Thursday, April 17, 2014

Slowing down to volunteer at Sapa Hope Center.

For the past week we've been volunteering at Sapa Hope Center, a non-profit project aiming to provide shelter for homeless mountain children from surrounding villages and free English lessons to anyone in the local community. About 20 homeless children currently rely on support from their extended families and their local community; there is no government assistance for this demographic. Sapa Hope Center will help to ease the community burden and offer these children a brighter future.

the vision

Sapa Hope Center was founded by a philosophical entrepreneur named Peter Thuong. While living in Hanoi about ten years ago, Peter visited Sapa and was moved by the stories of the mountain children who walked many miles each day to sell trinkets and handicrafts to Sapa tourists in order to support their families. He learned that some children had lost parents due to illness or injury in the field. Peter was inspired to help, so in 2011 he opened Sapa Backpackers, a hostel/coffee shop whose profits would fund construction and maintenance of Sapa Hope Center.

the present state

In 2014 land for Sapa Hope Center was purchased and building began. In true grassroots form, locals from the ethnic villages have been helping with construction; volunteers do the rest. Tasks over the past week have included painting colorful and educational murals...

dinosaur dorm - the beginning

dinosaur dorm - the middle

dinosaur dorm - complete!

... sealing walls with cement in prep for painting...

Patrick and Harry supervise Tim

... and cleaning and preparing the Center and grounds for their first use.

cleaning and sorting dishes

project kitchen organization: complete!

garden cleanup

Peter hopes to have the Center open for business by June 2014 - pretty ambitious. To help reach this goal, Sapa Backpackers offers guests inexpensive lodging or food in exchange for volunteering their time at the Center. Guests are also encouraged to teach English lessons at the new Center or in the evenings at the hostel.

free English lessons for local children

snack break

Peter's vision for Sapa Hope Center is inspiring. A stable home means healthier and safer children. Free English lessons open up educational opportunities in the booming local tourism business - or whatever industry these children wish to enter. And his international spin on the lessons means that the children will have a well-rounded education. Peter wants to see a zoo painted on the outside wall with animals from all over the world; another wall will feature a world map with flags of each country; and international volunteers are welcomed at the Center. During our stay we worked alongside travelers from England, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, and Australia.

map-sterpiece in progress by Hagen and Josh

And Peter's commitment to his mission is impressive. Day in, day out he runs the hostel (including transport and tour organization, which is probably a full time job in itself), manages volunteers at the Center, and keeps his vision moving forward. His methods are meticulous and methodical whether he is moving a pile of cinderblocks, scraping paint from a sink, or teaching the children vocabulary. Yet he always has time for a thoughtful conversation.

The walk to Sapa Hope Center from Sapa Backpackers is 5km each way. It takes about an hour going and a little longer coming back, mostly because the return trip is uphill but also because the group tends to stop for a beer or three after their hard days' work.

not kidding - it really is 5km each way

and it really is uphill on the way back

but the views are lovely

The exercise and scenery were nice, but I like to think that there is also some symbolism in having the volunteers walk 10km each day. The kids from the mountain probably have a much longer daily walk just to bring home a few dollars for their families...

We have to move on soon but we are glad we could help out in a small way this past week. We wish the best for Peter, the kids, the new volunteers, and Sapa Hope Center!


  1. my boss likes to stop for a beer or three on his way TO work / =

    1. Good thing your boss isn't an English teacher.

  2. Amazing and inspiring! Well done! (per Beth McK)

    1. Thank you Beth! It was definitely a memorable experience.

  3. hi Jen & Patrick,
    We are thankful to Jen & Patrick and we do not forget pray for you all in good health and happiniess's life. Our sapa hope center also keep your images in our kid's heart here and hope see you again in the future. Please do not forget us and our kids...we love volunteers and wish that God bless you all. Any time, if you visit sapa, please come & stay in our center. Thank you and thank you...!
    Many thanks to you

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Peter! We hope to see you again!