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Posted by on Nov 27, 2014 in Vietnam | 0 comments

Thanksgiving Reflection on the SAMMI’s, Kids Without Borders, and How We Ended Up in Vietnam in the First Place

Thanksgiving makes me thankful for all we have and all those we know.  This year I am especially thankful that I get to be home with most of our family, even though we are missing those that aren’t here.  Reflecting on that reminds me of how and why we ended up in Vietnam in the first place.  
Son Michael surrounded by Teach Me to Fish kids in 2008
Big sister giving her brother a ride from our trip in 2008.

Most of the people I know also know Son Michael Pham.  Son Michael is the reason John and I are in Vietnam.  To understand how we got from a Sammamish family to nomads living in Haiphong I need to go back in time, all the way to 2003 and the SAMMI Awards.
The SAMMI’s, as we like to call them, came about after the nightmare of September 11, 2001. A group of people from Sammamish got together to try to understand what in the world had happened, and what could they do to try to heal our community.  I wasn’t in the room, but what I understand is that this group of visionaries decided the best way to tackle the horror of what happened was to tell the stories of people who do good things, actually people doing great things in our community.  They got busy and in three months had a list of nominees; a first class performance by the SammamishSymphony and local businesses who were willing to help foot the bill. 
By the 2nd year the SAMMI’s were getting more notice and more nominees.  I was lucky enough to be a part of the team that helped put together the second celebration.  One of those receiving an award happened to be Mr. Pham.  We found out that he would not be in the country for the ceremony so Son Michael’s wife Judy gallantly accepted the award on his behalf.  Because of that association I got to know this good man and have been lucky enough to tag along and watch him do what he does best, giving service above self.
To try to make a very long story somewhat shorter, Son and his family were living in South Vietnam during the Vietnam American war.  His father was a high ranking military officer which put the elder Mr. Pham and his family in grave danger after the U.S pulled out of Vietnam.  They had a harrowing escape and spent years rebuilding their lives in the US, a place that at that time really didn’t want them.  But they did rebuild their lives.  From the battle field to the railroad yard, the elder Mr. Pham and his wife, and Son Michael as the oldest of five children, supported their family while they struggled to adapt to their new home, learn the language and survive. 
Son Michael eventually made his way back to Vietnam 20 years after their escape.  He saw the need for support in Vietnam, especially for those who couldn’t help themselves.  This included orphans, veterans and others injured in the war or by the artillery left behind, and the many veterans and children who are suffering from the effects of Agent Orange.  Through his work there he started KidsWithout Borders, a non-profit that is twofold.  One – it inspires youth into service, by example and by support, allowing these young people to create their own projects and to volunteer while mentoring them through the process.  The second part is the support that these efforts offer to others.  The beneficiaries in the U.S include the Ronald McDonald House and the Tukwila Clothing Bank, although there are many, many more those are the two in the U.S that KWB is currently most active with.  Youth from all over the world contact  Chu Son (he is known to them as Uncle Son) and ask for his support as they hold fabulous fund raisers and events or volunteer for months at a time at a KWB supported organization which is often an orphanage in Vietnam, usually one with children with developmental disabilities.
In 2007 with students from the KWB Teach Me To Fish Program
In 2006 the summer before our daughter Maggie entered her senior year at Eastlake High School, she came to me saying that she wanted to do something that would make a difference. Not only for herself, but for someone else. She wanted to work with younger kids somehow.  At Eastlake they do (or did) a senior project.  We decided to meet with Son Michael to pick his brain on what she could do.  That is how five months later Maggie, myself and Christina our 22 year old daughter were on a midnight plane to Hanoi, Vietnam with Son Michael, a handful of Vietnam veterans and several others who were joining together for this HumaniTour. 
To say this trip changed our lives is putting it mildly.  For myself and the girls it was our first international travel – unless you call driving over the border to Canada international travel. Having the Vietnam Veterans on this trip was a bonus.  Together we lugged suitcases of clothes, books and school supplies to orphanages in town and way out of town.  Usually traveling by bus on roads that buses don’t travel.  We held disfigured children that don’t get held very often.  We played games and took older kids for a once in lifetime trip to a fancy hotel for a swim and dinner out.  We had a meal prepared by disadvantaged kids who were lucky enough to get a scholarship to learn the restaurant trade.  We had a crash course in the Vietnamese culture.  We came to understand why these people are so proud and work so hard.  I fell in love with the beauty of Vietnam and its people and 12 months later John and I were back on another HumaniTour with Son Michael.  Some of the things we did were the same, some were very different, but it was just as impressive.  I just got back from my third trip with Son Michael (November 2014). If possible this trip held even more meaning for me.  It was challenging, exciting, and very moving. Maybe it is because it was such a small group this time, or maybe it was because I spent more one on one time with some of the most severely disabled children.
 Maggie handing out treats

Christina holding one of the younger children at Go Vap Orphanage in HCMC
 Traveling by bus to one of the rural areas of Vietnam so help open a school 

When I started writing today, I was going to write about that last trip.  But I think this is long enough.  I am on my way home for a long visit and then when I return I will join Son Michael once again as he tours Vietnam bringing with him this time a group of businesspeople from Seattle.
When thinking of Son Michael and the SAMMI’s I am so grateful for all the mentors I have had in my life.  Besides Son Michael, every single one of those people who sat down and came up with the SAMMI Awards have had a huge influence on me.  When you surround yourself with such great people you just have to have a great life, right?  Son Michael was a major influence in John’s receiving his position in Vietnam, which is slowly changing who we are. Unfortunately, I had to leave John in Haiphong all alone (except for those 2 million other Haiphong people) while I travel back to be surrounded by friends and family.  Being alone together has been really good for us.  Thankfully he will follow in 3 weeks for a longish visit.  And of course being thankful is what this week is all about.

2014 HumaniTour at the Renaissance School in HCMC

 With John in 2007 on Ha Long Bay

and early this month in Hanoi
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Posted by on Nov 14, 2014 in Vietnam | 0 comments

Gardens or Garbage?

Living in Vietnam makes me appreciate how far we have come in taking care of our trash in the US, at least in the Seattle area.  I can remember as a kid seeing cans, bottles and papers along the road and in our parks.  Over the years there have been many efforts to deter littering, so much that it is politically incorrect (thankfully so) for anyone to toss their garbage anywhere but in a garbage can and to make sure that recyclables get recycled.  Our kids grew up with recycling.  It is second nature for them to separate the trash and recycling and for the most part they are thoughtful about the trash they create, or don’t create. 
In Vietnam there are very few garbage cans on the street and recycling is not the norm. I did see one garbage can in Ho Chi Minh City when we were there last week, usually they are nonexistent. Trash is put on the curb of the street. The garbage is then swept up and collected daily by the garbage ladies, it is almost always women who get this lovely job, hmmm.  It is the same in neighborhoods. We put our plastic bag of trash out on the sidewalk every day for the trash lady to collect.  Usually before she arrives two other ladies ride by on their bicycles and go through our trash to take out whatever they can sell – automatic recycling. Once the garbage is collected it is taken to sorting areas. As far as I can tell those that collect the trash go through each bag and sort it.  I haven’t been able to find out what happens next.  Unfortunately our garbage lady hasn’t been very regular and the garbage collects until the homeowners (or in our case, the cleaning ladies) move the trash from in front of the homes to one of the empty lots or until they burn the trash. I haven’t been able to bring myself to do either; burn the trash or dump it in the empty lot across the street. 
There is a wonderful exception to the empty lot as a trash collection site. Many lots have been taken over for gardening. I love seeing these impromptu gardens that spring up everywhere.  Besides the empty lots I have seen the gardens in traffic circles and sidewalks, practically any spare green space that is plantable is planted.  
But change is happening in developing countries, especially in Vietnam. Recently John received an invitation inviting us to attend an event which was partnering with a volunteer group, Youths for a Green Economy. The event was organized by a composting and recycling entrepreneur who is working in a few of the local communes to get the homeowners to compost their food waste and recycle their plastic trash.  We had very little idea of what they were doing until we arrived at the event.
Our host for this event was Mr. Diep. I want to know more about Mr. Diep and his passion is to change Vietnam to become a country with much less waste.   He has developed a product which will help the food waste break down faster so that the farmers in the communes will be more likely to compost their food waste.  He has also started a recycling center for plastics.   Mr. Diep’s volunteers went from house to house in two groups, John in one group with Mr. Diep and I was in the other group with John’s project assistant Ms. Nhung who translated for me. 

It was such a wonderful day.  I loved seeing how passionate, although somewhat frustrated, that these young people are.  Changing society is difficult and we could only relay our stories on how things were in the old days in the US and what they are now.  There is so much opportunity right now for change and investment in this country.  It will be slow and it will be frustrating because there is so much change that needs to happen, but it is so exciting to be here at this time.  We are extremely lucky that we are invited to see some of these events and see the change that is happening.  
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Posted by on Nov 2, 2014 in Vietnam | 0 comments

Please consider donating $10 for the sound system for the school for the blind

This has been an incredible week for me.  A visit from Son Michael Pham, Founder and Director of Kids Without Borders has led me to parts of Vietnam that I haven’t been before and that are out of the normal tourist track for most visitors.  There was so much to take in that I will need a week or two to collect my thoughts to be able to share all we saw during this week.

Part of our travels took us back to the school for the blind in Haiphong.  The women in the International Expat Group of Haiphong have been able to raise almost all of the $4000 plus needed for the sound system for the students. The fundraising effort ends in a couple of weeks and we are almost there.  Any extra fund would be used to purchase software and hardware for the computer lab.

During our second visit we had more time to visit with some of the students and heard more success stories on how the sound system will help many students be able to learn a skill that they can use to help support themselves.

The gentleman in yellow in the picture above is a former student and is now the music teacher at the school.  We were listening to the young lady (standing) sing while the gentleman next to her accompanied here on the organ. The sound coming from the students was lovely.  Having access to music at the school enabled the teacher to enroll in a public high school and then in a special music school so that he could get the training needed and is now teaching and helping other blind students to be successful.

This young lady in the photo above has very limited vision.  The director of the school created this desk top that can lift to allow for a better angle for the students and has lighting that doesn’t go into their eyes but onto the paper.  The desktops were designed and built at the school.  Notice how beautiful her handwriting is.

Ms. Nhung – John’s assistant at Peace Winds is a teacher at heart. The students seemed to realize this and surrounded her during their recess.  This young lady wouldn’t let her go.  
We still need to raise about $300 – I am hoping my friends, family and the KWB supporters can help by donating $10 each.  We will only need to find 30 people to each donate $10 on the KWB website. You can help by sharing and liking this post and mentioning your support.  Or just share and like with a mention of the fundraising effort.  
The government of Haiphong supports the school at about 50% of the cost.  The parents who can afford it pay the rest of the cost for their student.  Anything else that is needed is provided through fundraising and donations. The biggest priority of the staff is keeping as many children in the school as possible so their fundraising covers the cost of the scholarships for parents who can’t afford to pay.  
Once they are out of the school there are very few options for these kids.  Most don’t go on to public high school.  I know we can all imagine what it would be like to not only be sight limited, but to have a future with nothing to look forward to.  There aren’t many non-profits or charities around to help.
The Director and staff that we met with care so much about the students and work really hard, as do all teachers.  
Donations can be made online at  Please be sure to put Blind School Project in the designation line.  KWB is a 501c3 charity and your donation is tax deductible. If you use the “other” designation be sure not to use $ or a decimal point.  If you have any problems with the donation button contact  
If you have any other questions – please be sure to email me at  

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