“You will have two major beneficiaries if you accept this position,” Brian Teel told Randy and Jill Vernon on a cold winter morning in 2014. “One is direct and obvious: our volunteers who serve in Vietnam, as you help them succeed in their service. The second is more indirect but fully as important: the Vietnamese themselves, who are receiving the service of our volunteers.”
This discussion centered on the possibility of the Vernons becoming Team Facilitators for REI-Vietnam. Just what is a facilitator, anyway? The word is related to the French word “facile,” which means “easy.” So a facilitator is a person or thing that makes an action or process easy or easier. Another definition says, someone who helps to bring about an outcome by providing indirect or unobtrusive assistance, guidance, or supervision.
And the Vernons said yes to Brian’s offer. Since that conversation they have been to Vietnam with our volunteer teams 7 times, for up to 10 weeks at a time, with their next trip scheduled for the fall of this year. (Trying to learn Vietnamese is just part of the assignment.)
“One of the things we work on for each team is setting up the program,” Randy says. “This task largely falls upon our Hanoi office staff, but Jill and I try to arrive in Hanoi a week or so before the arrival of our first team of the season to help hammer out the details. We do this for all the teams, but work especially on the Business Teams programs, as we help coordinate the lecture presentations that our team members offer with the expressed desires of the various universities and business venues where we work. And often our volunteers come with family members who also want to serve in some meaningful way. We explore opportunities with them, so that they can also make a genuine contribution to building up the people of Vietnam.
“We also try to help with orientation. Although our involvement in Vietnam only began a few years ago, we have lived in several countries in the course of our lives and have a relatively good handle on cross-cultural issues. So we try to help our first-timers in particular in bridging the cultural gap between Vietnam and their home country. Jill also helps with the presentations, often delivered with the help of a PowerPoint. For example, a recent presentation on ‘Effective Teams’ used the illustration of a good team having the same cohesion as a snowball. Snow is rare to non-existent in Vietnam, so Jill suggested, why not replace the snowball image with that of sticky rice? The change was made, and as a result the presentation was more effective.
“Part of our service is simply logistics. Getting a team of two or three people to the right place at the right time is relatively easy. Coordinating a large team of 20 or more people, working in different venues at different times, is a much greater challenge. Generally we do okay; I think we’ve only left one person behind once, and we recovered her shortly thereafter!”
Jill adds, “One of the most significant ways we serve is in helping our volunteers debrief and process their experiences. We sometimes run into very difficult situations. For instance, we once were with a team working in a hospital, and encountered a medical emergency. One of our volunteers tried to address the situation, but did not receive the support she expected from the hospital staff. She found this, more than the emergency itself, quite traumatizing. She and I spent several hours talking about this event, more than once. At the end of her stay, during our team debrief, she commented on how very much she appreciated being able to process this event together.
“One of the real joys for us beyond facilitating is not only meeting such great people who volunteer, and getting time with our resident staff, but also deepening relationships with our Vietnamese hosts. Each of our trips seems better than the one before, as we go further and deeper with our friends. We try to get a meal with them as often as we can, and have been on a couple of weekend excursions as well. We are hearing stories on an increasingly deep level, as Randy and I share our stories as well. Vulnerability is resulting in trust.”
“Increasingly,” Randy says, “we are trying to meet with the Vietnamese leaders after the teams have come and gone, to get their honest perspective on how we have done and what we can improve. The Vietnamese are a gracious people, unwilling to risk giving offense, and only after growing in mutual trust will they share directly and honestly their evaluation of our service.
“Also, as Jill and I are involved in the majority of REI’s areas of service, we are in a position to connect the dots between our work in health, education, business, and social work, to get a better overall view of what is happening as Vietnam continues to make progress in these sectors. We are better able to evaluate REI’s current and future role in this special country.”
Indirect and unobtrusive it may be (per the definition above), but REI is glad of the Vernons’ service in facilitating our work in Vietnam, as we build people to build a nation!