I arrived in Vietnam full of anticipation. As we snaked our way from the airport through Ho Chi Minh City and out to the countryside of Binh Duong province, I just had to slide open the windows of the van despite the sweltering temperature. I needed to soak up the familiar place.

I love this part of the world for being so different from the West and for all it offers to the senses. Family and friends gather along the sidewalks in make-shift congregation areas of plastic chairs and tables to laugh and share tales; tantalizing scents waft from woks and stalls in the markets; honking horns compete with urgent shouts of vendors in silks and conical hats. Mopeds and bicycles hug the road’s shoulders with faceless drivers swathed in scarves and bandanas to keep the dust out. As we headed down Highway 13, the chaos of HCMC slowly dissipated; rivers and farmland replacing concrete jungle as we sped along.

We entered Lai Thieu, home to the Thuan An Center, where our workshop will begin on July 12. It never fails to give me a surge of happiness each time I visit the familiar village. Lai Thieu thrives on its highway location, offering a convenient rest stop for travelers as they pass by. Storefronts offering everything from jeans and footwear to bottles of La Vie water and Asian snacks lean against tin roofed restaurants serving pho and coffee. Laundry strings from the balconies of tall, skinny apartment buildings reflecting the bright sunlight. Further afield, men navigate wooden boats through a meandering river with long poles as they search for fish and crawdads. The streets are gritty and the dust constant. The village may not be much to look at, yet there is a strong sense of community that resonates here. Lai Thieu is real, unpretentious, rural Vietnam.

After checking into the hotel, I headed over to Thuan An Center to visit with Thuy, the director of the program. When I entered the familiar grounds, the friendly ambiance immediately washed over me. Thuy was in front of her office waiting with a big hug and a broad smile before bustling me inside. We sat in her cheerful office decorated with flowers and the little touches of a woman’s hand. She has a large whiteboard calendar on the wall that marks the highlights of her week’s schedule in careful, neat script. It warmed me to see she had noted our meeting.

Thuy and I settled in to pick up our conversation as if we had just seen each other yesterday. If there is anything I am most proud of with this whole initiative, it is the friendships I’ve made along the way with wonderful people across the globe. Thuy is one of the names at the top of the list.

Sister Dao, Thuan An’s Education Director, dropped by to say hello. A member of the Sisters of Charity, Dao is someone straight out of the Sound of Music. I honestly would not be surprised if she suddenly broke out into song. Dao has a calm presence and sense of purpose about her and yet there is a light-hearted streak right below the surface, a mischief that makes her a lot of fun to be around.

As Thuy and I were getting caught up, a knock came at the door. The door pushed open and a tiny little girl dressed in yellow with big brown eyes and dark bangs shyly said hello to Thuy. I love watching Thuy interact with children. She has such grace, a compassionate nature that draws everyone to her, particularly the children. They all love her. I still recall past meetings when she would ruefully let her youngest students join us in our enjoyment of a bowl of mango or grapes as we continued our dialogue.

Ahn, our latest young visitor, has a cochlear implant – the first of Thuan An’s students to get one. Cochlear implants are expensive, and hence, still pretty rare in Vietnam. Her family lives far away but they come to the center so that Ahn can get the early intervention services she needs to develop listening and spoken language skills. It was a wonderful half hour to talk with the family and learn all the details about this little girl. They will be back for our program and I am looking forward to having our team of professionals meet her.

We now have 95 teachers participating in this summer’s program. There are even more that would like to attend, but Thuy finally drew the line. Thuy’s eyes grew big as she told me about the people who are coming from the various schools and early intervention centers. She is nearly 50 years old but has such youthful exuberance and passion for her vocation that makes it enjoyable to work with her.

We have some last minute things to wrap up before the program starts. I’m looking forward to collaborating with Thuy and her staff to get it all squared away. It is quite an effort to frame up a project of this scale with thousands of miles between us and through email and across language and cultural barriers. Being in the same room, scheming about the program we’ve been working on over the past year and talking about the possibilities to come…well, it really doesn’t get much better than this.