After traveling to Saigon and Ben Tre, a trio of local YMCA delegates returned with a better understanding and appreciation of Vietnamese culture.
Eric Tucker, president and CEO of the Arlington-Mansfield Area YMCA, was part of a group that spent 16 days there in March on a world service trip, helping with classroom construction and teaching English to first through fifth graders.
Tucker, along with Bryan Sloan, pastor of the Fields Church (which meets regularly at the Y) and Chief Volunteer Officer Aaron Perales, describe an adventure that began with apprehension but ended with tears of joy.
Tucker notes that Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams and other city leaders thought the trip would benefit the people of Arlington. He says such international experiences promote global inclusion, enhance cultural competency and help build bridges with local community members.
Sloan, who’s also a YMCA board member, says he was concerned, at first, about how the group would be perceived as Americans. “I think the greatest surprise was how kind the people were to us,” he says.
Tucker says the children there were excited about the opportunity and the adults were emotional. “There were lots of tears,” he says. “It was pretty overwhelming, I think, how we felt there.”
The men describe a heartwarming scene where teachers and some of the parents would arrive around 5 a.m. to cook “incredible” breakfasts and lunches for their guests with expensive food brought from their own homes. “We ate very well there,” Tucker says.
He also talks about visiting cultural sites and communicating with the help of Vietnamese student interpreters. “That was some of the most fascinating conversations,” he notes. “We also had Vietnam refugees going back for the first time since they were kids.”
“The food was fantastic,” adds Sloan, who describes a clear-ish orange, sweet and spicy sauce with red pepper flakes. “Any food dipped in fish sauce was great.”
Perales, who also directs Arlington Independent School District’s Parent and Community Engagement department, says there were numerous takeaways from the journey, but he especially enjoyed the opportunity to work on basic English with the children, utilizing ESL skills, and playing outdoor games. Perales says the experience of working in harmony with others and understanding their value systems has led to an increased understanding that will help support, engage and celebrate Arlington’s Vietnamese community.
“This community, they want to tell their story,” Tucker says. And “they’re very patriotic. They love the U.S.”
Describing a scene where he and Perales had communicated with a man in Vietnam who did not speak English, Sloan says, “people are people wherever you go” and “even though you don’t speak their language, at all, you can still communicate.”
Sloan says there is the need and desire for tutoring and art and music instruction among the Vietnamese community in Arlington based on a needs assessment in which more than 2,000 people participated. Some of those programs have now begun.
The YMCA, which started in 1844 in London, now operates in 120 countries around the world. Tucker says that although many may view the nonprofit as simply swim and gym experiences, “most of the impact we have are outside of those walls.”
The newly constructed educational space is just one example, he adds.
“It was a great honor to represent the Y coalition at the ribbon cutting,” Perales says. “Working with kids … teaching colors, numbers, days of the week, and the way they responded, it makes me think I probably got more out of it than they did.”