An orphanage in the rural highlands of Vietnam and an art class at are literally and figuratively on opposite sides of the world.
On one end you have 5- to 18-year-olds in classrooms without desks, raising chickens and pigs as part of a job, and going without medical and dental care in most cases.
On the other end, about 7,500 miles away, you have Pine Valley.
Tricia Grame, an art teacher at Pine Valley, has brought the two -- Pine Valley and the (about 375 miles north of Ho Chi Ming City) -- together with a project she started at the school called Art Pal (think pen pal, but with art).
"In my 25 to 30 years as an art educator, this is the most powerful project I've ever done," she said.
(View a photo gallery from Kon Tum and the orphans .)
Grame, who is a Danville resident and on the Danville Arts Commission, started the project in 2011 that would exchange postcards created by students at Pine Valley and orphans in Kon Tum.
Her students were to create a picture on a blank postcard that told a story about their lives. Drawings ranged from their own interests, like sports or dancing, to Merry Christmas wishes or drawn pictures of themselves in their yards. The postcards would then make a 7,500-mile trip to Vietnam.
Art speaks all languages
Earlier this year, she took the postcards, along with a suitcase full of art supplies, to an orphanage in Kon Tum. The orphanage is part of the Vinh Son Montagnard Orphanages spread throughout the highlands. There are seven all together with about 750 children currently residing in them.
While there, the art supplies were cracked open and the postcards from Pine Valley were distributed to the children, ranging from kindergarten age kids to 18-year-olds.
"The children were so beautiful. They treated the art supplies like diamonds or jewels," Grame said. "And they put back every thing and every marker had its cap on."
Grame said the faces of the orphans lit up when the post cards were passed out. "They were so pleased that someone was writing to them," Grame said. "That someone cared for them in another country."
The Vietnamese orphans then created images to send back to the kids at Pine Valley.
The orphans of Kontum didn't speak English, but it wasn't an issue. "Art speaks all languages," Grame said. "I had an interpreter but art speaks. In two seconds I forgot they didn't speak English. You know, art speaks its own language."
As part of this project, photos of the orphans were taken with them holding their post cards and the postcards from the Pine Valley students. There isn't one photo in the lot where the orphans aren't smiling ear to ear.
Not all places are equal
Yet, despite the smiles, when brought back to Pine Valley, the pictures had an affect on all of Grame's students.
"I always thought that everyone got an even share of everything. Like clothes and food," Pine Valley 12-year-old Abel Theodros said. "But their clothes are dirty, some don't have shoes. They barely have clothes and we have nearly everything, and we want more. It doesn't seem right."
"It was really upsetting to see them. We have so much and we want more and they don't have anything," Shea Frankenberger, 12, said. "I would like to see every student give them one thing, at least at this school."
"All they want is love," Sarah Wong, 11, said. "They seemed to be really happy to get our cards."
Nearly all of the students who participated in the project had near identical comments. Each student discussed the amount of stuff they have and how little these orphans have. "They only have one pair of clothes and kids where we are have 50 pairs in our closets," Shea continued. "They don't have shoes and some people have 10 pairs they don't wear."
When asked how the knowledge of these orphans in Vietnam may impact their lives, several students in Grame's art class spoke up and said, essentially, it has put them on a path of giving.
"I want to help them and make them feel better," Karen Samaha, 12 said.
"When I'm older I want to be able to buy stuff for them and buy them books so they can learn," Ali Akeefe, 11, said.
"I wanted to win this writing contest and if I won I was going to give (the prize money) to Mrs. Grame for the orphans," Shea said.
About 100 postcards were taken to Kon Tum, along with a suitcase full of gifts the Pine Valley students brought in for the orphans. But the fact that the students were able to see the orphans with the postcards, the gifts, and how the orphans looked and lived, added a real component to the entire project, Grame said.
"(Art Pals) is so different and tangible," she said. "(The students) are making art, getting art back and seeing the art and the pictures.
Veterans and the Vinh Son Orphanage
Grame, throughout this project, has worked with the Friends of the Vinh Son Montayard Orphanage, a nonprofit group whose goal is to make the lives better for the 750 children in these orphanages.
The Friends of the VSO are made up of 14 board members, half of which are veterans of the Vietnam War. The group began helping the orphanages in 2001 when David Chaix, co-founder and VSO president, came upon the orphanage during a Vietnam Veterans trip to that area. Chaix is a Vietnam vet from the fourth infantry and served in the highlands of Vietnam in 1967 and '68.
"Everybody on the board has their own reason for being involved," he said. "For me, we left with unfinished business here. We didn't have closure. And we didn't come home to a friendly environment. But this gives us an opportunity to get closure, to help out a little bit."
In 2005, the Friends of the VSO became a 501 (c)3 nonprofit. And through the years, Chaix said, it has provided about $600,000 in funds to the orphanages for projects like building sleeping quarters and kitchens, funds for dental and medical services, as well as water purification projects. Last year it sent $110,000 to the Vinh Son Orphanages.
As for Art Pals, it may not be building a kitchen, but it's building awareness and giving the orphans something to smile about.
"We have a lot of children poor in the world. There is not a lot of hope and excitement in their lives. Tricia has introduced art and it brightened their existence," Chaix said. "(The orphans) are seeing images from half way around the world. That really helps them see a world they would not see."
Chaix said it's also important that it goes the other way.
"It's the same opportunity, but the opposite direction," Chaix said. "Shows them not everyplace is like (San Ramon). That these children need help. That (the Pine Valley students) can reach out and help them.
"At a very young age, you instill an attitude of giving."
Pushing it forward
Grame has grown interest in her project with other art teachers in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District. She said Art Pals now included seven art teachers from schools in Danville and five art teachers from San Ramon-based schools, plus two teachers at the California institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco.
She also plans on going back to Kon Tum with more postcards and posters to decorate the art rooms, she said.
In the meantime, while she's on this side of the world, Grame hopes to organize fundraisers for the Vinh Son Orphanages displaying the postcards and the photos of the orphans. She said she has been in discussion with the for such an event. She also would like to hold an event at CIIS, where she also teachers a Master in Fine Arts program.
"I'm an educator and an artist," Grame said. "I have a great feeling doing this … there's just so much energy and passion around this project."
View a photo gallery from Kon Tum and the orphans .