East Meets West: 15 years and still building
Resource type: News
Press Republican | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]
VIETNAM — DANANG,For the last 15 years, retired Beekmantown dairy farmer Mark Conroy has been directing humanitarian development work in Vietnam for the East Meets West Foundation.
He only last year stepped down as country director and is now the foundation’s senior consultant, heading up the Da Nang office.
During those 15 years, he has, through the foundation, built more than 303 schools serving 45,751 students, most located in the countryside of central Vietnam.
The first schools built by the East Meets West program were kindergartens because the government did not fund schools at that level; if classes were being held at all, it was in mere shacks.
Conroy started the school-building program in 1995 in Dai Loc, west of Da Nang.
“Seventy-eight percent of the buildings in this area were completely destroyed by U.S. bombing, napalming or by troops on the ground with Zippo lighters,” Conroy said.
“Actually, we had a very difficult time in those days to locate the home hamlet of Le Thu, the Vietnamese-American who was financing the project, because they had all been renamed since the war ended.
“Added to that was the fact that roads, too, were nearly non-existent, for next to nothing in Vietnam at that time had been rebuilt since the war ended in 1975.
“In fact, that first school led to our arrest by the Peoples Committee of Dai Loc, since at that time a permit was required to travel in most places in the country,” Conroy recalled. “Also, a partner is required for any development projects, and that partner many times is the local Peoples Committee.”
BOOST FROM BILLIONAIRE
East Meets West then began, on a somewhat regular basis, to build or remodel elementary schools whenever enough funding showed up to complete a project.
“Then”, said Conroy, “Chuck Feeney showed up, and EMW began a rapid rise and the school building program grew at that same pace.”
Feeney is the reclusive billionaire who founded Atlantic Philanthropies with funding from Duty-Free Shoppes, which had sold for more than $3 billion. All of the money went into his foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies.
The initial grant from Atlantic Philanthropies to East Meets West was for $100,000. Leaders of the Vietnam-based foundation were told to do whatever they wanted with it. A good portion went toward building a number of schools.
“One of the most interesting projects,” Conroy said, “was sponsored by my mother, Mary W. Conroy. She had taught for many years in the Beekmantown District 1, a one-room brick schoolhouse on the corner of Route 9 and Point au Roche Road, and upon hearing of the school shortage where I was working in Vietnam offered to sponsor the school in Tra My.
“It’s the ‘Little Red School House’ for the minorities in Tra My.”
For a period of time, Atlantic Philanthropies would match any funds that were donated for schools and at that time would not let it be known that they provided the funds. The donor plaque on the building listed “Golden Heart.” This lasted until Feeney’s public statement that he was the source of the funds.
“It eventually got to the point where I had to hire a man full time to run the school building program, and they’ve been built steady to this day,” Conroy said.
The 12-story building that East Meets West operates out of in Da Nang was built for the University of Danang with Atlantic Philanthropies funding.
“We’ve built two schools for Boeing, the airplane manufacturer, in which they take great pride,” Conroy said.
“The first one is in Binh Tri, a short drive from Danang. The two-room kindergarten funded by Boeing in Binh Tri is named for Nguyen Tan Troi, a national hero who nearly blew the bridge in Saigon that Robert McNamara was crossing on his way to the U.S. Embassy in 1968.
“The story goes that he was captured minutes before the secretary of defense crossed the bridge and was immediately taken out and shot. He refused to wear a blindfold and went down in a hail of bullets shouting, ‘Long live Ho Chi Minh.'”
The latest Boeing school is located in the Mekong Delta town of Thanh Tien. The dedication ceremony was attended by U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Michael W. Michalak, as well as representatives from Boeing and the East Meets West Foundation.
Besides the schools, Conroy and the foundation have installed 137 clean-water systems affecting 1,108,634 people and 456 compassion homes, which provided housing for 2,705 residents.
East Meets West is an Atlantic grantee.