Know One, Teach One
KOTO – which stands for ‘Know One, Teach One’ – is a social enterprise that provides training and education to disadvantaged youth in Vietnam.
Through our interviews at One Quarter Journal, we are often reminded that the value of an idea lies in its execution. With this in mind, we wanted to share the story of someone who had benefitted from a big idea and today it is our pleasure to introduce you to Huong Dang, a graduate of KOTO.
KOTO was founded by businessman Jimmy Pham after a visit to Vietnam from Australia in 1996 left him shocked at the number of young adults living on the streets without the ability to support themselves. The idea was to provide practical education to these youths funded through a social enterprise model and the goal was to enable them to exercise their right to lead a life of dignity.
What started as a sandwich shop in Hanoi staffed by nine young adults has since grown into two restaraunts and garnered international recognition. Students of KOTO move through an intensive 24-month training program that includes training in hospitality, the development of crucial life skills and lessons in the English language. Upon graduating from the program, students also receive an internationally recognised accreditation from the Box Hill Institute in Melbourne.
It was in 2006 and a decade after Jimmy's first idea, that Huong started her training with KOTO and she says that her time with the social enterprise changed her life. Currently based in Melbourne and preparing to start her Master’s in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Swinburne University, Huong also manages Marketing and Communications for KOTO International and in 2013 was awarded the first Victorian International Student of the Year – Higher Education and the Premier Award. A true beneficiary of Jimmy’s original idea, we caught up with her to hear her story.
Can you tell me about your life before KOTO?
I was born in a small village in north-west Vietnam and raised by a single mum. Our main income was the rice harvest and we all had to work hard on the farm. When I finished Year 7, my mum became sick with a kidney infection and I had to accept the fact that I could no longer go to school despite my dream of becoming a teacher - I needed to give this up so that my younger sister and older brother could remain at school.
Six months later in 2000 when I was only 13 years old, I went to Hanoi – the capital city of Vietnam – by myself to earn a living in hope of helping my mum. My first job was as a babysitter for a four month-old boy, it was like slavery - I earned $10/month working hard from six am to midnight. Four and a half years later, after experiencing all the hard work of babysitting and working for families with old and sick people, I decided to go back to school at night and study year eight.
As soon as I went back to school, the family I worked for were not happy with me spending time on studying and they kicked me out of their house in a very cold winter. I wanted to continue my study and I tried my best to stay in Hanoi but life was extremely hard with no relatives or friends in the city. I rented space under a staircase to save costs but the place where I lived was mostly associated with people who were addicted to drugs and who would commit crimes.
How did you support yourself?
I woke up every day at two am to cook sticky rice and sell it on the streets I would then cook sweet potato cakes in the afternoon before studying at night and then selling the cakes until midnight. Every day was about survival and I managed to sleep for only two hours each day. By that time, mum was still very sick as a result of many years working hard on the farm, my brother was at the Police Academy and my sister was at High school and they all relied on my income. Unfortunately, I could not find a job and ended up losing all of my money.
Was it around this time that you found KOTO?
It was not until I was in Year 11 that one of my classmates told me about KOTO. It was hard to believe that somewhere like it could exist in this world as I had hardly met a kind person prior to that time. I decided to apply to KOTO but I was full of doubt, I only hoped that it would provide me with a safer place to live in so that I could finish high school and get into university – this was my dream. I finally got the most wonderful chance to change my life when I was admitted to KOTO in April 2006 where I studied Front of House training and I was able to complete my high school education at the same time as graduating from KOTO.
What were the early days like for you at KOTO?
Moving to KOTO was such a big change for me, to adapt to a new living and studying environment where everyone spoke English and I was learning things that were very international. It took me a bit of time to adjust my life, start building trust in others and to build my confidence to cope with learning and working in the restaurant. As I mentioned, I was studying to finish high school during my time at KOTO so my time was limited - I was busy all the time finish studying at KOTO during the day then going to study at night and on the weekend - I did not have much time to relax. But the most beautiful thing when I joined was the sense of belonging – it was at KOTO that I received my first birthday gift.
What else did you gain from your time with KOTO?
I think the training was really amazing, for me to earn a living and from that to push myself a little bit further in my career. KOTO also helped me to build my confidence and realising that I am also valuable and I can do much better when I am loved. It gave me a sense of social responsibility to give back to less fortunate people and return the favour to the community. KOTO not only changed my life but those of my whole family. Since I have had a good job, I can support my family better and now they all have better and happier lives.
Now that you are a graduate, can you tell me more about the links that you still have with KOTO?
When I moved to Australia, Jimmy told me that it was important to focus on my studies and not worry about KOTO as my main purpose when coming here was to study on a scholarship between KOTO and Box Hill Institute.
But I can’t get away from KOTO so I decided to volunteer for them as the Marketing and Communications Manager alongside with my full time studies and work part time for the Sofitel Melbourne on Collins. I think that the program is very successful in that they can create a sense of belonging so that wherever I go, I still feel that KOTO is a family.
Do many of the graduates stay close to KOTO?
We actually have a KOTO Alumni Association where most of KOTO graduates stay in touch, we have a family reunion every year at the Graduation Ceremony for current trainees, so we meet up again every year. KOTO graduates are working in hotel and restaurants where KOTO trainees also take their work placement there so they have chance to be connected. We also have KOTO Future Leader program which given to outstanding graduates with many opportunities like further education, career development, overseas work permit, English Training and Scholarships. Each year we have about 10 scholarships in Australia for graduates with outstanding achievements, who make their family become better, supporting their community and helping KOTO.
What about your family? Can you tell me what they are up to now?
My mum has a very happy life in the country and lives with my brother's family. She is now able to have a stable life financially and can have access to better health care when she is sick but her health is obviously much better now. My brother became a policeman and is about to complete his second degree in Law. He has his own family with a beautiful wife and daughter and he is working for the police office near my house and takes care of my mum so that I can be able to do my studies in Melbourne. My sister also has her own family and daughter – she and her husband are not living too far from my home which is great.
I am so grateful that together we have broken the cycle of poverty through education.
Portraits of Huong by Sebastian Avila, all others provided by KOTO