Scholar Heading to Vietnam to Help Children with Disabilities

Story and photo by Mary Hill

Allegheny College student Joe Phelps, of Titusville, wanted to go outside his comfort zone by traveling to South Vietnam for a six-week stay, where he will work with children who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Phelps is heading to the former Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, with a population of nine million people.

He is traveling to Vietnam as a member of the university’s Bonner Scholar program.

According to the Allegheny College website, the Bonner Scholar program follows a similar framework, over a four-year period as Bonner leaders who work with a local agency for two years. They are part of the national AmeriCorps program, receive financial compensation for their commitment and participate in a leadership development training series.

Phelps, who is a senior at Allegheny, is majoring in studio art and environmental science.

He said the Bonner Scholar program is one of the more well-known and prestigious programs at the college.

He said there are about 60 students in the program, and 12 students join the program each academic year.

He added that the Bonner Scholar program involves federal work/study for students.

“We have our own sites — some people are at [Tamarack Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, Women’s Services and Active Aging],” he said.

Working at Meadville Council on the Arts

As a Bonner Scholar, Phelps has been working at Meadville Council on the Arts since his freshman year of college.

He chose the arts council, in part, he said, due to his past experience performing in theater productions while he was a student at Titusville High School.

However, since working with the arts council, he has been focusing on the visual arts.

Phelps said he directed a theater class with his friend, Katie Beck, who graduated from college this year.

“That was fun, [it was] a lot of improv and creative writing,” he said.

Phelps said he is the arts council’s webmaster, which is also part of the Bonner Scholar program.

Before becoming webmaster, Phelps focused on photography for the arts council.

“I was the picture guy,” he said. “I would take photos of arts council programs and those appeared in the Meadville Tribune and that led to the website.”

Phelps said that when he took over the arts council’s website, he used all the photos he took and placed them on the site.

“I make all the brochures, pamphlets, flyers and postcards for MCA [Meadville Council on the Arts] and I put them on the website,” he said.

Phelps said MCA has a Facebook page but some people don’t have Facebook and like to browse through MCA’s website.

He also noted that some people have problems locating MCA, which is housed on the second floor of Meadville’s historic Market House, at 910 Market St.

Heading to South Vietnam

Phelps said the Bonner Program requires that members travel at least 50 miles outside of Meadville.

But, instead of staying within the confines of the U.S., Phelps said he wanted to “go outside his comfort zone” by traveling to South Vietnam, through another program UBELONG.

“[UBELONG does] different projects in different countries and I saw that they did a program in Vietnam working with kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” he said.

Phelps will be staying in Ho Chi Minh City for six weeks, in a facility with beds and a communal bathroom.

The South Vietnam city of nine million people will be a big change for Phelps, but he is looking forward to working with the children while he is there.

He said some of children’s disabilities could be from the effects attributed to the war and Agent Orange.

“Some of the kids live in orphanages or temple settings and the parents send them there when they go to work,” Phelps said.

He added that he will also be working with children at facilities that have organic gardening and enrichment programs.

Phelps said he will be helping the children with hygiene and other skills.

When he returns to Allegheny in the fall, he will discuss his trip to Vietnam.

“There is a Bonner Retreat at Pymatuning Lake at the beginning of the school year,” he said. “We go there and become a community and we talk about experiences in foreign countries.”

Best Buddies

Phelps already has experience working with children who are intellectually- or developmentally-disabled when he worked at Camp Fitch over the summer while in high school; and also through his volunteerism with the Best Buddies program, which matches students with people from the Arc of Crawford County program.

He said this will be his second year serving as president of the Best Buddies program, “which is the reason for my recurring participation in the leadership conference” that is held each July at Indiana University, in Bloomington, Ind.

“It’s an international leadership conference and I will be going again, in July, after getting back from Vietnam,” Phelps said.

According to the Best Buddies website, the program was founded, in 1989, by Anthony K. Shriver. The organization is dedicated to establishing a global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

According to Phelps, the Best Buddies program has about 15 students/matches participating annually at Allegheny College.

“It’s more individualized,” he said. “We’re pretty much offering the tools people need to create these relationships with [other] people.”

Phelps said Best Buddies’ members are upheld in their commitments.

“They have to talk to their ‘buddy’ four times a month, and two of those times [need to be person-to-person],” he said.