Buds to Blossoms
Buds to Blossoms is looking for volunteers to provide pediatric massage and other forms of bodywork to AIDS orphans, other children affected by HIV/AIDS, and orphans with...
Buds to Blossoms is looking for volunteers to provide pediatric massage and other forms of bodywork to AIDS orphans, other children affected by HIV/AIDS, and orphans with...
FULL of LOVE
Submitted by Celeste - Nusajaya Malaysia | July 21, 2016
There is so much love to give and receive during this volunteer experience.
The founders of Buds to Blossoms have thought absolutely everything through and give us a safe, beautiful and loving platform to be able to give as much as we want from. With this behind me it was not about my journey and all about just simply being able to give back - my way. Such a seemingly small and simple things such as touch, care, eye contact, time and space have such a deep and beautiful positive impact on the lives we touched, and during the process has touched my own heart and life so deeply too. I cannot wait to go back and share some more! X
Buds to blossoms
Submitted by Claire Tierney - Ferny hills Australia | July 20, 2016
Words can not describe the wonder of this programme. For those that want to give and have a heart full of love. This programme will lift your heart to new levels. The kids, the founders that work with you. The other volunteers have all been so amazing. I wanted to give back, but feel I gained more than I gave. I will return again and again. Thank you.
A life changing experience
Submitted by Kerryn | July 13, 2016
I just returned from one week of volunteering in Vietnam with Buds to Blossoms. I am still processing the whole experience, but I have been deeply touched by my time there. I have the memory of these sweet children in my mind and this expansive feeling that comes from true human connection through loving touch. I highly recommend this program and I plan to continue participating with Buds to Blossoms.
Submitted by Tim Clark - Cairnmillar Institute | February 09, 2016
In the middle of last year, I received a text message that would lead to one of the most profound and life-changing experiences I’ve had. It came from a lady named Tamie. (It’s a Japanese name, so you separate out the three syllables, not that she would ever correct you if you called her Tammy.) She introduced herself as one of the leaders of a non-profit called Buds to Blossoms and explained that they arrange volunteers to visit orphanages in Ho Chi Minh City to provide massage to children with disabilities and HIV/AIDS. She said she had seen my ad for massage therapy and thought I might be a good fit for the program.
At first I dismissed it, thinking it might be some sort of scam and, even if it wasn’t, it didn’t seem like the kind of thing I would do. But I checked out the website and saw the photos of volunteers working with children and something clicked. A few days later I messaged Tamie back and told her I wanted to do it.
I set about raising funds, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford to go without some financial help. I was fortunate to be able to raise over AU$5000 from about sixty-five sponsors with minimal outlay, enough to cover my participation fee, airfares and most of my accommodation for two weeks. I offered massage vouchers as rewards but people really seemed to want to give without expecting anything in return.
Monday, January 18, 2016. Today is my last day in Saigon with Buds to Blossoms. I’ve got mixed emotions about my time coming to an end. It has started to feel a bit like a job—not a chore, just a job. Do anything routinely for two weeks and I guess you’d expect to feel that way. I am tired. The bus trips are often long, the work is physically taxing and difficult to perform with the usual self-care techniques.
We only spend between one and two hours at each location we visit, and there can be up to twenty-five kids waiting to be massaged, by anywhere between five and ten volunteers. So that means if every child gets a massage, it’s a relatively short one. Some children miss out altogether, which is sometimes difficult to sit with.
The bus trips to the orphanages take between thirty minutes and two hours but there are always smiling faces there, whether they’re the faces of the children or the staff, like the groundskeeper I creatively nicknamed ‘Kangaroo Man’, on account of his constantly imitating a kangaroo whenever he saw me, or the sister in charge of another centre who somehow found time to greet us despite her mountain of responsibilities and punishing working hours.
At times, through no fault of anyone there, I feel like an intruder. When I think of the hard hours put in by the carers and managers of the centres, and how we just show up for an hour or two then swan out, there is some guilt. But as hard as it is to fight, that kind of thinking is counter-productive. Sure, we’re not doing the hard yards that the carers do, but we’re doing something and, even if it’s only a small thing, it makes life better.
But there is a constant emotional undercurrent, charged by the knowledge of the difficulties faced by the children and their carers. We saw a large poster on the street of a huge skull and syringes, conveying the message that HIV is a death sentence, but it’s harder to see signs of an attempt to educate the public about the realities of HIV transmission. One HIV-positive child we worked with was told by her school principal that she could only attend if she did not go near other children at lunch time. For two years, her grandmother had visited her at school to keep her company while she watched the other children playing. Many others are told that they may attend but that it would be inconsiderate to do so. A head nun was quoted as saying, “I’m sure you understand.”
For the HIV-positive adults I worked with, there are different qualities again: in some a cowedness that suggests shame or embarrassment, in others a determination to smile, but in all of them a sense of gratitude for the massage.
The gardens were tranquil and full of symmetry: squares of lawn edged by rows of large pots filled with pink-flowered dwarf frangipani trees. With some distance between us and the cacophony of Saigon city, there was space for silence.
The children had been taken into town for an excursion, so our group leader Les and I headed to the men’s quarters, further into the compound, and he worded me up: “The last time we were here, it seemed like most of the men were in their last stages of the disease. More and more it has become a place for people to come to die. This is one of the few that has an onsite crematorium.”
There were six men inside, each at a different stage of decline. One sat up bright and cheerful, his toothless smile beaming. Another sat with his mother tending to sores and broken skin. Les went into a partitioned room to work with another of them. I greeted them and offered them, “Mat-sa? Mat-sa?” They seemed to agree that one man down the end needed it more than they did, so I gestured to the man and he calmly nodded assent.
He looked young and gaunt, his arms no thicker than a banana. He sat up and I sat behind him on the bed to work on his back. His muscles were wasted and I had to take care not to press too hard against unprotected bone. The spines of his scapula jutted out awkwardly, so I pressed carefully to lengthen his thin but taut upper trapezius. I couldn’t see his face but the toothless man watching made thumbs-up gestures. It seemed he could sense the younger man’s relief.
I made rows of small circles with my thumb tips down his ropey spinal muscles, and his back straightened gently as I reached his lumbar spine. Without having shared as much as our names, I knew he was responding and that it felt good. He dropped his forehead into the palm of my hand while I worked on the back of his neck, making small circles along the base of the skull, loosening the juncture of muscle and bone, then worked my fingertips in slow circles around his scalp. I saw the other men looking on with what may have been envy, I’m not sure. Maybe they were pleased for their young friend. Maybe it was a sacrifice to let him have this experience.
He laid back and I worked on his arms, applying a few drops of coconut oil. Here I could make long, soothing strokes up and down his arms, gently knead his biceps and deltoids, run thumbs along his forearms, make circles across his wrists and firm strips across his palms, then rake the length of the veins on the back of his hand, gently encouraging the blood to flow freely. I asked him his name and he told me. I asked him, “How old?” but it was outside the limits of his English. I pointed to myself and flashed thirty-five fingers. He understood immediately, then flashed twenty fingers back at me. He was twenty.
When I changed sides of the bed, he seemed a little confused or maybe disappointed that I was finishing, then relieved when he realised I was just repeating it on the other side.
Time was running out. I did a basic routine on his legs, ankles and feet and Les said we had to go. I offered him my small handtowel so he could wipe the oil off his arms and legs but he just looked confused. I modelled wiping the oil off my hands and pointed at his. He took the towel and instead of wiping the oil off his hands, grabbed my hand and started to wipe the oil off it. My heart sank. I gestured for him to take the towel for himself and he eventually understood. I think he was concerned about getting my towel dirty.
I went to shake his hand and he took it between both of his and said, “Thank you.” I brought my other hand into the shake and said, “Thank you.” I looked in his eyes and we understood each other.
On our way out, another man—I’m not sure who he was or what he was doing there, but he obviously belonged—came up to us and thanked us for our work. He said, “God bless you,” and all I could think to say back was, “God bless you.”
Only then did the tears come.
For the disabled children, the suffering can be quite overt. One child, maybe three or four years old, seemed unable to find comfort. He typically held his arms up in the air, wrapped in Velcro braces, and kicked his feet against the metal railings of the cot. I tried to comfort him but couldn’t, then watched as other volunteers also struggled, some visibly upset by his agitation. Other children had impossibly contorted spines or abducted legs. Massage and gentle jostling could sometimes loosen joints, but not always.
On our first day we learned that, in a room of mostly infants and toddlers lying on stretcher-like cots on the floor, there was a 23-year-old man who looked no older than a teenager. His lonely wails could shatter the calm of the room. I watched Tamie sit with him for what must have been an hour as he cried and screamed, her eyes spilling out tears. When we returned for our next visit, he was smiling brightly, though Tamie’s sense of his loneliness never wained. She and Les lifted him up to the table so he could see more of the sky and trees.
Only one or two of the children can verbalise, so gauging exactly how they’re feeling can be very difficult. A sudden flick of an arm, a tightening or a turn away might be read as rejection, but may actually be a search for comfort, or an involuntary spasm. In these situations, massage may not actually be suitable, or may need to be reduced to something as simple as a hand resting on a shoulder. As a massage therapist who likes to make every bit of contact count, it can be difficult to resign myself to offering what feels like a second-rate massage.
What’s more important in this situation is connecting with the children. When I am there, I am pretty much always smiling. There are times when it’s not appropriate, but generally a smile is the best thing I can bring with me. Understandably, the carers are usually fairly stern—they have an onerous job, carried out in difficult circumstances—so it seems important to bring a smile into the room. When there is no shared language, it’s a universal symbol. Sometimes I hum, usually pretty softly, which is another way to make a connection, but sometimes there are pop music videos playing on the television, or Indian soaps dubbed in Vietnamese, which the carers seem to love.
At times, I look around the room and watch the other volunteers and leaders with the children. There’s Anj, working with the girl with the splayed legs, rocking her gently in her arms and beaming down at her. It’s clear they have a bond. There’s Kristina, softly singing and stroking the arm of a little boy. There’s Les, his low constant hum transmitting his special kind of calm to an agitated boy.
When it’s like this, it feels like a room full of happiness. These people have come together and a special feeling has been created. Everyone is there just to communicate their love and joy. Of course, this goes both ways. Every bit of peace and love we emanate here comes back to us. It’s an environment of pure giving and receiving.
One of the centres we visit is not an orphanage but more like a drop-in centre for children with or affected by HIV/AIDS. We work on two massage tables on a fourth floor balcony with a view over some narrow District 1 streets. It’s cramped and remarkably humid but we make it work. At times there are six kids being massaged all at once on two tables, and they know we bring oil. They love the oil.
On my first morning there, a boy—I guessed he was maybe seven years old—comes straight up to me. I point to my chest and say, “Tim.” I’m fortunate that my name has a meaning in Vietnamese: it means ‘heart’. He points to himself and tells me his name. I offer him “Mat-sa?” and he nods yes, but doesn’t really seem sure of what to do. I sit him down on the table and try to figure out where he’d like me to start. I usually start with hands, and he agrees. I offer him some oil and squirt some into my palm, then work it into his hands, circling and pressing on his palms. He smells it and says, “Cooking!” and his eyes light up. I try to convey that it’s okay to use it for massage and that I’m not going to cook him, but I think the joke’s lost.
He seems a little distracted. He keeps spotting things in the sky, maybe bugs, and pointing at them but whenever I look there’s nothing there. The language barrier makes it difficult to clarify. It becomes clear fairly soon that he’s less interested in the massage than he is in playing games. The hand massage leads into some vigorous rock-paper-scissors, and then that game where you try to slap your opponent’s hand.
When the massages are over, we eat lunch with the children and volunteers from the centre. The little boy has saved me a seat at the table, even asking one of the other children to move aside for me. We don’t talk or play during the meal, but he watches me eat a bit, fascinated. When he’s finished, he plays around on the stairs, looking down at me from above, quietly but urgently saying my name. “Tim!” Then when I look up, he’s giggling, hiding his face. He goes up another flight and finds a spot where he can spy me from a greater height. Now he’s almost whispering my name, but I hear him and look up. He giggles. The game continues until he’s too far up the stairs for me to see him. That’s the last time I see him.
A week after I left the program, Tamie sent me an email.
I hope you’re well. I wanted to share with you a lovely experience that I had today. It’s about a young boy that you worked with at the centre for children with HIV.
He is eight years old and has lost both parents to AIDS so his grandparents are raising him. Having only recently joined this group, he had never met us and had never received a massage, making the massage you gave him his first ever! We visited the group again this morning and when the little boy came up to the balcony he jumped up on the table and accepted my offer of massage. After a few seconds, he said “Tim”. I wasn’t sure if I heard him correctly so I asked him “Tim?” and he nodded repeating your name. I asked the lady who works there to translate for me. She said he was talking about you! I was so surprised because the children very rarely remember our names. The lady interpreted for me and I told him that you had returned to Australia (Úc in Vietnamese). As I was massaging his head I heard him say to himself “Tim. Úc.” He kept repeating it over and over. “Tim. Úc.” That experience was so amazing for me, I just had to share it with you.
Thank you for joining our volunteer program and for being such a nurturing presence for the children we serve.
At first my eyes welled up, but I kept telling myself not to cry. He and I were both lucky to have had the experience of connection we had, even if we would never meet again. I told myself: just treasure that. It’s enough. But I’m also dismayed by the fact I can’t remember his name. There he is saying my name over and over. And I can’t even remember his.
How could this happen? I’m good with names. Was it a defence mechanism? Had I tried not to remember it? That could be it. Throughout the program, talk amongst the volunteer team about individual children was fairly minimal, and names were not often used.
Whatever the reason, I can’t shake the image of the boy peering at me through the stair rails, playfully whispering my name, giggling, and running off, never to be seen again. Maybe I’ll see him again if I go back. I hope I do. I hope he’s safe and happy.
On the last orphanage visit of my trip, I returned to the little boy who couldn’t get comfortable. I didn’t expect anything different to happen. I took his ankles in one hand, letting them rest against the webbing between my thumb and forefinger, and loosely jiggled his legs, which had seemed to settle him momentarily last time. Meanwhile, I tried out a few different things with my free hand: circling a finger around his palm, his shoulder, the back of his neck, and I remembered how circles around the base of the skull, where it meets the neck muscles, always seemed so effective in my massages back home.
I looked for the ridge just below his ear line and followed it to its most medial point, where I made soft anti-clockwise circles, small at first, then growing slightly wider. He stopped wriggling for a moment. Then another moment. And another. His eyebrows froze halfway up his forehead. Then suddenly he squinted again and rolled back onto his other side, heaving out a sigh. I kept circling, around and around, and kept up the steady rocking of his legs.
Gradually, moment by moment, he seemed to settle. The time between his twitches got longer and longer, until eventually his eyes closed, his brow smoothed and his arms relaxed. I kept up the rocking and the circling, not risking any possible disturbance to whatever equilibrium had been found.
In a few minutes I knew he was asleep. He had stopped wriggling altogether and lay with his arms at his side, his tiny belly gently rising and falling with his breath. I looked over at Jette, another volunteer, and she smiled at me. Like me, she had struggled to soothe the little boy. She had felt the pain in his anxious twitches and the frustration at not being able to relieve it. We shared in a moment of relief and joy. He was asleep and at ease. And when I finally put his feet down, he remained asleep, and was asleep when we left.
For two weeks after the program, I toured around Vietnam, seeing the sights of a wonderful, vibrant country, but I never felt as fulfilled or complete as I did when I was in the program. It was hard to go back to being a tourist, waited on by others in a hugely uneven power dynamic, when I had spent the last two weeks feeling like I had as much to contribute and as much to gain as everyone around me.
I left the program with so much. I had a greater sense of my own self-worth and ability to impact others in a positive way. I had a greater sense of my own humanity, of who I am when the need to earn a living is taken out of the equation. I was free to explore the full extent of my ability to nurture others. In doing so I nurtured myself.
Heal thyself and others
Submitted by Anjuli Sethi - Tafe Meadowbank | February 02, 2016
So I am back from Ho Chi Minh but I have left a piece of my heart and soul there, hoping to be back sometime soon. It was a experience of lifetime, bonded with some beautiful children. Even most of them could not speak but the joy in their eyes, waiting to be touched by strangers and surrendering in their arms for all the love they could give, will melt your heart. My heart was touched by two beautiful girls. It is not easy to forget the cuddles with those tiny arms which strangely made you, their own.
This is a wonderful opportunity for all the beautiful souls out there who wants to give and share their love with disadvantaged children. Everyday is a new experience. The program is led by wonderful team leaders - Les and Tamie. I am very grateful to them and all the amazing volunteers who so readily poured out their love to the children who are not accepted by their own world many times. And never ending appreciation for all the carers, who spend day and night serving these children selflessly.