One of Australia’s finest expats is a dedicated nun who has committed almost 30 years to serving impoverished communities of children in south-east Asia. Jen Rosenberg spoke to Sister Pa tricia Franklin about her work constructing and equipping schools in Vietnam, and providing a network of education and social-welfare facilities for homeless, orphaned, and poor children with physical and intellectual disabilities.
Tucked away among the teeming masses in Ho Chi Minh City is a modest, unassuming school, run by a modest, unassuming nun from Ballarat. Sister Patricia Franklin–Trish– has made the education of impoverished and disabled Vietnamese children her business, and it is a business that is thriving.
Through her charitable organisation, the Loreto Vietnam Australia Project (LVAP), she provides salvation and hope for thousands of children for whom the alternative was a very dire outlook.
The small team – Trish and a staff of four – works with the children who are the most marginalised of all, and creates educational opportunities for them. Their families are so poor that the children are either sent out to work, or they must look after the home while their parents toil all day to survive. Often they are children who have physical or intellectual disabilities, who would normally be hidden away and certainly not deemed worthy of an education.
“It’s a cultural shame to have a disabled child. But the Loreto program is doing a lot to try and create positive public awareness towards disability,” Trish said. It was particularly gratifying for her to know that the children who have been through the program are able to take their education to unprecedented new levels.
“Fifteen years ago we wouldn’t have had any disabled kids in a university. Now there are blind kids at university. We really ought to create a success banner!” Yet Trish is not one for accolades or beating her own drum, and is certainly not likely to rest on her laurels. While the urban program has been a huge success, educating around 25,000 students, LVAP is building on its venture into remote Phu Yen and Ca Ma by extending its reach into the inaccessible areas of Tien Giang, An Giang and Tra Vinh.
“We probably started in mid-2011, we are now going to very, very remote and isolated places. We do reconnaissance before we go in. What we have found is indescribable poverty that I haven’t seen in years. We have gone deep into remote, far-flung isolated places to help the kids, families and villages and hamlets who don’t have educational settings.”
We are now going to very, very remote and isolated places . What we have found is indescribable poverty that I haven’t seen in years.
It is a deliberate choice to target areas where there are not enough schools or classrooms, and where children may have what is known as “shift learning”, where children in lower grades go to school for a couple of hours in the morning, another group goes in the middle of the day, and older children in the afternoon.
“Not many children in Vietnam have a full day of learning.”
What draws a country girl from rural Victoria to a bustling metropolis of nearly 12 million people? It was an indirect route that took her around Australia and via Thailand but it seems as natural as if she had a clear plan.
Born in Ballarat, and the youngest of five children, Trish was so inspired by the education she received from the Loreto Sisters that she entered the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1970 and started building some impressive teaching credentials. She holds a Bachelor of Education from the University of Western Australia, and a host of other qualifications including teaching English as a foreign language, intercultural studies and educational counselling from UWA, RMIT Melbourne and the University of South Australia.
For 15 years she taught in primary schools around Australia, which she said she enjoyed but she had a yearning for something else and she knew her vocation was to work among the poor. Loreto provided her with the opportunity to work in refugee camps in Thailand in 1984, and it was there she found a deep satisfaction in her work and an understanding of what it means to have a true calling.
“I always had a pull to go to the poor,” she said. “From ’84 to about 1990 I was going back and forth to refugee camps in Thailand until at the end of my time in Thailand I was looking after about 235 unaccompanied minors. They were often refugees from Vietnam who were being sent to Australia. It seemed a very good thing to concentrate on developing education in their own country.”
In 1995 she moved to Vietnam and within two years had launched the Loreto Vietnam Australia Partnership that celebrated ‘15 years of giving’ last year. She may be diminutive in size, but Trish has a fierce work ethic, a genuine love for the children she works with, and a formidable passion for her beloved Carlton football team. A long day starts with a one-kilometre swim and might finish by riding her motorbike to a downtown pub to wind down over a beer with friends. While she laments how much administrative detail there is to wade through, taking her away from the coal-face of teaching, she still manages twice-weekly classes for blind children.
What motivates Trish to maintain her energy and spirit in the face of grinding poverty and children with such desperate circumstances?
“Mother Theresa: She is a great inspiration and role model. Also Jesus and my parents and family.”
Trish is close to her three brothers and sister, who are all married with families, and they all try to visit one another where possible.
All of her siblings were in Ballarat in March to see Trish receive an honorary doctorate from ACU in recognition of her work in education and her involvement in the work undertaken by the University on the Thai Cambodia border.
“Pretty humbled,” was her reaction to receiving the university’s highest honour. It was also her response when she was awarded the Order of Australia in 2005 for service in the field of international humanitarian relief and to children in South-East Asia.
Perhaps the most unexpected of the accolades heaped upon her was the Vietnamese government’s Medal for “Friendship Among Nations” in 2000, 2004 and 2007, the highest honorary medal for an expatriate. In 2010 Trish was recognised as a the Paul Harris Fellow (Rotary Foundation of Rotary International). The greatest reward for her, however, is to see the children she works with go on to higher education of their own, to get jobs they never dreamed of having, and to come back and bring their children to meet her. Those children call Trish “grandma” or “bà”.
While LVAP grew spontaneously from nothing, it is Trish’s hope that it will have a long and viable future. “There are three wonderful women and a young guy who work there. We have spent a lot of time on team-building and they have like minds and hearts.
“A succession plan is within place to hand over this project to them, and I would remain patron.”
However it's hard to imagine her putting her feet up just yet.
For more information on the work of Sister Trish and the Loreto Vietnam Australia Program please visit loretovietnam.org. [loretovietnam.org ]