The 61-year-old Australian has been living in Việt Nam for 18 years, 15 of them leading the Loreto Việt Nam – Australia Project.
In the process, she has become the face of the charity, helping more than 25,000 disabled and disadvantaged children throughout Vietnam.
While the charity previously focused on helping disabled children, Trish has taken Loreto further into the remote areas of Việt Nam.
This new direction began at the end of 2010 after receiving requests for support in Phú Yên Province along the south central coast, as well as another school in Cà Mau, the southern-most province in Việt Nam.
These newest projects are meant to not only target the disabled, but bring much-needed kindergartens and schools to areas that have few.
Despite the large demand for a kindergarten in the Phú Yên community, there was only room for 30 students, all 5 years old.
“When we arrived there was only a small stone house with no toilets, running water or resources,” Trish says.
“The teacher had to carry buckets of water to the classroom.”
Now that the kindergarten in Phú Yên is finished, complete with a kitchen, eating area and playground, more than 250 students attend.
Many villagers passing by describe the school as “their town’s palace”, she says.
Soon after construction in Phú Yên began, Trish was walking along a small road, when she came across a young girl with cerebral palsy, a disability she commonly works with in Việt Nam.
This little girl, she says, brought her full-circle.
“It’s like being on a journey,” she says.
“Is that destiny?
Is that meant to be?
I think that was destiny.”
Trish says her faith is important to her but only uses it as personal guidance and doesn’t let her Catholic beliefs dictate the direction of her organization.
She first joined the Loreto Sisters in 1970, before the order sent her to Thailand to work on refugee camps in 1985.
It was there that she first started working with Vietnamese children, which led her to move to Việt Nam in 1995, when she founded the Việt Nam branch of Loreto.
Throughout Loreto’s 15 years in the country, it has built primary schools, kindergartens and other educational facilities, working primarily with children with disabilities.
In Việt Namthere is still a stigma on those with disabilities, leaving many families to keep the children in the house out of shame.
Even among volunteers, which number in the hundreds, Trish says it is difficult at first for them to feel comfortable around the kids.
“Some of the volunteers think the kids are dangerous at first,” she says.
Trish says of all the projects they have done, the computer room they built for blind children in District 10 stands out the most.
Another was a computer room they built next to a school in Nhà Bè, on the outskirts of Hồ Chí Minh City, which opened in March.
“The kids didn’t even know how to pull out the keyboards,” she says.
“I hate the things [computers], but there is no way any child in the world can be successful without them.”
One of the main reasons Loreto has been so successful, compared to many other international NGOs, is its ability and willingness to work with local governments and convince them to contribute funding.
This forces the governments to take responsibility for the projects and allows them to be successful long after Loreto leaves.
“We get them to walk beside us,” she says.
But that may soon change as Trish prepares to leave the organization.
Although her departure will not happen anytime soon — she says in the next three to five years — she is planning for it.
“I’m not going to be here forever,” she says, adding that she will not leave Việt Nam.
Right now she has an architect and three dedicated staff members, all of whom are Vietnamese.
Trish says they are really the ones that make Loreto run and could continue to do so if she left.
“They are passionate,” she says.
“They are serving their own people.”
All of the Loreto staff say they couldn’t imagine the organization without Trish, but if she does leave, they say they’d continue her legacy.
By CHRIS MUELLER / ASIA LIFE