When New Yorker Neal Bermas was planning a trip around Asia in 1999, he chose HCM City as one destination among several. He did not expect that his encounters with homeless and street children here would become the first chapter in the story of his attachment to Vietnam. With his years of experience in the hotel and restaurant business, he founded a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called STREETS international to provide vocational training to at-risk children in Hoi An. He spoke with An Vu on the establishment of STREETS and its future
Inner Sanctum: You may have heard of KOTO foundation, a hospitality training centre in Hà Nội that gives disadvantaged young people the opportunity to learn and thrive in their lives. How is your centre different from KOTO?
We are in Hội An and KOTO is based in Hà Nội, but we drew inspiration from Jimmy Phạm’s early work when he first started KOTO.
Hội An and adjacent Đà Nẵng have some of the greatest hotel and beach resort development and growth in the country. That provides unmatched opportunities for our graduates. We take full advantage of that in partnering with some of the best international properties in the area.
Inner Sanctum: What are the challenges you faced in setting up your STREETS?
We were greeted very cautiously by the local and provincial authorities and the business community. Frankly, some were suspicious. Fortunately, as they got to know us and the important work we were doing, the suspicions mostly turned to support.
Also, as we networked and met many of our trainees through other NGOs, orphanages and community leaders, it took a while to sort out the good organisations from the others. Now we partner with some of the best and most reputable organisations in the country.
Inner Sanctum: Can you share your thought about the future of the organisation?
I recently visited a partner organisation that we work closely with. It is a very well-run and professional NGO. It was a difficult visit, because the youth in their programme have all been trafficked or abused by their families or in their villages. As I was leaving, I saw a very young girl, around 6 or 7, playing with older kids. I hoped she was the daughter of someone that worked there. I asked the Director about her, and it was not easy to hear, but the girl’s grandfather was in jail for sexual abuse.
I want to be sure that there is a STREETS around in 10 years so that that girl and many like her also have the opportunity to come to STREETS and achieve the dignity and self-sufficiency that all our other 250 graduates have achieved. I am focused on our strengths and working with our sponsors to make sure STREETS continues for at least the next decade.
Inner Sanctum: What does STREETS offer for Việt Nam’s young poeple, and can this model be replicated in other cities in Việt Nam?
The youth at STREETS come from the entire country.
We determined that the best model for us was a university model—that is, a centralized campus where students could live and study and work, and where a critical mass of professional staff and teachers could work together. That’s what we have in Hội An. Our trainees come from as far north as Sa Pa, and one-third are from HCM City and the southern region.
Inner Sanctum: Can you share your experiences with at-risk students? How do you manage to teach such students despite their difficulties?
Our experience is that so-called ‘at-risk’ youth are much the same as everyone else. They need to have a safe, secure place to live and sleep every night, they need nutritious meals, exercise and basic medical care, they need the warmth and comfort and structure and support that a caring professional community can provide, and they need to all learn in their own ways and be recognized and appreciated for their learning. It is up to us to find the best ways to support and teach so they can succeed.
I think STREETS recognizes and achieves this every day with the so-called ‘at-risk’ youth and we continue to learn and do better all the time.
Inner Sanctum: Can you tell me more about the fundraising event at the Park Hyatt in HCM City on May 25? What benefit does it hold for at-risk students?
We have developed a somewhat unique approach for our events, a bit different from many of the other gala events.
Our events are more lively, interactive and less formal. It is Chef- and food-centric. Guests are able to walk around and try many different dishes and beverages at chef tasting stations, while interacting with the Chefs, some of whom are quite famous. Two of our Chefs are flying in from the US just to be at our event! Also, there is the opportunity to showcase our trainees’ talents as they work with these world-class Chefs. At the same time, our world-wide partnership with Hyatt Hotels gives us the opportunity to host all our sponsors and guests at one of the most beautiful and luxurious hotels in southeast Asia, the Park Hyatt Saigon. And, don’t forget the renowned but as-yet-unannounced surprise entertainment!
Inner Sanctum: Can you tell me more about your upcoming plans and projects for at-risk students in Hội An in the future?
We plan to continue what we are doing now, staying focused on what we are good at, being ambitious and always trying to achieve more. With our centralisation, we expanded from two concurrent classes to three, and added a third eatery to our enterprise side. We will continue to grow in this manner as long as we can continue to realize the results the young people in our program all achieve.
We remain focused on our outreach especially to poor young people, orphans, out-of-school, abused and trafficked youth, those from HIV environments, ethnic minority communities, and recently LGBT youth, too. VNS