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Fall 2005
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Mary Kay Fallbeck (seated) with children and staffer Thi Dong Nguyen at a preschool for orphans and impoverished children in Ninh Binh

Building Hope

When Mary Kay Fallbeck visited Vietnam for the first time in the summer of 2004, she had hopes of helping a group of 100 children, all blind, in Ninh Binh, about 90 miles from Hanoi. Fallbeck, a teacher at Gibson Elementary School in Woodland, California, was inspired to help after meeting a Sacramento-area Vietnamese family and traveling with them to their homeland.

“I had anticipated refurbishing an existing building, or adding a room onto a school,” recalls Fallbeck (BA, Information and Communication Studies, ’89). Then she met the children. “I fell in love with them,” she says. “The look of hope on their faces has stayed with me.” Once it became clear to her that what the children really needed was a school of their own, Fallbeck began to raise funds for construction of a school by holding fund-raisers and getting individual donations.

“What struck me most was that none of these children had ever been to school,” notes Fallbeck. “Most of them rarely go out into the world, and have never been seen by a doctor. I acknowledge that being blind would be an exceptional hardship in life, but I do not feel it should prevent these children from having a sense of self-worth or from participating in life.

“With intervention and resources, these children can be integrated into school and society and become productive citizens. It’s a matter of changing past practices, providing resources, and breaking down the stigma of being disabled in Vietnam. I know these children will shine once they are given an opportunity.”

The school building was completed in August 2005. Fallbeck plans to return to Vietnam this April to furnish the school with desks, chairs, Braille typewriters, computers, canes, and special equipment for the blind. “Just having a place to go each day where they are taught basic skills such as mobility and Braille will give them a feeling of being valued,” says Fallbeck. “Ultimately, I would like to prepare them to be integrated into local schools.”

In the future, she hopes the school will become a resource center for all ages. “Preschoolers would learn mobility, Braille, and basic life skills,” she explains. “School-age children would receive tutoring and learn life skills, music, art, computers, and sports. Adults could use the center in the evenings for vocational training.” Fallbeck would also like to return with a team of eye doctors to set up a temporary vision clinic.

For the past several summers, Fallbeck has traveled and volunteered. In 1997, she taught English in an impoverished village in Thailand. She has worked with orphans in Nepal, Latvia, and Romania. In 2002, she spent the year teaching in China.

“I feel I have been given a life of comfort and provided the opportunity to travel and witness the hardships that exist firsthand so I could be aware of both, and then be motivated to do something about it,” says Fallbeck. As for her idea that blossomed into something much larger for these blind children in Vietnam, Fallbeck has this to say:

“The actions of few can indeed change the lives of many in a profound way. I received donations from less than 200 individuals and organizations, yet together we have built a school that will influence the future of a significant number of children and individuals.”

To learn more about Ninh Binh School for the Blind, go to

Lisa Kirk, Public Affairs and Publications