July 17, 2014
Lydia Ely went to Vietnam this summer to teach children.
Most college volleyball players spend their summers training, doing 6 a.m. workouts and spending time back home with their families. But not Mizzou junior Lydia Ely. She was part of a much bigger initiative this summer as she worked with `Coach for College' in Vietnam, teaching the game of volleyball and engaging with an entire community of youngsters, living in rural Vietnam for a little more than a month.
"I honestly think I learned more from them," Ely said of her experience. "The whole time I was just thinking that they were helping me so much. They were just 14 years old, but they taught me so much about just being happy."
"The whole time I was just thinking that they were helping me so much. They were just 14 years old, but they taught me so much about just being happy."
- Lydia Ely on Coach For College
Coach for College is a service learning program that brings together US student-athletes and Vietnamese university students to teach academics, sports and life skills at summer camps to children in rural Vietnam. Ely first heard about the program through her responsibilities with the Student Athletic Advisory Council and fell in love with the idea of going after meeting with the director of the program, Parker Goyer.
"When you meet with the actual person who started the program, you see the passion in their face when they are telling you about it," Ely said of Goyer. "I immediately felt like a lot of my passions matched up with hers. You saw so much joy from her that it made me want to do it."
After passing the application process, Coach for College covered most of the cost to get Ely over to Vietnam. All that was left was for Ely to raise $800 through fundraising, which she did quickly. Next up was a grueling day of travel that included a flight from St. Louis to Chicago, a 16-hour flight from Chicago to Hong Kong and then another six-hour leg to Ho Chi Minh City. Most people would be exhausted and tired after a 23 house on a plane, and at 6-6, it was no easy task for Ely.
But following a nice night of sleep following the travel day, Ely, the other seven student-athletes and eight translators met with the program directors in Ho Chi Minh City and toured some of the tourist sights. With an assist of Mizzou Athletics Director Mike Alden, Ely even got to tour the local Nike Headquarters.
From there, an eight-hour bus ride to the camp in Hoa An awaited Ely and her peers.
"Our one little pit stop was one of our biggest culture shocks," Ely said. "When we stopped, there were no toilets! We all were thinking `what are we getting ourselves into' because we knew where we were going it was even more rural."
Upon arriving at Hoa An, the American workers underwent an orientation where they were given 10 minutes to memorize 20 important words that would help in their communication with the Vietnamese children. Most of the kids were eighth and ninth-graders and Ely's camp was comprised of about 120 children.
"We had to learn all about the culture," Ely said. "How they'd respond in certain situations. Don't be alarmed if they do this. We learned that the Vietnamese don't show a lot emotion and that they also don't do group work, which was different for us."
The educational camp was split up into four sessions of about 20-30 kids each. Each kid attends the camp for free and receives free books and t-shirts. From there, the learning happened. And also a lot of fun for everyone involved.
"The kids were just like American teens," Ely said. "They loved posing for pictures but they have no clue what technology is. There were plenty of times that they would look at our phone and not know how to open it or start it, so that was humbling. They saw our computers and they were completely blown away."
Ely got the chance to show the children a Vietnamese music video on her computer. The reaction was priceless.
"Once you experience something like this, you realize what happiness really is. They are so content on being caught up in the moment and that was amazing to see."
"It was hilarious," Ely said. "The rest of the day they spent outside trying to re-enact it. They were using our phones to video tape it. It was hilarious."
Ely also developed a bond with the children through the rains that plague the area. Being there during the rainy season, Ely said that a rain shower would come almost every day at about 2 or 3 p.m. And while most Americans look to stay inside during the rain, the Vietnamese children looked forward to play time in the rain.
"The kids loved it," Ely said. "We would still have a couple hours of school left, but the rain hits the tin roofs so loud that you can't hear yourself talk, so they would just run out and play. At first, all of the Americans would be like `no, we don't want to go out there and get wet and dirty' but by the end all of us were out there running with them. We were covered in mud playing tag, or soccer or volleyball."
And for Ely, those were the best moments.
"When you are just laughing, being a kid and having fun, there is now language barrier between you," Ely said. "Those moments where there was no language barrier were the best. You could just look at them, smile with them and laugh."
Those moments were enough to make Ely look past the fact that they had no toilets, no showers and had to use rain water from buckets and out of faucets at their camp. Power was iffy at best and there certainly wasn't any reliable wi-fi connection, which could plague someone from our society, who always seems to have their cell phones.
"I thought before going into this that I was grateful for what I had, but when I went I realized how blessed we are here," Ely said. "The kids over there knew what true happiness is. So many Americans view happiness in materialistic things. Once you experience something like this, you realize what happiness really is. They are so content on being caught up in the moment and that was amazing to see."
And that happiness of course led to sadness - Ely's last day with her camp.
"It was the saddest say of my life," she said.
"They were just bawling. At the beginning of the camp, they wouldn't even give us a high-five but by the time we left they were sitting in our laps and pouring their eyes out."
- Lydia Ely on the final day
After more than a month with her camp, it was time to head back to the United States, a 30-hour day of travel. But not after some heartfelt goodbyes.
"They can't communicate their appreciation, but on the last day you can see how much they appreciate you," Ely said. "These kids have nothing and they were bringing us gifts - origami money. We felt bad taking it, but it is considered an insult if we didn't - gifts are a big deal to them.
"These kids were hyperventilating in our arms as we said goodbye. They were just bawling. At the beginning of the camp, they wouldn't even give us a high-five but by the time we left they were sitting in our laps and pouring their eyes out."
For Ely, it was definitely and experience that she will never forget and one she encourages anyone else to be a part of. For more information on the Coach for College program, visit CoachForCollege.org.
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