Singaporean Michael Ong has set up a cafe and non-governmental organisation in Hanoi to reach out to troubled Vietnamese youth.
BY JACQUELINE TAN
PHOTO MICHAEL ONG
oused in a charming French colonial building in a tree-lined suburb in Hanoi, a 25-seater cafe called Tea
Talk Cafe and Bakery has become a popular meeting point for young people.
But the talk here is more than just idle chit-chat because the cafe is also a counselling centre, offering comfort and hope to troubled Vietnamese youth who need a listening ear.
Since its opening in 2012, Tea Talk has become a buzzing community hub as well as safe sanctuary for those needing space and privacy to share their problems with Vietnamese social workers and counsellors.
It is also a social enterprise, providing locals with job opportunities as cafe staff or social workers.
The man behind Tea Talk is Singaporean Michael Ong, who relocated to Vietnam in 2001 with his wife, Jacqueline, and their daughter, Grace, who was two at the time.
Ong had moved there to work as a volunteer consultant and lecturer at the University of Labor and Social Affairs in Hanoi through Resource Exchange International (REI), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that recruits volunteers for development work in different countries.
“I wouldnʼt say my work here has impacted the community in a big way. To transform a community takes decades. However, I strongly believe a community is made up of individuals who, when their lives are touched and transformed, go on to touch others.”
Michael Ong, founder of Tea Talk and CoRE
At the university, he taught social work and counselling, and conducted life-skills training. He also organised English language appreciation clubs for locals.
Ong’s affinity for Vietnam started in 1995 when he visited the country for the first time, just after graduating from university. The trip left an indelible mark on him.
When he found out through REI that the university in Hanoi was hiring for a teaching position, he jumped at it. Before moving to Vietnam, Ong had been a social worker in Singapore for six years, spending most of his time working with at-risk youth.
In 2008, Ong received a scholarship to pursue a Master’s degree in Social Work at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, in the United States. During his time there, he took a social entrepreneurship class, which piqued his interest in social enterprises.
Ong returned to Vietnam in 2011 and started Tea Talk in 2012. A year later, to complement Tea Talk’s work, he started the Center for Counseling, Research and Empowering Community (CoRE), an NGO that offers social services for young people with mental health and family issues. Its activities, run mostly by volunteers, are largely funded by and conducted at the cafe.
Says Ong: "Although I'm around to guide my staff, they make the final decision. I'm preparing for succession as I want the cafe and the NGO to be fully led by the locals. This is part of the empowering process."
One of the Vietnamese youth being prepped to take on leadership roles is Tra My, 26, a social worker. She became a volunteer at Tea Talk after meeting Ong at a university training course. She later attended one of CoRE's programmes, Let's Talk, which teaches young people basic counselling skills. Today, Tra My leads and mentors students. She also helps to run CoRE.
She says: “Through Michael, I’ve met many social work specialists, who have helped broaden my knowledge and improved my skills. Many of them are Singaporeans. We’re now good friends who share ideas on how to support Tea Talk and CoRE. I’ve visited Singapore thrice to connect with social workers and attend leadership workshops.”
Seeing young people like Tra My assume leadership posts heartens Ong and encourages him to continue his work. “To see young people learn and grow and, in turn, inspire their peers motivates me,” says Ong, who plans to stay in Vietnam for the long term and continue empowering youth.
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