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In a country where orphans are abandoned by the state at age 16, Yoko Funasaka found her life’s work in helping the underprivileged.

“The name Vietnam used to remind me only of green rice paddies and wattle hats,” the smiling former Japanese-language teacher said, reminiscing on the days before her first tour of Vietnam in the late 1990s.

“I really didn’t know anything about the country then.” Early this year, Funasaka, 31, was appointed project coordinator for Youth House, a facility run by the Japanese nonprofit organization Kokkyo Naki Kodomotachi (Children Without Borders) to provide vocational training to Vietnamese orphans.

While government facilities care for the country’s estimated 25,000 orphans until age 16, after that they are on their own.

And with the economy still staggering from the 1997 Asian economic crisis, job hunting is no easy task.

Some orphans, after running the job-search treadmill in vain, wreck their lives by turning to narcotics.

Funasaka and her Vietnamese staff are currently assisting 26 orphans between 16 and 22 who were thrown out of their orphanages.

She said she dreamed of becoming a Japanese-language teacher when she was a high school student.

After completing a degree in Japanese teaching at Nanzan University in Aichi Prefecture, she realized her high school dream and taught at a Japanese-language school in Nagoya.

She later spent two years in Australia brushing up her English.

But a three-year tour from 1997 in Vietnam as a Japanese teacher changed her life.

“I was so impressed by the people here,” she said. “The people care so much about others, whatever situation they themselves are in. I was deeply moved.”

With her three-year contract in the Southeast Asian country over, the young language teacher returned to Nagoya with the hope of working overseas once more.

An advertisement from Children Without Borders soon caught her eye and she did not hesitate to apply. She returned to Vietnam less than six months after leaving the country.

“I was too hooked on my new job to worry about my future,” she confided.

Her work is to help orphans get used to community life while they attend vocational training classes, and to usher them into the “real world.”

“They are so responsive,” she said. “You are sure to see results if you work hard. Now I get pleasure in my job.”

Funasaka said she has also begun to understand the social causes of the orphan problem.

Tokyo-based Children without Borders has a program to send elementary and junior high school students to developing countries to see and report on its projects.

She received some students from Japan in March.

“After 10 days, their eyes started sparkling. Their change taught me that Japanese children might be materially satisfied but they can lack challenges in Japan,” she said.

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