When RMIT Senior Advisor Rowan Simpson visited Vietnam on his first trip abroad, he expected to find the tropics.
Instead, the father-of-two spent his days playing Santa to shoeless Vietnamese kids trying to survive in freezing snow.
“This was my first ever trip out of Australia and initially I was just blown away by the beauty of the country with its lush foliage and dazzling scenery,” Simpson said.
But as he moved farther north, away from the colourful vibrancy around metropolitan areas, and nearer to Sapa, which is close to the Chinese border, it was the poverty of the mountainous area’s polite but poor children that stole his heart.
“While I enjoyed the trekking, scenery and the Hmong and Dzao ethnic cultures, one of the strongest impressions I carried home was the relative poverty in which the children of this area live,” Simpson said.
“During the treks, I found myself constantly wishing there was something I could do to share with these children some of the plenty that Australian children enjoy.”
On his return to Australia following his 2013 trip, he discovered that children in regional areas of Vietnam had not all benefited from the advances in child health, welfare and education that Vietnamese city kids have enjoyed over the last 20 years.
“The children in the rural areas experience a very high rate of infant and child mortality. Many are stunted as a result of poor nutrition and most don’t even own a pair of shoes or a picture book.”
Planning a return trip the following year, Simpson contacted his tour guide and asked if it was appropriate to bring some toys for the children.
“She told me straight out that what they really needed was warm clothes and gumboots,” he explained.
Simpson turned to his family, friends and compassionate colleagues at RMIT to donate money for additional supplies as he prepared for his next trip to Vietnam, and they did not disappoint.
“We raised $1,500 which, with the help of my guide, a local Sapa villager, enabled us to distribute a warm jacket, a pair of gumboots, or a pair of pyjamas to over 250 children in different villages surrounding Sapa last December,” Simpson said.
Matching kids to the right sizes turned in to a “fitting frenzy with the kids so excited they were all screaming,” Simpson said.
“We tried to get a group shot of them but they were so excited they ran home to show their families their new clothes and boots.”
He said close to 90 per cent of the funds raised went directly to the children. The remainder went to his local guide for logistics, planning and transport.
“One hundred per cent of the funds were spent in the local community,’’ he said.
Simpson is preparing to repeat his trip later this year.
He has already collected $5000 and hopes RMIT staff, students, alumni and supporters will also back his project.
Donations can be made to ANZ On-line Saver Account in the name of Rowan Simpson, account number 013040 395260885.