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