Social Change through Soccer in Saigon

Social Change through Soccer in Saigon

Saigon is not how I remember. Skyscrapers shape the cityscape giving it a modern cosmopolitan look. New, more expensive shopping malls abound in nearly every part of the city. Boutique restaurants cater to the fusion cuisine preferred by many global visitors. Wide, smooth roads make some of our U.S. roadways look shoddy in comparison. It is a city in many ways unrecognizable but in many ways still distinctly the same. A colleague told me that according to the World Bank, Vietnam no longer ranks as a developing country in need of foreign aid. That’s good news for a proud country that is pushing mightily to accelerate its economic growth with the hopes that by 2020 it will have achieved developed world status. But looking around, one can see that there’s still work to be done. Despite reducing its poverty rate from 60 to 20 percent in the last 2 decades (World Bank, 2013), nearly 7 million youth still live in poverty in Vietnam (total youth population of ~30 million), according to studies done by UNICEF.

Last month during a short trip to Vietnam, I met up w/ Phạm Thành Nhơn, a graduate of the iLEAP program. I hosted Nhơn, a couple years ago through iLEAP and really enjoyed getting to learn about him and 5 Gio Sang (5am), the organization he founded in 2010. You won’t find a website for it. You’ve probably never heard of it. That’s b/c, like Nhơn, it quietly exists to make incremental social change leading to micro transformations in the lives of the youth it serves. The organization uses friendly soccer training programs to encourage disadvantaged youth to stay in school and lead productive lives. 5 Gio Sang, which means “5am,” trains 30-35 young boys (at any given time) between 10-18 years old who live in the Vietnamese orphanage system.

Preferring bare feet to sneakers, these kids dribble, pass and score like many of the other kids out there playing soccer in Saigon. And knowing that they can come to a place and play and just be ‘average’ kids under an encouraging and supportive role model, like Nhơn and the other coaches, helps them see a life beyond their daily experiences.

Once a product of the Vietnamese orphanage system, myself, and raised in the U.S. by a generous adoptive family, I have this beautiful country in my blood and DNA. And I love nothing more than to see & connect with social change leaders, like Nhơn, who are helping some of Saigon’s disadvantaged youth stay motivated and stay in school while learning about collaboration (not competition) through sports — providing them an opportunity to play and just be kids, as all children deserve.
The heat is sweltering yet, the kids keep playing and show no signs of slowing down. Dust flies around. Soccer balls graze the goal posts. And finally….score.

**Keep up with 5 Gio Sang activities by “Liking” their Facebook page or contact Nhơn at if you wish to learn more.

Photo caption and credit: 5 Gio Sang kids playing soccer at Ky Hoa Sport Center in District 10, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo credit: M. Goel, Oct. 2015.

Mỹ Lệ Goel (iLEAP Trustee)

Mỹ Lệ Goel (iLEAP Trustee)

Mỹ Lệ Goel’s dedication to community, connection and contribution sprouted from the fertile soil of the subsistence farm in rural Vermont where she grew up. The hard art of growing food instilled in her a passion for the type of work that has both immediate local benefits and the potential for lasting global change. Mỹ Lệ earned a B.A. in geology from Smith College and an Ed. M. in technology, innovation and education from Harvard University. Her impressive career has taken her from her first position as a research science associate at the Smithsonian Institution (where she later spent several years leading science communications efforts) all the way to her current role as senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she works on the Global Health Research and Development Policy and Advocacy portfolio. Along the way, she has made stops at Weber Shandwick, where she served as vice president on the social impact team, and at Global Partnerships, where she initiated strategic engagements with such organizations as the World Economic Forum and the Clinton Global Initiative. Identifying and nurturing the next generation of social change makers is what drives Mỹ Lệ’s work and what first attracted her to iLEAP. Her professional and personal experience has shown her that leadership development is critically important but often overlooked in global initiatives. She quickly identified that things are different at iLEAP, whose programs take a holistic approach to leadership training, which builds sustainable capacity for global development in emerging regions. From her birthplace of Viet Nam to her upbringing in New England and to the various points on the globe where she has since traveled for work and/or pleasure, Mỹ Lệ enjoys learning about the world and supporting the work that helps make it a better place for everyone.

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