By Annabelle Liang
Lining the stairwell to Rachel Nadia Goh’s room on the third floor are dusty boxes containing thousands of aged library books. Some spill over to a bookshelf – crammed with a vast selection of mystery, romance and even popular children’s titles.
But the 24-year-old is no book thief. These are lugged, 20kg at a time, by every Barré volunteer who goes on a mission trip to South Central Vietnam, where the group oversees and helps in teaching English to a village of local ethnic-minorities.
When Rachel and her friends decided to start Barré in 2010, they didn’t have a fixed idea of how they wanted to help, or where. What they wanted to achieve was never a question.
“We wanted to work with and educate kids,” she says. “All we knew is that we wanted to target communities that were under the radar, somewhere we couldn’t possibly find out more about online.”
This desire soon brought them to a Jesuit Refugee Service office tucked at the back of St Ignatius Church, and the group raised close to $10,000 in educational scholarships for children of a refugee camp in Thailand.
Once larger sources of educational help were being offered to this transient group, Barre decided it was time to look for new beneficiaries.
In 2012, Rachel was in Bristol, UK, when she received a message from her mother, who attended mass at the Church of St. Vincent de Paul.
Fr. John van Dich had given a homily where he said people were aware of the poor in countries such as Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar, but often forgot there were poor people in Vietnam too. Her mum took a flier and passed it to the group, who set up a meeting with Fr. John.
Rachel says: “He was clearly passionate about what happened in Vietnam, and ended the conversation with ‘maybe you should see for yourself.’ God works in funny ways.”
With just an e-mail and a contact number, the group made travel arrangements for a trip to Vietnam in January 2013, where they were to meet with a representative from the Kontum Missionary and Friendship (KMF).
It was only at the airport when Rachel, together with two friends, discovered that they didn’t know how the representative looked like and where to meet him.
“That’s how you work with people in the developing world. You go with the flow, and trust that things with pan out naturally,” she explains.
Over the course of the trip, they visited at least 12 villages to understand their needs, before eventually deciding to start with one.
“We saw that they were in extreme poverty. It was when we saw their constraints that we knew we had come to the right people,” Rachel says. “The KMF provides them with basic food assistance, clean water supplies, mobile clinics and a degree of sanitation, but education was not something they could afford. They have been supportive of us from the start to this day.”
So they designed a programme where they would first teach English to a group of three selected locals, who would be paid an allowance to study the language full-time.
These locals already spoke Vietnamese and committed four hours a day to work on materials e-mailed over by Barré. Lessons were also delivered over Skype.
The three will then go back to their own villages to teach English – with information getting passed faster this time, as they could use Vietnamese to ease the process. They were chosen for their maturity, willingness to go back to their villages to teach and priority was given to those with families, Rachel says.
Rachel and Trini, during a trip made in December 2013, also brought a whopping 160kg of books up between them, and bought bookshelves so that locals will have a reading space.
Rachel said: “Our trainees told us that people have been coming into the library with plastic bags in hopes that they can take books out. One trainee even read 400 books!” Such was the interest that in February 2015, the group bought more shelves for the space.
Over the years, Barré has similarly grown, from having five members to 30.
“We have grown in our supporter base, our visibility has evolved, our trainees have evolved but the strongest bit is that people through joining Barré have evolved,” Rachel said.
“The structure of the group will never be a top-down. Go off to do whatever you want to do, as long as it is in the interest of Barré. It’s God’s work,” she adds.
While Rachel will be stepping down as President in the new year the boxes of books in her house are here to stay.
“I think I will always be the founder. If Barre needs support, even in terms of operations cost, I will be there,” she quips.