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Charity begins at home

“When you know one, then you should teach one.” It’s a motto that Jimmy Pham follows diligently in Hanoi, where he runs one of the city’s more remarkable restaurants, Koto.  A meal there is a unique experience, and not just for the excellent food or the friendly ambience – it’s the staff at Koto that sets it apart from most restaurants.

It was in 1996 that the first seeds for Koto were planted. Resident in Australia for most of his life, Jimmy Pham returned to his birthplace as a tour guide. Coming across a group of children in the street, Jimmy was horrified to see the depraved conditions that they lived in. It was clear that simply giving money or clothes to the children wouldn’t be enough – a good meal or a proper bath here or there might much for them in the short term, but it would make little difference to the course of their lives. Something needed to be done to give many of the street urchins a boost in life; away from prospects of begging, carrying heavy loads or hawking newspapers on the roads for the rest of their lives.

It was there that Jimmy applied his motto of “Know one, teach one”. Rather than simply offering them a home or giving them money and clothing, Jimmy set up a small sandwich stall, taking nine youngsters under his wing and teaching them vital life and career skills. Several years later, the sandwich stall has burgeoned. It’s now one of the finest places in Hanoi to enjoy a meal, combining fine European and Vietnamese cuisine with an excellent variety of claypot curries, stir-frys and pastas in a sleek, polished atmosphere that buzzes with the vibrant young staff.

Few might realise that the dapper waiters and immaculate chefs were scrapping for survival on Hanoi’s streets several years ago. It’s because of Koto’s training centres that a number of the trainees have are well versed in English, hospitality, cooking and basic life skills. A number of graduates from the programme have gone onto careers in these fields; plenty though remain connected with Koto and regularly return to the restaurant or the training centre to continue sharing their knowledge and the lessons gleaned, for the project continues to burgeon. Once the Hanoi restaurant and training centre are capable of surviving on their own without donations or aid, plans for similar endeavours will soon becomes realities in Hue and Siem Riep. The impoverished youth of Hanoi now have much to hope for, with the rapidly growing programme offering more and more youngsters a chance to do leave destitution behind for promising careers.

Few words can adequately describe the experience of enjoying a meal at Koto in the knowledge that it has been prepared and served by youths off the streets who’ve been given a new lease on life. Even fewer words come to mind when trying to adequately describe the man behind it all.

When first shaking hands with Jimmy, as he insisted on being called, it’s hard not to notice the aura about him. A unique set of traits shines forth; the firm handshake accompanied by a wide grin on his genial round face exudes a mix of confidence, humility, honesty and compassion. There are few people who can inspire trust and awe with a single word or two; Jimmy Pham is one of them.

He tries to play down any credit that he should receive, diverting any talk about his own efforts in Koto to the work that so many other volunteers are doing, and the rewards for the youth in the programme. There is genuine conviction behind each statement he says; it’s clear that this is a man who truly believes in the project he has set up. Jimmy isn’t content just feeling that a difference can be made: he’s one of the rare few to have taken action and gone about making a positive change in many lives. His greatest reward comes from those whom he has helped, in seeing them stand to their feet and making something of their lives. With the success he has had with Koto leading him to expand the project further, and his sincerity and determination at the helm, the future certainly looks much brighter for many of Asia’s destitute youth

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