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Jimmy Pham: Know One, Teach One


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HANOI, Vietnam (CNN) -- When Jimmy Pham first started employing street kids in his now famous Hanoi restaurant, KOTO, some people thought he was exploiting the young.

Little did they know he was self-funding the business, paying salaries that were three times the average and teaching them the skills of life they so badly needed.

Since opening the doors of KOTO -- which stands for Know One Teach One -- in 2000, more than 250 young people have graduated from the not-for-profit restaurant and vocational training center with a 100-percent job-placement rate.

As Pham explains it: "The Know One Teach One philosophy is that life doesn't have to be complicated, it can be just simple. If I help you then you in turn help someone else and don't make it so complicated but back to basics."

It is a recipe Pham hopes to repeat. As well as opening another KOTO in Vietnam sometime in the next year or so, his vision is to extend the KOTO concept to other countries by 2020.

Pham says the vocational skills KOTO offers are as important as the life skills which help the individuals and their families for the long term.

"I think the most important thing as well is that KOTO provides them a family that they never had, and this family is that thing that will bind them from derailing, and focus on making them go on to a better, sustainable future," he says.

One of the 70 trainees at KOTO, 19-year-old Le Van Tuan talks about his "new life."

Less than two years ago, living on the streets of Hanoi, scraping together a living any way he could, there was not a lot to look forward to. Today his outlook is a lot brighter.

"I hope I can work in a four- or five-star hotel, professional restaurant. My dream, I hope in future I can go to Australia for work but I am not sure, I will try," he says.

Born in Ho Chi Minh City just before the fall of Saigon, Pham returned to Vietnam in 1996 aged 23. It was his first proper visit since his family had fled the country for Australia when he was two years old.

Already shocked by the number of young homeless, a chance meeting with four street kids changed everything for Pham, who had been working as a travel agent in Melbourne.

Pham spent two weeks with the 13- and 14-year-olds, watching them carry coconuts for a dollar a day before sleeping on river banks, living from hand to mouth. He recalls people with "low self-esteem, unhygienic, undernourished, a clear lack of confidence, strong attitude and sad eyes screaming out for help."

It was then that he decided to actively help.

"My biggest encouragement was from my mum and my family who believed in me. As soon as I said, 'This is what my plans are,' they immediately said, 'We'll support you,'" says Pham.

He had all the strength he needed from the kids themselves and so ignored what people said about running a business using unskilled, child labor and focused on "getting on with it."

"It" was a small sandwich shop operated by Pham and nine kids. KOTO has since grown into an 80-seat restaurant run by 70 trainees and dozens of local Vietnamese staff and Western volunteers. It has a separate resource center and library, and a curriculum recognized by an Australian tertiary institution.

The rigorously selected trainees - average age, 18; average years on the street, four - are given comfortable accommodation and a wage equivalent to twice the minimum, plus tips. The whole operation is backed by an Australian-registered charity, Street Voices.

A decision taken last year to hand the chief executive's role to Irish/Australian Daragh Halpin has left Pham free to focus on fundraising and raising the profile of KOTO in both Vietnam and internationally.

"It is a real testing time for us. Yes, it works really well in Hanoi, but if you move that into another demographic, is that going to work? So I think everyone is waiting, hoping to see if that is going to work or not," says Pham.

"I am very confident that it will, because kids at the end of the day need just one thing, they just need love."

CNN's James MacDonald and journalist Bina Brown contributed to this report.


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Jimmy Pham, left: It's the right of every human to have a better life.

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