Social enterprise wakes up hidden talents among disadvantaged children

Sunday, 2017-08-20 13:44:26
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Children taking part in To He art classes (Photo:
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NDO – Since it was founded in late 2006, the Hanoi-based To He JSC has established itself as a successful model of a social enterprise awakening hidden talents among Vietnamese children with disabilities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, helping them out of poverty by selling their handmade clothes and accessories.

The story of To He started in 2005 when a group of friends, Nguyen Dinh Nguyen, Pham Thi Ngan and Nguyen Thi Thanh Tu, visited the Thuy An care center for elderly and disadvantaged children, in the Ba Vi district of Hanoi, as volunteers. They organised weekend art activities and drawing sessions for the children there, which helped them to learn more about the children’s difficulties, as well as their optimism and simple wishes in life.

Through painting activities the group found that inside every child hides a talent, which motivated them to launch a project to provide more opportunities for kids to have fun and promote their creativeness, but most importantly ensuring that the children benefit from their work.

With start-up support from the Centre for Social Initiatives Promotion (CSIP) and the British Council Vietnam, after 11 years since its launch, To He has opened weekly arts classes at 20 social centres and schools for orphans and children with disabilities throughout Vietnam.

At the classes, the To He members instruct the children to paint, create objects with play dough and make torn-paper paintings. Selected artworks from the art classes are then redesigned and printed on clothes, accessories, home-wares and toys branded under the name To He. The products are distributed in Vietnamese and international markets with a portion of the profits being used to fund the creative classes and scholarship programs for talented children nationwide.

Tuan is a special member of the To He class at Thuy An centre. Tuan is unable to communicate with others apart from using hand signals and a few words to express what he wants to say. When the To He class was launched at Thuy An, Tuan was not selected for the class at first due to his serious illness. However, he passionately observed the class through the window and kept crying aloud until he was accepted to the class.

During the first few days, he repeatedly wrote down certain numbers and characters on paper, including his room number at Thuy An. It wasn’t until one year later that he began drawing the sun, trees, houses and animals. More surprisingly, Tuan uses colours in his paintings like an artist would, liberally and impressively. Tuan is now full of joy and optimism and has become an inspiring and energetic example for other children at the To He classes.

Meanwhile, 21-year-old Van Minh Duc, a member of the To He class at Phuc Tue centre in Ba Dinh district, in Hanoi, suffers from asperger disorder, which is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others. Duc finds painting as a way of communication. Objects featured in Duc’s paintings are simple shapes and his paintings are characterised with long rows of numbers, striking colours, and bold lines.

Another prominent To He child artist is Ha Dinh Chi, whose nickname is Nem, Nem is the first child with autism in Vietnam to hold a solo exhibition, which was held in 2014, under the theme ‘Nem’s Stories’. Showing his painting at a very young age, Nem considers painting as a way to express his thoughts. His paintings have revealed that Nem sees the surrounding world with many cheerful, colourful images and lots of inspiration. Many of his paintings have been selected to be printed on To He’s fashion products.

In addition to encouraging creativity among disadvantaged children, To He members have also advertised the children’s talents by showcasing their artworks at retail markets and fairs at home and abroad, such as the Fukuoka Giftshow 2013, Vietnam Festival in Tokyo and the Asia Social Enterprise Festival. To He’s products have also been exported to Australia and Germany, and have received an enthusiastic response from customers there.

The joy and benefits that To He members have brought to disadvantaged Vietnamese children have shown that what the children really need is not an expensive gift but appreciation, empathy and opportunities to express their unspoken thoughts and show their hidden talents.

Paintings by disadvantaged children at To He art class (Photo:

An installation of plastic chairs set up by children at a To He class (Photo:

Children playing with straws at a To He class (Photo:

A children artwork at To He class (Photo:

To He products, which are adapted from paintings by children at To He art classes (Photo: