Austrian Man Builds Dozens of New Schools: "Because I love Vietnam!"

Over the past 5 years, a man from Austria hasbuilt dozens of new schools for children in the highlands.
May 03, 2022 | 08:06

An Austrian man's wish is to help poor Vietnamese children have better learning conditions, not only contribute to creating a good life for themselves but also contribute to the community.

That man was Thomas Farthofer. After graduating from university with a degree in economics in Vienna (Austria), he worked in the financial sector. In 2016, Thomas Farthofer surprised many people when he decided to put aside work to do volunteer work in Asia. Thomas thought of many countries such as Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, but finally chose Vietnam.

Austrian Man Built Dozens of New Schools: "Because I love Vietnam!"
Thomas Farthofer and children at a school site in Truong Son commune, Quang Ninh district (Quang Binh province), 2018. Source: PANO

“I originally planned to stay in Vietnam for about 6 months, but Vietnam has conquered my heart. Wherever I go, I always receive smiles, care and help from local people. The school staff, teachers, and students where I volunteered are very enthusiastic, friendly and open-minded. When I was walking around Hoan Kiem Lake, many young people approached me and started to talk to me to practice English. I really appreciate their studious spirit,” Thomas recalled.

While traveling in many localities in Vietnam, Thomas realized that not everyone has the best opportunity to access education. There are still many schools that are degraded but have not been able to repair or rebuild, greatly affecting the learning of students.

After the six-week volunteering stay, Thomas returned to Austria, with the intention of coming back to do more volunteering and community development activities. Thomas shared this idea with some friends who have experience in volunteering as well as with a charity organization he was a part of.

It's great that they all share the same passion for Vietnam, so they support Thomas enthusiastically. Soon after, everyone raised enough money for Thomas to complete the registration procedure to establish a non-profit organization named Sao Bien - Room for Education in Austria that aims to support education in Vietnam by building kindergartens and primary schools.

Thomas is the founder and project manager of Sao Bien. The Sao Bien Board of Directors consists of a chairman, a treasurer and a secretary, all of whom participate voluntarily.

The administrative costs of Sao Bien are kept to a minimum to maximize resources for the project and the community. The financial statements of Sao Bien are made in accordance with the regulations of the Austrian authorities and the common laws of Europe.

Thanks to the transparency as well as the humane meaning in its operations, Sao Bien has been certified by the Austrian financial authorities as a tax-exempt charity. Many businessmen in Austria, business partners in Europe, a number of organizations and volunteer groups in Vietnam also actively supported and donated funds for Sao Bien.

Starfish story inspires school charity

Explaining why he named his organization Sao Bien (starfish in English), Thomas said, he enjoyed the story of a young man picking up starfish one by one and tossing each gently back into the ocean to prevent them from dying of exposure to the sun. The elderly man who saw him, wondered why the young man spent so much time saving the starfish as there were thousands of starfish along miles of beach. “You can’t possibly make a difference,” he said.

The young man bent down, picked up another starfish, threw it into the ocean past the breaking waves and said, “It made a difference for that one.”

“The starfish story explains that we can make a difference,” Thomas said.

Likewise, Sao Bien is committed to doing its best for disadvantaged children and ethnic minority communities in Vietnam. The schools that Sao Bien contributes to building may not be able to support all subjects and areas, but even providing better educational opportunities for some children is better than doing nothing.

Thomas and his colleagues believe that education is one of the most sustainable ways to help children change their lives and break the cycle of poverty in which many of them are caught.

At the end of 2016, Thomas returned to Vietnam after the project had enough funds to build nearly 10 schools, each worth about VND 250 million (USD 10.800).

Austrian Man Built Dozens of New Schools: "Because I love Vietnam!"
Thomas Farthofer (second from right) at the construction site in Son La Province. Source: VNS

Before every new project, Thomas and his colleagues split up to visit the site, work with the local government, then create a construction plan and make a cost estimate and send it to the Sao Bien executive board in Austria to get approve. This process usually takes a lot of time and effort. To ensure projects of the highest quality and efficiency, all steps are carried out with the participation of experienced staff or experts of Sao Bien.

“Every decision on a new school is only taken after a field trip to find the potential location,” he said, “We aim to achieve some geographical diversification, rather than just helping in one province.”

Having a field trip in Pa U commune, Muong Te district (the northern mountainous province of Lai Chau), Thomas had to cross streamlines by motorbike to get to the school site, if he's not careful enough he might fall over. Once Thomas had to travel by boat to reach the school site in Ba Be district (the northern province of Bac Kan).

During a survey to Khau Vai commune, Meo Vac district (northern mountainous province of Ha Giang), Thomas had a motorbike accident and had to undergo several surgeries.

After that, although he recovered, Thomas had to give up his hobby of running. However, his and Sao Bien's enthusiasm for disadvantaged communities in Vietnam has not changed slighless. On the contrary, he is even more determined to carry out educational support projects for the community.

Education helps change lives

From the first schools built in Pa Puoc village, Chieng Yen commune, Van Ho district in mountainous Son La province, over the past five years, Sao Bien has completed 36 projects building and renovating facilities for preschools and primary schools in 14 provinces and cities in Vietnam such as: Lai Chau, Ha Giang, Dien Bien, Yen Bai, Cao Bang, Bac Kan, Lang Son, Tuyen Quang, Thanh Hoa, and Nghe An.

In 2022, Sao Bien will build two satellite schools in Son La and Quang Nam provinces. In addition, the non-profit organization is also surveying and planning to build a kindergarten in Dac Nong province.

For Thomas, each project is special and left an impression on him. Just listen to the voices of students learn to read, Thomas just hoped that a new school could be built as quickly as possible.

Austrian Man Built Dozens of New Schools: "Because I love Vietnam!"
A new-built kindergarten in Suoi Pa village to create a better learning environment for around 30 children in the age of 3 to 6 years. Source: Sao Bien

Bui Thi Minh Khuyen, a teacher at Pa U semi-boarding ethnic minority primary school in Muong Te District shared: "The school site in Pa U commune has 37 students who are children of the La Hu ethnic group. Previously, the school site was built of wood and corrugated steel roofing sheets. Over time, it has deteriorated, cold and windy in the winter while hot in the summer. In 2019, a new brick-built school with heat-resistant corrugated iron ceiling, and glass doors built by Sao Bien has helped her and her students have a better learning environment.

Assessing the effectiveness of Sao Bien's two projects within the locality, Pham Minh Hai, Department of Education and Training of Muong Nhe district in northern mountainous province of Dien Bien, shared that due to temporary construction of wood, bamboo and leaves, in the rainy season, especially in April and May, the old contructions were often blown down or blown off by the wind. Teachers have to take students to stay at people's houses to ensure safety. Because of that, many children have to miss school during the rainy season.

Since the support of Sao Bien, Cha Noi school site has been solidly constructed. Ta Hang school is also more spacious and solid classrooms, Hai said. In addition to the two classrooms, there is also a service room and a kitchen area which not only provide better learning conditions for students, but also become a place to hold cultural and community activities for local people.

With their meaningful activities, in 2017, Sao Bien received the Audience Award of Europe’s oldest prize for Social Innovation (Sozialmarie). That same year and in 2019, Sao Bien received funding from the United Nations Women's Organization for two school building projects in Vietnam.

In 2019, Sao Bien received a certificate of merit from the People's Committee of Yen Minh district (Ha Giang). Recently, on the 5th anniversary of its establishment, Sao Bien also received a encouraging endorsement letter from the Ambassador of Vietnam in Austria.

In the letter, the ambassador acknowledged and expressed gratitude to Sao Bien for making many meaningful contributions to thousands of Vietnamese children, especially the disadvantaged ethnic minority community.

The Vietnamese Ambassador to Austria affirmed that Sao Bien's contribution is completely consistent with Sustainable Development Goal 4 of the United Nations and Article 28 on children's right to education as stipulated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Thomas shared, coming here, Sao Bien plans to develop environmentally friendly schools and build more space for children to play. In addition to focusing on building and renovating educational facilities, Sao Bien also plans to carry out a number of other educational activities such as supporting online English teaching or donating and supporting educational books by English for kids.

“Many people ask me when I will end my volunteering activities in Vietnam, but so far, I have no intention of stopping, because I love Vietnam!” Thomas said.

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