Local Partnership Leads to International Connections

Group of people standing in front of a Imagtor sign.

August 19, 2019

In the fall of 2018, the Rural Institute and Summit Independent Living hosted Nguyen Thi Van, a Mansfield Center Fellow from Vietnam, who was visiting Missoula as part of the Professional Fellows Program.

This spring, Bronwyn Troutman, Community Living Specialist at Summit Independent Living in Missoula, was selected as an outbound YSEALI (Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative) Fellow through the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana. Bronwyn and Anna-Margaret Goldman, director of MonTECH, traveled to Vietnam to further the collaboration and partnership between the Rural Institute, Summit Independent Living Center, and the organizations associated with Ms. Nguyen.

We are excited to share the following post by Bronwyn Troutman about her trip to Vietnam.

My colleague, Anna-Margaret Goldman, and I recently visited and presented workshops at several disability organizations in Hanoi, Vietnam, through the University of Montana‘s Mansfield Center professional fellowship program. Most notably, we had the opportunity to spend time with our hosts and exchange partners, Ms. Nguyen Thi Van and Ms. Ngo Thi Huyen Minh, to observe the amazing work they are doing as directors of the Will to Live Center and Imagtor Company. I had the opportunity to apply to go this spring, after Van and Minh visited Missoula last fall and were hosted by the Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities at the University of Montana, and my agency, Summit Independent Living.

The non-profit Will to Live Center in Hanoi provides vocational training for students with disabilities, who not only learn computer skills, but also learn essential independent living skills through real life experience. The center accepts 60 students at a time from across Vietnam with a wide range of physical disabilities, 17-35 years of age. For most of the students this was the first time leaving their families, where many of them spent most of their time at home. At the center, students live together in nearby dormitory style apartments for 6 months while studying employment skills, and learning to manage their own lives through hands-on experience. While living together and pooling their financial resources, students must learn how to support each other and work together to manage all of their own activities of daily living such as personal assistance, shopping for groceries, cooking, cleaning and doing laundry. The success of this program is high, with 80% of the students finding integrated and competitive employment upon completion.

Most of the graduates from the center are hired at the partner, for-profit Imagtor Company, a photo editing company that serves international real estate companies. Imagtor Company employs 75 individuals, and most of the employees have disabilities. Forty percent of the proceeds from the self-sustaining company go back into the Will to Live center; both the center and company are led and staffed by people with disabilities. While leading workshops, we observed the quick progression of skills, from new students who were a bit shy and quiet, to more experienced students about to graduate from the center, to the employees of the company. As students and staff progressed we saw tangible results in gained confidence and success. Additionally, we saw happiness as individuals gained employment, found friendship, love, marriage and new families and found belonging through fully participating in their community.

I had the opportunity to share my professional experience as a Community Living Specialist at Summit Independent Living Center, by leading Community Living Skills: an Introduction to Living Well and Working Well with a Disability workshops to staff and students.  My workshops included information and discussions on Independent Living philosophy, Self-Advocacy and Self-Determination. Dr. Goldman jointly presented with me on Assistive Technology for People with Disabilities, sharing her expertise as director of MonTECH. Assistive technology was of special interest to people with disabilities in Vietnam, as the economy there is quickly developing and just beginning to open up to allow access to many basic assistive technologies, essential equipment, and integrated employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

The highlight of the trip for me was being able to participate and observe the phenomenal efforts of the staff and students led by Van and Minh, who demonstrated deep friendships and respect among their staff and colleagues, a family-like atmosphere, and incredible hard work and outcomes with comparably limited financial resources and government support. Although access and civil rights were often quite limited in Vietnam, the individuals we worked with consistently demonstrated strong leadership skills and excellent natural peer supports, a fierce work ethic and a will to live proudly independent and truly integrated lives. We were received with grace and friendliness everywhere we visited and I left with a sense of gratitude for having the opportunity to visit Vietnam, and a deep curiosity and respect of how people with disabilities live and work in Vietnam.