Friday, January 3, 2014

Visiting the Francis Shelter

At the suggestion of Mr. Binh, Director for the One Body Village Vietnam office, on Thursday, December 26, my wife and I visited theFrancis Shelter in Dong Nai Province.

The purpose of this trip was to deliver the and provided by Dang and Lindy and by Valerie and Kalid respectively, and to better understand what the Francis Shelter does and who they help.

In all honesty, this visit was one of the more difficult experiences to absorb. Mr. Chau, the founder and director of the Francis Shelter, can definitely claim to be doing the Lord's work.

This post will include stories, photos, and videos of what we saw.



During our first OBV meeting held shortly after our arrival into the city, the OBV leadership acknowledged with appreciation and support Thuy's desire to provide her healthcare knowledge to people both in and out of the OBV system. Shortly after the meeting, Binh, the OBV director for the Vietnam office, told Thuy about a shelter in Dong Nai province that was in need of support.

Sometime in mid-November, Thuy reached out to Mr. Chau to learn more about what they do. After her call, she started to explain to me what she heard, but it was hard for her to speak because she was in tears. What she heard on the phone alone was enough to break her heart.

I learned why she was so emotional when we visited the Francis Shelter a month later to see first-hand what Mr. Chau does and who he helps.


Healthcare in Vietnam is managed much differently that what we're familiar with in the States. It is not unheard of for a clinic to reject a patient if that person or their family doesn't have enough money to pay for care. Community health clinics that provide free or affordable healthcare are few if not unavailable in many areas.

Mental healthcare is virtually non-existent. From my basic understanding of Vietnamese society and culture, a person's or family member's challenges with mental health is deemed to be a private matter, one not to be discussed in conversations outside of the family. There aren't many facilities or services available to assist patients with depression, dementia, schizophrenia, and other such mental health challenges.

In a country where proper medical care is primarily provided to those who can afford it, many families, especially the poor, the homeless, and those in underdeveloped cities, find themselves financially unable to care for their children and elderly family members who suffer from incurable medical and mental disabilities and afflictions.

Terminally ill patients are sent home once they are deemed to be incurable; hospices and similar care services are not readily available even in the most metropolitan cities.

Families are ultimately forced to care for their own sick or terminally ill family members with little to no instruction or guidance.

As such, some families found the burden of caring for their loved ones too much to bear and made the heartbreaking decision to abandon their family member with the hope that someone else would be able to provide them with the care and comfort they need. Some are abandoned at a nearby church, but others aren't so lucky and are abandoned on the street, regulated to a dangerous life on the streets as a beggar with little to no hope of survival.


Seeing this gap in treatment and care, Mr. Chau, a former priest-in-training with a basic background in medicine, saw an opportunity to make a difference. He explained in English that he calls what he does 'penance.' The care he provides to the inhabitants of his shelter is the price he willingly and happily pays for the elementary knowledge of medicine that he feels he has been blessed to receive.

Mr. Chau describes himself and his shelter as a 'Miserable Persons' Servant.'

The Francis Shelter is truly one of its kind. The developmentally delayed, those with Down's Syndrome, the blind, and those suffering from schizophrenia are just a few of the kinds of patients that the shelter cares for in their small complex.

With a small volunteer staff of four, the shelter currently cares for 72 patients. These patients are clothed, fed, bathed, and looked after throughout the day. With limited resources, Mr. Chau is able to provide only the most basic of necessities. Providing simple comfort and shelter is priority.

A large part of the staff's day includes keeping the shelter as clean and as hygienically sound as possible. About one third of the patients are incontinent and require constant care and supervision just to keep themselves clean. Adult diapers comprise a large portion of the monthly budget. Metal beds and the thin mats that cover them make maintenance slightly easier for the volunteers. The floors and restroom areas are cleaned frequently to ensure no human waste is tracked through the premises.

With the kinds of patients that the shelter takes in, the spread of disease is a constant worry. Elderly patients with weak immune systems are particularly at risk.

A young buy is harnessed to his bed for safety

Due to a lack of staff, the shelter resorts to keeping a number of their patients, mainly children, harnessed to their bed or to support beams to keep them from wandering away from the shelter or causing undue harm to themselves or other patients.

According to Mr. Chau, most of the female patients and even a few of the young male patients who come or are brought to the Francis Shelter are thought to have been sexually abused.

He has two tests he administers when a female patient joins the Francis Shelter: a HIV test and a pregnancy test. This gives him a better idea on how best to treat the patient.


This center receives no public money; neither the national government nor local province of Dong Nai provides any financial support.

Between caring for his patients, finding the required supplies for general upkeep, and cleaning the shelter, Mr. Chau rarely has any time to sit down and think of a fundraising plan let alone engage in large donation or sponsorship fundraising.

Mr. Chau described one of the ways he earns money to keep his shelter afloat: Shortly after the general lunch hour, Mr. Chau and a volunteer visits restaurants and eateries in the surrounding area to ask for leftover foods that would otherwise be thrown away. The goodwill that Mr. Chau has developed through his work with the Francis Shelter compels a number of restaurants to oblige his request.

He repackages the food that he's able to collect into lunch boxes that he then resells on the street.

He states that he relies on prayer and the graces of God to provide him with everything else he needs to make it through the month. These prayers are often answered through various benefactors who hear about the Francis Shelter, be it directly or from others, and make a donation to his cause.

As unsustainable as it may be, this meager income and any donations he receives by happenstance have helped to keep his shelter afloat and in operation for a number of years.

A picture of the Francis Shelter's monthly expenses

Mr. Chau shared with us an application for financial assistance that he provides to potential donors and supporters--it's a standard letter that outlines what the Francis Shelter does and its monthly operating budget.

At an exchange rate of 21,000 VND to 1 USD, Mr. Chau's monthly expenses to care for 72 patients amount to approximately $2,550 USD.

Even the smallest of donations help the Francis Shelter.

Despite his dire financial situation, Mr. Chau was quick to insist that people shouldn't feel the need to come with donations in hand in order to visit the Francis Shelter and help its patients.

As much as he could use the money to provide more comfort and care to those brought to the shelter, he recognizes his limitations in management and fundraising. He tells us that he desperately needs the support of people with the relevant knowledge and experience to consult him in ways to better manage the shelter and fundraise in a sustainable and growth-oriented manner.

Operating the business as-is leaves little room for development. With limited financial resources, time, human capital, and knowledge, he is quickly reaching his limit of how much he can feasibly do and how many people he can help.


Mr. Chau suggested a number of ways people could get involved and support the Francis Shelter.

* Make a donation

* Visit, learn, and spread the word

* Volunteer for a day

* Provide consultation to Mr. Chau

If you would like to make a donation, Thuy's family, led by her holder brother, Dang, and her sister-in-law, Lindy, are coordinating a small fundraising drive. I'm sure they would appreciate your contribution to the group donation. They will ensure that you donation reaches the Francis Shelter.

If you would like to help the Francis Shelter directly, please contact Mr. Chau through the website, or contact me through the comment section below and I will return your message in a direct email.
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