The winds and rain began lightly but grew strong enough to delay our friend’s flight out of Đồng Hới, Quảng Bình in Central Vietnam. The bittersweet goodbye was offset by the arrival of a new group of Swim for Life interns. We departed the airport with them, not at all prepared for what the next five hours would bring. The winds picked up and the rainfall became even heavier. It reminded me of my childhood in Spokane, WA. When a spring storm passed, my brother and I brought chairs to the front porch to watch the lightning and hear the thunder above. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand – we were told every second between seeing the flash of lightning and hearing the thunder equals one mile of distance from the storm to where we were. As Beth (my wife) and our interns huddled in a small room to get out of the rain, I counted. First ten miles, then four miles, now directly overhead.
We are volunteers for Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, co-directing their Swim for Life program to reduce drowning in Vietnam. We had quit our jobs in higher education and the corporate sector to get married and spend our first year volunteering in Central Vietnam. We chose Vietnam because of our connections through serving on the board of a non-profit called PeaceTrees Vietnam. Through these relationships, we discovered a problem that is taking the lives of 35 people (11 of which are children) every day: drowning.
That first year was met with pleasant surprises and challenges. With summer temperatures consistently well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the mandatory blackouts that turn off electricity for 12-24 hours felt like torture even if it was to help conserve electricity. Contrasting this, winter temperatures can drop to 47 F. Because of the building style in Vietnam (brick with a thin layer of concrete), when it is 47 outside, it is 47 inside. It was almost a daily occurrence to wake up feeling every bone in our fingers. Cockroaches, ants, mosquitoes, and rats all seem to take a backseat to the elemental conditions.
Despite these challenges, we were also struck by the beauty and the development of the city and province. The people of Central Vietnam are warm, hospitable, and welcomed us as family. Our work and our deepening friendships are what drive our efforts and hopes here. We have hired great locals to ensure management and sustainability long after we depart. Our two pools, with expansion plans for three more next year, have already graduated 2,000 children from a survival swimming course. This year 72,000 children will receive water safety education in their primary schools through our program.
When we made the initial decision to leave our jobs, we consciously decided to truly live in the unknown – to live inside the fear that comes up and the spaciousness it creates to pursue our deepest desires. We decided to live just one step at a time. Sometimes, this way of living is exhausting, frightening, and difficult, and yet all those moments are overshadowed by a shared aspiration to be motivated by desire and love rather than driven by our fears.
But fearful we were as we watched people rushing through the water from our second floor. It was midday. Kids were still in school and people were still at work. We could sense something different about this storm. After two hours of torrential downpour, the water had risen and the streets resembled small rivers. The canal had already swelled to only a few feet below street level. We wondered how long the electricity would stay on or if we had enough food and water to weather the storm.
Our concerns also turned toward our Vietnamese friends, the many people we met over the past year of volunteering and the houses and farms we visited for family celebrations and meals together. If the rains didn’t stop, the very issue we had come to address in Vietnam – drowning – would cause death and suffering for many families.
Although we see a bright future where lives are saved through our drowning prevention programs, we also know they are too late to help the victims of this current flooding. Initial news reports indicated over 35 lives lost with additional persons still missing and over 100,000 homes flooded. There is much work to be done, and together we believe we can make a lasting difference.
Beth Kreitl & Kevin Espirito are volunteers and co-directors for Golden West Humanitarian Foundation’s Swim for Life program. To find out more information and how you can support, please visit www.swimforlifevietnam.org.