A few years ago, a young girl called Thao was excited about finishing high school and studying accounting at university. Then one day she travelled with a friend to a nearby village and simply vanished.
What she didn’t know was that her so-called ‘friend’ was working with human traffickers and she was promptly sold to a gang that was taking Vietnamese girls into China and the heinous sex trade there.
A living hell ensued. Months went by and Thao was beaten and repeatedly raped.
She was only 16.
Eventually Thao was located by a unique organisation that sent a rescue team to help her escape. That organisation is known as Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation.
Thousands of kilometres away, a group of Macquarie University psychology students were keen to broaden their horizons, use their skills and do some good in the world – and this is where Macquarie’s PACE International comes into the picture. Known for partnering with organisations and NGOs that implement best practice community development, PACE had identified a partnership with Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation as an ethical and collaborative one.
After a rigorous selection process, it was decided that five Macquarie students – Eryn Chapman, Estelle Berton, Sabrina Miller, Nicola O’Connor and Callise McMullan (as pictured above, from left to right, with Callise crouching) – would travel to Vietnam for what was to be an experience they’d never forget.
Blue Dragon is an organisation like no other. Every day they work with over 1500 children and teenagers from around Vietnam, rescuing them from crisis and supporting them to rebuild their lives by providing opportunities to flourish.
The moment the Macquarie students stepped inside the Blue Dragon Community Centre they were deeply moved and motivated by what they saw – dedicated staff trying to make a better life for each child.
Eager to apply and integrate the knowledge gained from studying their psychology degree into this very real scenario, the students got to work, spending time with both the staff and the youngsters themselves.
During their month-long placement, students got into a routine like this: Mondays were spent in the Blue Dragon office, collaborating with staff to design life skill programs for children rescued from human trafficking, while Tuesday to Friday was spent at the community centre running activities for the children and assisting staff to implement the new skills programs.
During the final week, the Macquarie students worked with staff to facilitate a two-day leadership camp for Blue Dragon youths.
“When I send our students on placement, I want them to make a difference in the world and to ‘road test’ their dreams,” says MQ Course Convenor Wayne Warburton. “Each of the students who went to Blue Dragon did both, as they used knowledge and skills from their psychology degree to help design a developmentally sound program for child victims of human trafficking.”
Truth be told, it was a two-way street. Firstly, and most obviously, the children and staff benefited greatly from the Macquarie students’ knowledge and support. But as a result of the programs they implemented, Blue Dragon staff reported a significant and welcome change in the children’s behaviour, with an increase in enthusiasm and self-confidence being noted.
The Macquarie students also received an education, one rooted firmly in the real world as opposed to the classroom. They learned how to incorporate theory to develop life skill programs for children and how to harvest each other’s best talents when working as a team.
One of the students, Callise McMullan, pictured here crouching, was deeply moved by what she experienced. “Interacting with the children at Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation inspired me to want to go on to do a clinical master’s degree and to eventually work as a child psychologist,” she says. “Specifically, I would like to work with children who have experienced trauma or are dealing with anxiety.”
The enthusiasm that the psychology students displayed when back home on campus showed that the Vietnamese children had had a significant effect on them. Children who went through similar experiences to Thao, our bright and promising teenager who was sold off into the sex trade, thrive there, especially with the little extra help from Macquarie’s PACE programs.
And now, thanks to Blue Dragon, Thao lives permanently at a Blue Dragon shelter, which is allowing her rehabilitation to slowly move forward, thanks to counselling and ongoing support. One day she plans to continue her original dream of studying at university.