REI-Vietnam News


by Cliff Fenlason |

"More than just friends" with Dr. Paul and his grandson

Paul Vankleek retired last month as REI-Vietnam’s Agriculture/Veterinary Program Director. He and his wife, Judy, have been working and traveling from Michigan to Vietnam for twenty years! What’s kept them going? To hear them tell it, it’s been their special relationships with so many Vietnamese friends in Vietnam.

Paul and Judy close up

Paul's Background

Paul’s doctorate is in education: global curriculum. He worked for years as the principal of an international school. He was part of REI’s survey team to Cambodia but no immediate opportunity materialized for him to serve there. When Doug Sparks, REI-Vietnam’s founder, was asked by Vietnamese officials for REI’s help in the Ag/Veterinary arena he asked Paul to consider taking leadership in this important sector of our emerging work. Paul at first thought, “I’m not ‘an Ag man!’ I can’t do this!” But he put an exploratory team of agricultural scientists together and during their first trip to Vietnam Dr. Ted Loudon, a water resources professional, told him, “Ag men are the same all over the world. Give us a few minutes together and we’ll be fine! Just organize our trips and get us together for introductions and we’ll take it from there!” With that encouragement Paul did, and they have!


Paul and Judy’s Journey

Their first Ag contacts were in the old capital city of Hue, considered by many to be the cultural center of Vietnam. At the Hue University of Agriculture and Forestry (HUAF) the rector was at first not interested, but after hearing their story and sensing their hearts he said, “Yes, I do want you!” HUAF has been a good partner with REI-Vietnam to this day.

Willing to help in whatever way he could, Paul also taught 4-6-week English and writing courses at universities in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). After a few years Judy started accompanying Paul to help in English and soon discovered a niche of her own. Having worked for years in a medical office she was a natural to help medical professionals develop in medical English. This was wildly popular! Paul had been traveling to Vietnam three times per year, but then switched to twice per year with Judy. One year they lived for six months in a government guesthouse in Hanoi as Paul taught university graduate students in formal report writing while Judy taught medical English in several hospitals. Three times their adult son, Kent, himself a nurse, also has come to teach and train in Vietnam.

Judy with microphone

Judy has provided a good example of integration among the REI programs. By teaching medical English to the hospital staff just prior to an overseas medical team visiting it loosened their tongues and sharpened their hearing so they could communicate better with the visiting doctors to follow. Judy says, “Most of the doctors have studied English but don’t engage in English conversation often. So it was a matter of encouraging them to speak up and of building their confidence enough to use what they know. There was certainly specialized medical terminology to learn, but I emphasized pronunciation and basic conversation useful in a medical clinic or hospital.”

Paul was a tireless recruiter and builder of veterinary teams. The Ag/Veterinary work took him to the Hanoi University of Agriculture (HUA) and the National Institute of Veterinary Research (NIVR) in Hanoi. One of the highlights of Paul’s twenty years was the opening of a first Small Animal Clinic as a joint project of NIVR and REI-Vietnam.

small animal clinici

Special Relationships

In each of these places Paul and Judy have formed special relationships that they renew each time they return. Many of their most memorable moments were family visits, dinners out, or otherwise spending time with these friends. One of them lived with Paul & Judy while doing research at Michigan State University. They sponsored another for an REI Fellowship in the USA. Some of their friends treat Paul and Judy like family. In one family the two girls call him “Papa!” It’s these relationships that have motivated Paul & Judy to remain active in Vietnam for many years. “These friends are a great joy!” In like manner, you can be sure that Paul & Judy have been affectionately discussed over many a bowl of rice in Vietnam!

Passing the Baton

Paul will soon be 77 years of age and is suffering from cardiac amyloidosis. This is limiting his ability to travel but he and Judy still keep in touch with friends in Vietnam by email, Skype and Facebook. REI-Vietnam owes Paul a big debt of gratitude for starting and building the Ag/Veterinary sector of its work, of course, but also for the rich investment he and Judy have made in people…building people who will build their nation. Paul and Judy are two of REI’s pioneers!

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