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Today is International Literacy Day. As an organization that relies heavily on training and education for the success of our projects, Heifer is taking part in the observance of a day that calls attention to the 780 million adults who do not know how to read or write and the 100 million or more children who lack access to education.  I had the pleasure of meeting Nguyen Thi Thuy in 2010 on a two-week trip through Vietnam and Cambodia. Her story is just one of the many in our cache about how learning to read has dramatically changed someone's life.
AN MY, Vietnam—Nguyen Thi Thuy had one dream: to help her children with their schoolwork. But she couldn’t read.

Thi Thuy was born in the Kesach District in southern Vietnam. Her parents had 13 other children and struggled to provide for them, she said. They frequently had to travel to find work, leaving her and her siblings at home to fend for themselves. 

“I really wanted to go to school, but I knew my parents couldn’t afford it,” Thi Thuy said. “I wanted to be a teacher. If I were a teacher I would teach other poor children to read and write.” Thi Thuy said her lack of education left her feeling paralyzed. She was afraid to go anywhere for fear she couldn’t find her way back home. 

When she married her husband, Huynh Huu Loc, she learned that he had only finished fifth grade. He could read and write, and they agreed that schooling for their children would be their first priority. “We knew they could have a sustainable life if they had education,” she said.

The couple soon had two children—a daughter, Huynh Thi Thuy Dung, and a son, Huynh Huu Nghia. But the couple found it more difficult than they expected to provide enough money for their children’s school fees.

The couple worked as seasonal laborers occasionally taking jobs in nearby rice fields. They earned just about $2 a day. 

“We worked as hard as we could for our children, but we often had to borrow money from neighbors to pay for their school fees,” Thi Thuy said. 

In 2008, the couple learned about Heifer. Thi Thuy knew immediately that Heifer could help her family. 
She joined self-help group and began attending trainings. But since she couldn’t read or write, Thi Thuy said she had to listen carefully. Because of this, she sat in the back of the room, away from her other group members. 

After a short time of trying to memorize what the trainers were teaching them, Thi Thuy decided it was time for her to learn to read and write. She couldn’t rely solely on memory to get by.

She first asked her sister-in-law to teach her the alphabet. Then, she learned to combine letters to form words, and then she asked her children to write words for her and she started copying what they wrote.
“I was busy all day,” Thi Thuy said. “I studied at night from 7 to 11p.m. every night.” It took her about five months to read and write. 

“Heifer gave me the determination,” she said. “The group even elected me cashier.” 

Thi Thuy has changed so much. She no longer worries about feeding her family and can focus on educating her children. Her daughter, Thuy Dung, 13, has a dream to become a doctor, she said. So Thuy Dung says she’s focusing on studying physics. Her little brother, Huu Nghia, wants to be a professor of Vietnamese literature.
Heifer allowed her to achieve her dream, Thi Thuy  said, so she should do the same for her children. “Heifer gave me the most valuable gift to be able to read and write. I’ll support their dreams. I want their dreams to come true,” she said.


Annie Bergman

Annie Bergman is a Global Communications Manager and helps plan, assign and develop content for the nonprofit’s website, magazine and blog. Bergman has interviewed survivors of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, beekeepers in Honduras, women’s groups in India and war widows in Kosovo, among many others in her six years at Heifer.