vietnam, and across other parts of SE Asia
  • The function of the board in attracting and disbursing funding


Don and Tam … it’s all about giving hope to the disadvantaged


There is still an enormous amount of work to do (a life time of work) with more meetings scheduled with the Da Nang Foreign Ministry to ensure the training program sits within the local legal framework.

There will be additional meetings with representatives from Da Nang University to shore up support around providing physical resources including classrooms and computers.

It has become clear in recent times that not only can we run a successful horticulture program in Da Nang but there is potential for broadening the training to other trades with the support from Swinburne and Da Nang University.

Indeed it is possible that this type of training could extend to other parts of Vietnam and beyond, because vocational training like this is absent from this part of the world. It is an exciting time as I watch an idea hatched in 2010, come to life and grow larger and more potent than I ever thought possible.

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