KOTO trainees, some of whom lived on the street before joining the program, have a staff meeting at the restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. (VOA / L. Hoang)
KOTO trainees, some of whom lived on the street before joining the program, have a staff meeting at the restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. (VOA / L. Hoang)

HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM - Among the countless street children Jimmy Pham has met over the decades, the one who comes to mind most often is a young girl whose mother slammed her head against a wall 16 years ago.

“It’s Uncle Tuan!” he remembers the five-year-old greeting him on the street. The girl’s mother, who was beside her, then suggested beg for money from Pham, a stranger who lately had become a kind of casual benefactor to the local children. When the girl refused to beg, her mother punished her with a beating.

The memory of that girl, and others like her, played a key role in the origin of KOTO, the restaurant chain Pham went on to found in 1999. KOTO uses its eateries to take young people off the street and train them in the service industry.

Jimmy Pham, 40, says the first street children he
Jimmy Pham, 40, says the first street children he trained at KOTO just saw him as a "big fat turkey" from whom they could steal. (VOA / L. Hoang)

Unlike when Pham started out, Vietnam now has a whole host of vocational charities that take the teach-them-to-fish approach. Instead of a handout, the organizations specialize in a teaching marketable skill - from baking brownies to tailoring trousers. The thinking is that they can pass these skills on to poor or disabled people, who then can support themselves. But Pham says even this approach is no longer enough.

“We’re not content with showing them how to fish anymore,” Pham, 40, said in an interview at KOTO’s restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. “We want to show them how to set up the fish shops and teach others to fish.”

Case in point: Pots 'n Pans. A group of KOTO alumni opened the restaurant in Hanoi this year, using the experience they gained through their alma mater and sending some of the profits back to it. KOTO stands for “Know One, Teach One.”

The non-profit’s shift in strategy is still new, but reflects more generally the endless reinvention that began from KOTO’s early days.

Pham, who as a baby fled Saigon for Australia as the Vietnam War was winding down, returned in 1996 as a travel agent. He was struck immediately by the poverty and says he spent his first few weeks buying meals for street children and giving them money.

But he knew that couldn’t last. After a few years, he set up a sandwich shop in Hanoi so he could hire young Vietnamese and help them earn a living. He called that group KOTO’s inaugural class (twice a year, the KOTO branches in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City each welcome a new class of 30 recruits).

But the first class looked nothing like the ones today. Pham rented a house for the teenagers, who left it a mess and told the landlady to charge him double so they could keep the extra money. They skipped out on their English classes and thought of him, Pham said, as a “big fat turkey.”

“Looking back, I could have been very angry,” he said. In the background at the restaurant, “Hello, Vietnam,” a song of homecoming by a Vietnamese-Belgian, played softly.

But instead of giving up, Pham and his colleagues built on the concept. Over the course of 13 years, through a process of trial and error that still is evolving, KOTO has become one of the most recognizable social enterprises in the country. Its restaurants, which serve Vietnamese and fusion cuisine, are a favorite stopover during diplomatic visits, and its catering appears regularly at embassy and consular functions.

Thuy Hang, a public diplomacy officer at the Australian Consulate here, called KOTO “special” because it “not only provides a high standard of employment-focused skills training to young people, but also broader 'life skills' training.”

The recruits live together for two years at a training center, one in each city, but food service makes up just part of their lessons. They learn English and play soccer, but also take 36 workshops that cover everything from personal finance to sex education.

The rigorous application and vetting process requires that the trainees start between ages 16 to 22 and come from disadvantaged backgrounds. More than 500 Vietnamese have graduated with a certificate accredited by Box Hill Institute, which provides vocational education in Australia and through international partners.

Bui Viet An, who grew up in a thatch-roof house be
Bui Viet An, who grew up in a thatch-roof house before a storm blew it away, believes KOTO accepted him into its program because he has always wanted to make a better life for himself. (VOA / L. Hoang)

Soon, Bui Viet An will count himself among those alumni. Having lost both parents by age 10, he grew up with grandparents in a thatch-roof house that, one year, blew apart in a storm.

“I wasn’t happy, because it was just my grandparents and they were sick,” An, 23, said during a break from his training. “From seventh grade, I would go to school in the morning, and in the afternoon go look for work.”

He was bussing tables at a noodle shop, sometimes as early as 5 a.m., and as late as 2 a.m., when he heard about KOTO. After he graduates at year’s end, An hopes to work at a five-star hotel.

At this stage in its transition, KOTO is moving to shed the image of charity and become a self-sustaining business. The organization has had its share of lean years, relying on government, corporate, and private donors because its restaurants still don’t make enough profit to fund the training, which costs an estimated $10,000 per student.

Pham, dubbed a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum last year, talks about turning a profit by diversifying the enterprise, maybe expanding into the hotel business and setting up in other countries. He wants people to come to KOTO for the quality, not just the philanthropy, but says it will remain a “business with heart.”