Sporting the paunchy build and sunny disposition of Vietnam's popular Laughing Buddha, Jimmy Pham drops by his street-kid charity's trendy four-story restaurant in central Hanoi.
Mingling with the spirited young staff, "Uncle Jimmy" tugs at earlobes affectionately, banters with servers, and straightens the toques of the industrious cooks.
In a kitchen bustling with orders, a tray of crispy potato cubes catches Mr. Pham's eye. Furtively he nibbles some.
"That's a no-no," Pham notes apologetically to a reporter. "But they didn't see me!" he quips. Hygiene and discipline are priorities at KOTO ("Know One, Teach One"), the nonprofit hospitality training institution for disadvantaged youngsters founded by this Vietnamese-Australian social entrepreneur.
Revenue from KOTO's restaurant in Hanoi, popular with Western tourists, helps fund intensive two-year training programs at centers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where Pham now lives. Spiffily uniformed youngsters work in three shifts as either gourmet chefs or "front of house" trainees.
They receive free housing, meals, and monthly allowances. Recently, though, two of them helped themselves to the tip box – another no-no.
"You deal with [troubled] kids trafficked by their mother, raped by their uncles, tortured by their father," Pham observes.
Other students implored him not to expel the culprits, he adds, attesting to strong bonds fostered by shared hardships. Until recently they were all destined for lowly menial jobs, or worse: a life of crime, exploitation, and penury.
"I wandered the streets begging," notes Tran Quoc Anh, a bashful, boyish-looking 18-year-old.
Abandoned by his parents, Mr. Quoc Anh became a shoeshine boy at 13, earning $1 to $1.50 a day. He slept on sidewalks, sheltering in doorways during downpours, or curled up in trees in city parks to avoid being mugged. Two years ago he lost a leg after jumping off a train he was riding without a ticket.
Now studying in Class 17, he lives in one of KOTO's comfortable homes as one of the 100 current students, all disadvantaged youths between ages 16 and 22.
Besides culinary skills, Quoc Anh learns English, computer know-how, and essential "life skills" at KOTO's modern, well-equipped four-story training center. For the first time in his life he goes on field trips and attends social events.
"Before, I had no hope for the future," he says. Now he does. "I want to become Hanoi's best barista," Quoc Anh pledges.
That's no pipe dream. Last year a KOTO trainee won the Vietnam National Barista Championship.
KOTO's more than 300 graduates work in well-paying jobs at hotels such as the Sheraton, Intercontinental, and Sofitel. Several have won overseas scholarships.
Pham Van Phuong also once roamed the streets shining shoes. Yet last year, after working as a chef at Hanoi's Metropole and Hilton hotels, the KOTO alumnus bought a $60,000 home for his parents and sister.
Now he's back at KOTO training students. "With every new graduate," he says, "you know you've changed another life."
Work in the hotel and restaurant industry "is the most employable skill I can give them," Pham says. "But I have no degree in it or anything." Born in Saigon during the Vietnam War, Pham moved to Australia at age 8 with his Vietnamese mother and five brothers.
Growing up poor in Sydney, he helped out at his struggling single mother's small butcher shop, made doughnuts, and sold sandwiches and vacuum cleaners.
In 1996, as a young adult working for a travel agency, Pham returned to Vietnam as a tour leader for Australian tourists.
"I remember my shock at the pollution, the traffic, the heat," he recalls.
In a park in central Saigon, Pham bumped into kids hawking coconuts for 20 cents a day. "They were dirty..., slept on park benches, and showered twice a week by an open sewer," he says.
Pham bought the kids toiletries and lunch – and returned to see them day after day. As word spread of the foreign benefactor (who still spoke halting Vietnamese), more kids came.
"I realized the resilience and passion for life these kids had despite all their troubles," Pham says.
But they wanted jobs, not handouts, he adds. With money from his mother and brothers, Pham opened a 10-seat sandwich shop in Hanoi in 1999 to provide employment for nine street kids. He financed the shop with wages from his salary as a tour leader.
"We were losing money, but the kids developed a sense of ownership," he says.
Then, during President Clinton's historic visit to Hanoi in 2000, the American president showed up at the little eatery.
"He paid for his lunch [a grilled veggie sandwich and a mango smoothie] and that's all," Pham remembers. The sudden publicity was a mixed blessing, instantly raising Pham's profile but also exposing him to suspicions of being a CIA agent.
He has never looked back. Today KOTO has an annual budget of $2 million and employs a staff of 75 in Vietnam and Australia. Every six months KOTO enrolls 25 more destitute street kids to train them for a brighter future.
"It's been 11 years of blood, sweat, and tears," Pham says. "But when you see kids who shined shoes now work in the Sofitel, you know it's been worth it."
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