When Dr. Dannia Southerland first heard from Children of Vietnam, she had no idea what was in store for her. Given her post doctoral research in health and clinical services at Duke University, she had been contacted by the organization to advise on case management for children with disabilities in Vietnam.
Intrigued by what she learned from Children of Vietnam regarding the dire circumstances for Vietnam’s most vulnerable victims of Agent Orange – children with disabilities – Southerland signed on to help design the organization’s Hope System of Care, a “wrap-around” system that integrates social services, rehabilitation, education and other supports to help meet the needs of disabled children in Vietnam. Southerland laughs as she reflects on her first meeting with a board member from Children of Vietnam: “I went for coffee in Chapel Hill,” Southerland says, “and wound up in Vietnam 30 days later.”
Shortly after arriving in Vietnam, Southerland realized the challenges of implementing a comprehensive and decidedly western model in a country where social services infrastructure is not yet fully developed.
“Without a social services infrastructure, there is no way to develop sustainable services,” Southerland says, “You can pour a lot of money into orthopedic surgeries and maybe impact the incidence of club foot…but to have real lasting impact, to provide services to help these children improve their life chances, that’s what we’ve been focused on.”
Southerland consulted local health professionals and case workers in Da Nang – the pilot city for program – who evaluated Hope System of Care and offered suggestions on which services would work and which would not be practical. She then got to work developing partnerships with the city of Da Nang and the Vietnamese government.
Today, the Hope System of Care serves children in two districts in Da Nang, and every child who has ever enrolled in the program continues to receive support. Southerland remains a committed advocate for sustainable social services throughout Vietnam and hopes to expand the program in the near future.
“The legacy of Agent Orange is the legacy of a bad time,” Southerland says, “but an opportunity for people to come together and build bridges across cultures and continents… It’s an exciting ideal, making Agent Orange history.”