My name is Christopher Donald, and I'm one of the founders of the VLA. This organization began, as so many charity organizations do, in a very personal way for us. It was started by myself and my fiance' Hao Nguyen after we visited the country, and her family in rural southern Viet Nam.
On the plane from Viet Nam to Singapore I turned to my fiance and said, “We have to do something to help. I know we’re not rich, but I’m damned if I can look those people in the eyes and not do anything.”
What we eventually decided to do had an innocent enough beginning. We originally bought a small stack of books in a Ho Chi Minh bookstore for Hao’s cousins. I loved the idea of getting them excited about books I’d loved as a kid; and just generally excited about reading. When we left the country Hao’s family who had braved the 9 hour drive to the airport to see us off took the books back down to Ca Mau for everyone to enjoy.
I felt great about the gift but after a little reflection I wondered if the idea of her family sharing the books couldn’t be expanded a bit. It costs very little (in our terms) to build a house in Viet Nam. I thought we could just build a small library near where her family lived. I assumed it was just the people in that area who didn’t have the money for books.
Once we began researching the idea we discovered that there are no more than 14 libraries in the entire region where her family is, and most are academic or scientific libraries. That’s within an area with the population of West Virginia, a state with over 60 public libraries.
As we talked to Hao’s family about our ideas for a library their excitement and the obvious need made us reevaluate the scope of our effort. If her family needed these resources then we should try to offer them to whoever needed them, not just the people we’d come to know.
I needed to readjust my concept of how it would get accomplished. Originally I’d thought to set aside a bit of money every month and then eventually have enough to build something. But to accomplish what we were out to do we would need more than our own money.
The Vietnam Learning Association was founded to create a broader, more robust framework for our projects to be built on. By bringing together a strong board of directors to supplement our own efforts the organization now has the right foundation to start from.