A picture tells a thousand words, so the saying goes, and that’s exemplified in a simple shot of Maungatawhiri Road resident Robbyn Storey jubilantly holding a “tiny disabled” 10-year-old Vietnamese girl in her arms.
“She just spent every minute up (from her stretcher) laughing and squealing,” Robbyn recalls as she relays to the Chronicle her experiences working voluntarily with children early this year at four orphanages in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon.
It was heartbreaking, she says, to see the hundreds of HIV/AIDS victims – and others with disabilities – but uplifting too to see how they responded to personal attention. Indeed Robbyn’s been completely won over by the ‘Buds to Blossoms’ programme of paediatric massage and is set to return in July.
The child in the picture was bypassed by most volunteers, Robbyn explains, because she’s older than the “cute toddlers” in the orphanage. “But she was adorable and responded so well to getting off the stretcher and sitting up.”
Like Vietnam’s other abandoned children she had the usual shaved hair, flat head and legs permanently flopped out in a frog-like pose, adds Robbyn. “They have very severe muscle contractus from lack of movement as they lie on their beds all the time … it’s heartbreaking.
“They’re terribly neglected.”
But Robbyn, a registered nurse and massage therapist, believes she can help make a difference in the orphans’ lives by “just for that little while giving them something so simple, so important”.
The one-on-one nurturing attention and touch is provided for just two months of the year – in January and July – by teams of volunteers like herself attached to the Buds to Blossoms programme, founded in 2012 by a California-based non-profit organisation to foster the health, wellbeing and development of orphaned, ill and disadvantaged children.
“Just for a while they feel loved, touched and cared for,” the soon-to-be 60-year-old grandmother says.
They smile and they laugh, a stark contrast to being ignored by their caregivers or treated “way worse than animals”. Their little hands open after gentle massage for instance, Robbyn adds, and they almost blossom – like they’ve just become aware of their body.
Robbyn says her experience back in January affected her profoundly. “I came away a really changed human being … I knew this is what I need to be doing.”
She’s looking forward to returning in July, believing “we all need to do some kind of service … it makes you look at yourself.”
She’s shared stories and photos with her family, and admits to getting a bit teary when talking about such vulnerable children.
“It’s really important for me to be a role model for my own children and grandchildren,” she says. “It’s so cruel how these kids (Vietnamese orphans) have absolutely nothing … no human touch … they’re victimised.”
The work may be “quite confrontational” – shocking even – but Robbyn credits her training as a nurse and her own dealings with trauma as standing her in good stead.
The Buds to Blossoms programme itself is “really good at helping you cope”, she adds, with an orientation process before starting as a volunteer and daily debriefings throughout the experience.
Robbyn feels she’s come full circle in a way. “From my earliest memories I always wanted to work in an orphanage.” Now not having to work for a living so much and with the time to give, she’s found her place.
But the experience doesn’t come cheap. “Volunteering is a very expensive business,” Robbyn reveals. “I’ve been fundraising but not terribly successfully.”
It’s not just the airfares, food and accommodation costs: there’s also a $2000 “participation fee” before being accepted as a volunteer on the programme.
But she won’t be put off her work in Vietnam and is excited to also have been asked by the programme organisers to be part of a foundation group heading to Nepal for the first time next April.
Go to www.budstoblossoms.org/robbyns to make a donation to support Robbyn’s fundraiser.