How to Become a Superhero

Natália Costa
Jul 8, 2019 · 13 min read

Vietnam War Side Effects & Jackie Wrafter’s Impressive Life

Jackie Wrafter receiving the MBE, Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, for the outstanding service she has been doing for the community.

One of the most amazing things about being in the world is the people we meet and one of the most rewarding things about meeting people is how they can be a mirror to our own inner world. Sometimes we believe we will achieve that by exposing ourselves to so-called masters, people who are highly skilled at a particular art which may be meditation or whatever we generally associate with being Zen (which typically includes somehow living secluded from the world). And then we may realize we just get it by doing what we love the most, finding like-minded people and watching or hearing the lives of “ordinary people” who by consistent daily action are “doing the extraordinary” like Jackie Wrafter.

Jackie Wrafter created the Kianh Foundation in 2012, after moving to Vietnam 19 years ago to work with a local orphanage with disabled children. Her work has been changing the lives of hundreds of families and it has granted her an MBE, Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, for the outstanding service she has been doing for the community.

The Vietnam War

Something that puzzled me was how come there were so many children within this region with disabilities? From 1961 to 1971, U.S. military sprayed more than 20 million gallons of various herbicides over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to eliminate forest cover and food crops for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops. The different herbicides used during what was called Operation Ranch Hand (the code name of this program) were referred to by the colored marks on the 55-gallon drums in which the chemicals were shipped and stored: Agent Pink, Agent Green, Agent Purple, Agent White, Agent Blue and, the most famous, Agent Orange. Each of these manufactured by Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Diamond Shamrock, Uniroyal, Thompson Chemicals, Hercules, amongst others. Agent Orange was the most widely used herbicide in Vietnam (more than 13 million gallons used) and the most potent one.

“The government specified the chemical composition of Agent Orange and when, where and how the material was to be used in the field, including application rates,” Monsanto says in this article.

The two active ingredients in Agent Orange contained traces of dioxin. Dioxin was not intentionally added to Agent Orange; rather, dioxin is a byproduct that’s produced during the manufacturing of herbicides, unfortunately it is a highly persistent chemical compound that lasts for many years in the environment, particularly in the soil, in water sediments and in the food chain. Dioxin accumulates in fatty tissue in the bodies of animals, so most human exposure is through food. Studies done in laboratory animals have proven that dioxin is highly toxic and a carcinogen. It was found in varying concentrations in all the different herbicides used during the Vietnam War.

Short-term exposure to dioxin can cause darkening of the skin, liver problems and a severe acne-like skin disease called chloracne. Additionally, dioxin is linked to type 2 diabetes, immune system dysfunction, nerve disorders, muscular dysfunction, hormone disruption and heart disease. Developing fetuses are particularly sensitive to dioxin, which is also linked to miscarriages, spina bifida and other problems with fetal brain and nervous system development, so it became clear to me why that region had so many disabled children. Note: almost 50 years afterwards we’re still seeing the effects!

In 1991 diseases associated with herbicide exposure in Vietnam were recognized and 15 diseases presumed to be related were named, including Hodgkin’s disease, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, early-onset peripheral neuropathy, porphyria cutanea tarda, prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, soft-tissue sarcoma, chloracne, type-2 diabetes mellitus, light chain amyloidosis, ischemic heart disease, chronic B-cell leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and spina bifida in offspring of veterans of the Vietnam war and since, at least 1978, several lawsuits have been filed by Vietnam Veterans against the companies that produced Agent Orange.

About 18%, (3.100.000 hectares) of the total forested area of Vietnam was sprayed during the war, disrupting the ecological balance. The persistent nature of dioxins, erosion caused by loss of tree cover, and loss of seedling forest stock meant that reforestation was difficult (or impossible) in many areas and animal-species diversity was extremely reduced. Dioxins from Agent Orange persisted in the Vietnamese environment since the war, settling in the soil and sediment and entering the food chain through animals who lived in the contaminated areas. The Central Viet Nam areas of Da Nang, Dien Ban District and Hoi An, are within the geographical area of land sprayed with toxic herbicides such as Agent Orange. The Kianh Foundation serves Dien Ban District.

What can we learn from this?

We can learn not to repeat the mistakes of the past. We can learn that whatever we do to the Earth, we’re ultimately doing it to ourselves and the price we pay it’s not that immediate, it’s a price that prevails several generations later, a price that is held upon our children and our grandchildren. And no, it’s not worth it to just go and do it in some other people’s land far away from our own, the Earth is one, it’s the same planet, with globalization, now more than ever we have the chance to be more aware of what’s going on within our home planet as we have the responsibility to take care of it, to act upon it, to be the change we want to see in the world. As stated by Alex Lipton: “humanity is given an opportunity to arise and express its fullest potential as a species. We can rise to the challenge, work together, and restore balance”.

As we analyse the destruction extension of these herbicides, we become more aware and we can search for reliable information to have more control in the origin of the products of our daily lives, from food (choosing to buy local organic, supporting farms around us and small producers, is always a good option) to the activities we engage with our energy, time and money in our spare times. We can become superheros by being aware of our impact in the world around us with each action or word. That’s what makes the difference, not only in the world, but also in ourselves!

Becoming a Superhero

Jackie Wrafter is an inspiring woman, a vibrant human being with an easy and contagious laugher whose giant heart shines through her presence. It was such an honor to interview Jackie and to visit the Kianh Foundation that I am very grateful for the opportunity to share her story. One of the things that inspired me the most is that Jackie is clearly an example of how “ordinary people are doing the extraordinary” by consistent daily action that impacts the community she lives in. In Jackie’s own words, let’s find out more about her path and how the Kianh Foundation is positively changing hundreds of lives:

1 — What has compelled you into leaving everything and moving to Vietnam? How did you get involved with working with children?

In 1999, I was very bored with my job working in an editiorial department of a romantic publishing house and my boyfriend and I decided to take a year out and travel around the world. In March 2000, we arrived in Hoi An in Central Vietnam. A friend of mine, also called Jackie, also from England, visited us and asked me to go to the local orphanage with her. I was not interested in doing this but she made me feel guilty so I went along to keep her company. There were about 70 kids at the orphanage, but there was also 1 room where 16 disabled children lived. Going into that room was life-changing. The children led terrible, joyless lives, just lying on hard beds in this dark, smelly room, day after day. No one picked them up or played with them or talked to them and they never left the room. My friend and I desperately wanted to help them, although we were not sure at first what we could do. We started to raise money for them and we eventually set up as The Kianh Foundation, in order to try and improve their lives and the care they received.

2 — What were the main challenges you faced in the beginning and how did you overcome them?

The main challenge was being accepted enough to be able to make changes in a government orphanage in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam! Not an easy thing to do! I had to build up a lot of trust with the staff there.

3 — How did the School started to gain shape and how did this project happen?

After some years of working at the orphanage, we noticed that local families who had children with disability were starting to put them into the orphanage as the only way of accessing our services. We certainly did not want to break up families and so we had a dream of having our own day centre, where we could support families and children enough that the family felt able to keep their child at home. However, we were a very small organisation and we felt we would never have enough money to have our own centre. Then quite by chance, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology heard about us and gave us the money to build our own centre! Which we did, and we opened in 2012.

4 — Who are your main students? What challenges are they and their families facing?

Because we are the only school/centre of our kind and certainly the only one working in this poor, semi-rural area of Dien Ban, we try to serve the community as fully as we can, which means taking pupil with a wide range of challenges and a wide age-age range. We work with children aged from 1–18/19, who have Cerebral Palsy, Down’s Syndrome, Microcephalus, Deafblindness, cognitive delay and across the whole Autism Spectrum. The main challenges they and their families face are a lack of awareness, knowledge and understanding about their conditions.

5 — How many students does the School have at the moment? How many are in waiting list?

We currently have 100 children but there are a further 200 on the waiting list, and this list continues to grow. We are really just working with the tip of the iceberg.

6 — What would be necessary for the School to be able to take in more students?

Money, pure and simple. We have spent a long time training our local staff to be able to work effectively with a wide range of children. We have the expertise and knowledge to help, but we struggle financially to maintain even our current programme. We don’t have the money to take on more staff, which is what we would need to help more children.

7 — How did you manage to get staff for your School? What formations and/or tools were used to create conditions for the staff to be qualified for the tasks in hands?

There are no university courses for special education in the region where we work, so it is very hard to get qualified staff. We have two qualified special education teachers, three qualified physiotherapists but all the other staff are a mixture of mainstream teachers, kindergarden teachers or individuals with very different backgrounds, including farming or restaurant work. However, what they do all have in common is that they are compassionate people who really want to work with children with disability. We are very fortunate to have a good relationship with the Australian Volunteers International programme, who sends us long-term, qualified trainers to capacity-build our staff.

8 — What is the impact of being in the School for these students? How come their lives are changing?

I think being at the school makes a huge difference to the lives of our students. The alternative would be a lifetime lying on a bed at home, or in the worst case scenario, being given up to a government orphanage. At our school they get the chance to learn and to make friends, to have normal childhoods. We have seen many remarkable changes in our children, I often call these changes ‘little miracles’, because that’s what they feel like. We had one little boy who was very Autistic join us when he was 5 years old. He did not speak or engage and he was very destructive, his only interest seemed to be in breaking every single thing around him. His family were exhausted and defeated and we wanted to help them, but we told them we could only take their son on probation as were not sure if we could help them. Today he is 12 years old and studying in our mainstream class. He is well behaved and can speak and often tells his mother what has happened in the day when he gets home from school. Another student we have is a little girl who is deafblind. She had spent time in the local psychiatric hospital for self-harming out of frustration, because she was a very bright little girl locked in her own body. We were able to teach her sign-language by touch and then her development began. She participates in the class routine, joins in games with her classmates, rides a bike, paints and has a good level of independence.

9 — Can you share with us your Son’s story and how did you adopt him?

When I worked at the orphanage, I often thought about adopting one of the children with disability. However, despite how much I cared about them, I knew I was not strong enough to look after any of them on a full-time basis. Then a 6 year old boy called Khoa came to live at the orphanage. He had Cerebral Palsy but could not walk, barely talked and didn’t know anything. He had a family but they were poor and lived in the countryside and had no idea how to help their son. I clicked with Khoa very easily and loved to watch how hard he worked to soak up all the learning opportunities that were suddenly around him. He began to develop very quickly. I approached his family and asked if he could live with me, and they agreed. He is my adopted son, but he is still their son, too, and they visit him at our house every month. Khoa is now 18 years old and will soon start work as a teaching assistant.

10 — What are the main challenges that you are facing now in your daily activity?

Our main problem is raising enough money to keep all of this going. People like to give us material things, like computers, toys, food, etc. and although these are welcome, we are a human resource project. 95% of our budget goes on staff salaries. If we cannot pay our wonderful, experienced staff, we have no project at all.

11 — Who are the main supporters of the School? Who can support the School?

We receive one-off donations through our website and some of our students are sponsored. We receive a donation each month from a local hotel and sometimes we are lucky and get a big donation from a hedge fund or philanthropic family foundation. Unfortunately, these big donors never typically donate more than twice, as they say they don’t want us to become dependent on them and they want to help other new projects. But I think, why shouldn’t we become dependent upon them if they are rich, and we are not? If they go to help another start-up project, it will be initially great for that project but then they will end up in the same situation as us, struggling to maintain what has already been established. We really need committed support. If anyone would like to make a donation to our work, they can do so through the following link at VIRGIN MONEY GIVING.

12 — What would be the path to follow now? How could the School grow and develop and what would that mean?

As mentioned above, money is our main obstacle. But we are committed to helping more children, with or without more money, and are currently training mainstream teachers in local schools on how to support the main children with learning difficulties in their classes; children who are usually kicked out of school after grade one.

13 — For anyone who wants to begin such life-changing project with a deep impact in the community and in so many lives what are your recommendations? How to start? What to have in mind? What words would you share with people who are starting within this path?

I think my words are sobering, rather than inspirational, because I feel that a project like this is not for the faint-hearted! For me, this project has become a lifetime commitment, which is certainly not something that I considered when I was swept up in the first passionate wave of enthusiasm 20 years ago. You cannot raise people’s hopes and let them depend upon you if you are going to walk away when it gets too hard/boring/not what you want to do anymore! Saying that, myself and a bunch of other committed people, without much money or relevant expertise between us, have managed to create something that has changed and is changing the lives of marginalized people in big ways. We are ordinary but we have done something extraordinary. If you are in it for the long haul, you don’t have to wait for the right set of circumstances to turn up. You can make the change happen.

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