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Monday, February 7, 2011

Building Lasting Access to Care in Viet Nam

Sunshine reigned supreme as giggling children accompanied by caretakers, family members and community leaders gathered around for the recent opening of the newest Smile of the Sun Center in Gia Lam district of Viet Nam’s Ha Noi province.

HealthRight is the first and only organization both piloting and advocating for family-based care as an alternative to institutionalization of orphans and vulnerable children in Viet Nam. Last week we opened another Smile of the Sun Center -- part of our ongoing efforts to build lasting access to care for families at risk, especially those combating the stigma of having been affected by HIV/AIDS.

On the morning of January 26, 2011, staff from the local Department of Health volunteered to conduct health exams for the children.  Over 300 children filed in orderly lines while they waited for their turn.  Some munched contentedly on biscuits donated by the local pagoda. 

At the afternoon’s festive ceremony, over 100 children and another 100 or so adults enthusiastically participated.  Local leaders from the Ha Noi Women’s Union and commune delivered speeches, and children performed dances and songs to the delight and entertainment of the audience.  It was an opportunity for both local and international donors to be recognized, including USAID, which supports the Center with funding from the Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Mat Tran To Quoc, an umbrella collective of organizations including many of the government's social programs, donated 1,000,000 VND (about $50) to support the Center’s programs and services.

Considering the explicit inclusiveness of this newest Smile of the Sun Center, it is only fitting that its opening was a community-wide event. HealthRight and local partners have established these centers to provide children and families affected by HIV with access to care, support, and other services in a safe, respectful environment.  Gia Lam’s center is a community center where all are welcome, regardless of their HIV status, socio-economic status or age. Indeed the center’s open-door mission and practice is yet another means for HealthRight and our partners to break down the isolating walls of stigma and discrimination surrounding families affected by HIV/AIDS.

The Smile of the Sun Center is based on the MAMA+ Day Center model developed and implemented by HealthRight in both Ukraine and Russia.  The Center manages each family’s case, refers families to needed services, and provides counseling and early childhood education, as well as art and music classes and daycare.  This range of resources lowers the childcare burden for families caring for orphans and vulnerable children.  Along with HealthRight’s professional Case Management Team, community home-based care workers, who are mostly HIV+ themselves, and Vietnamese student-volunteers also serve as resources to the Center and the communities it serves.

HealthRight’s MAMA+ Project was first developed and launched in Russia in 2005 to address rising rates of child abandonment by mothers living with HIV.  The successful program was replicated in Ukraine the following year, where a growing HIV epidemic coincided with rising child abandonment rates.  MAMA+ empowers mothers to keep children in the birth family environment by building access to comprehensive medical and social support services, and by giving them the tools to stand on their own feet.

Now that the MAMA+ model has been adapted to and expanded in Viet Nam, which has similar health and social service structures, HealthRight’s efforts bridge not only countries but continents, demonstrating that models for service can be adapted to a variety of cultural and national contexts.