By Nancy Liu, CNA staff reporter
Every day, A-Jiao, a single mother from Vietnam, goes to work with a smile on her face, knowing that the experience of working at a hotel would one day come in handy when she opens a noodle shop of her own.
"It's so difficult to find a job, especially when you are taking care of a child all by yourself. No one wants to hire you because they know that having a kid around means you are going to take a lot of leave from work," the 31-year-old told CNA in broken Chinese.
Although cooking the Vietnamese beef noodles pho at the hotel doesn't pay much and she needs to juggle another job to support her five-year-old boy, A-Jiao said she is a very lucky person to have come across the opportunity the first time she looked for a job.
The divorcee is among four women who are employed by the I-sing Blooming Garden Hotel. Located in eastern Taiwan's Taitung City, it was set up to offer disadvantaged women with a background of either domestic violence or sexual abuse temporary work and job skills training.
It's believed to be the first charity hotel in Taiwan. A charity hotel means that the proceeds, if any, will be used solely to support charitable causes.
Renovated with a limited budget, the more than 20-year-old building doesn't look very modern or eye-catching. Little would one know that for women like A-Jiao, it signifies harbor and hope.
The 21-bedroom hotel provides work for women aged between 30 and 50. Although the NT$18,832 (US$628) monthly pay might not be much, its benefits, including health insurance, on-site training and a two-day leave per week, have attracted more female applicants than there are job openings available.
Sophia Huang, the manager of the hotel, said A-Jiao was hired even though she doesn't speak fluent Mandarin. The other women are Taiwanese single mothers who have experienced either sexual or domestic violence.
"We treat each other like sisters," said Huang. "I don't ask too much of them because I know that they need time to adjust themselves."
To cater to the needs of women trying to get back on their feet, social workers are even hired to help the women re-build confidence, find suitable babysitters and set up interviews with potential employers when they are ready to enter the real job market.
Opened only for one year, the hotel has already earned a reputation for its warm hospitality and clean, affordable rooms, which range from NT$1,200-2,000 per night during weekdays, breakfast included.
"Most of our customers stay with us and continue to come back because they agree with what we are doing," the manager said.
Earlier this year, a group of 40 students from South Korea decided to stay in the hotel during their trip to eastern Taiwan.
Despite the hotel's fame, the Garden of Hope Foundation, the owner of the charity hotel, said it is deep in debt due to the size of the mortgage for the property and the heavy personnel costs.
"Believe it or not, we're already NT$ 200,000 short for the first six months of this year," said Chi Hui-jung, the foundation's CEO.
Chi, however, said that the investment is worthwhile because those who received training at the hotel have an 80 percent success rate of landing a job later.
"We are different from other commercial hotels, so our goal is not to make money, but to do good for the society," the CEO said.
Mapping out future plans, Chi envisions using some space in the hotel as a conference room to teach local people more about women's rights and children's welfare. Photo exhibits, lectures and story-telling events would be held regularly for the cause.
"If you think about how much good can be generated from the hotel, you would be amazed," she said.
For A-Jiao, the hotel provides a chance to become self-sufficient. Life has not been easy for her after she came to Taiwan in 2006. For reasons she refused to go into, A-Jiao divorced her husband. Despite the willingness to turn over a new page in life, she found herself unemployed and helpless.
But now, she's learning skills such as food preparation and customer service - these will help her in pursuing her dream of opening her own Vietnamese beef noodle business one day.
She said the best part about the job is that it allows her to meet other women in a similar situation. Through them, she has found friendship and emotional support.
"The work here is busy, but I am happy," A-Jiao said.