A photo and a simple question

A young Vietnamese girl tells her dream to a foreign photographer.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Hanoi, Vietnam.

There are major charities with volunteers who help keep people alive day to day, and then there are people like me who fall into the lifetime pattern of the microgiver – generating little projects that give people a reason to keep living.

My pal Stephen took me out for a pep talk, one microgiver to another, because my project for at-risk kids had run into several potholes on the road less traveled, and my emotional tires were looking pretty flat. I was starting to listen to the naysayers who like to tell me, "You can't save the world."

He pumped me back up by telling me how he and his friend Elizabeth, an actress from Manhattan, recently helped a young woman in Vietnam build a library for her village.

Anyone seeing Stephen, the swarthy, hipster-scruffy news photographer, would not take him for a man replacing third-world malaise with little miracles. He's a photojournalist who has been stabbed, beaten, shot at, and chased for his craft, all over the planet. This is the kind of experience that could turn most people into a hater, but it made him value life and find beauty in the midst of distress.

While on assignment in Vietnam, Stephen shot a photo of Huynh Thanh Thao, who was born with severe deformities linked to Agent Orange, a defoliant used in the Vietnam War. She was living in a poor village outside Ho Chi Minh City. Stephen showed Elizabeth the photos from his trip and set in motion a spontaneous plan that changed Thao's life and the future of her entire village.

Thao, living on a pig farm, had made a library in the shed where her father stored fertilizer. Stephen asked her what her greatest dream was, and she responded that it would be to buy more books to share with her neighbors.

A year later, through social networking online and off, a rickety wooden pig-poo repository was transformed into a petite library with real walls, floors, a restroom, the first bedroom Thao has ever had to herself, two computers, and more than 4,000 books – all built by donations and spirit.

Microgivers are all around us, finding joy in being able to do something that makes someone's life better, be it a whole library, or just one book in a child's hands. It all adds up.

Today I gave a child a reason to come to school. He wanted to sit across a chess board from a police officer who volunteers with me, while music plays and chess clocks click.

It's true what they say; good things come in small packages.

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