Sisters lead effort to aid Vietnamese orphans

By Paul Archipley | Sep 26, 2013
Marie Tran of Edmonds holds Bimbi, who was orphaned when her mother died in childbirth. Marie and her sister Van founded a nonprofit, the Children of VSO, to assist orphans in Vietnam.

Seven days before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Marie and Van Tran fled with their family to America. Marie was 9 years old; Van just 12.

Like most Vietnamese immigrants from that period, they assimilated and became active members of their communities.

But Vietnam, of course, remained an integral part of who they are, and a desire grew in them to help their homeland recover from the war.

In 2010, Marie Tran volunteered at an orphanage located in the Kontum Province, about midway between Ho Chi Minh City – the former Saigon  – and Hanoi.

It is one of six called the Vinh Son Montagnard Orphanages. The Sisters of the Miraculous Medal operate them, but children are given food, shelter, clothing, education and medical care regardless of their religion. The orphanages provide care for more than 700 ethnic minority children.

Of 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, 53 speak different languages or dialects than the country’s official Vietnamese. And to attend public school, children must speak Vietnamese.

So the orphans that Marie Tran worked with were climbing a very tall mountain. They were without one or both parents, were members of a minority group, spoke a different language, lived in rural poverty, and had little hope for the future.

Marie found her calling.

“These children just touched my heart,” she said.

Marie, an Edmonds resident and teacher at Edmonds Community College,  enlisted her sister Van, who lives in Boise, Idaho, to help her organize a nonprofit that could assist the orphans.

They recruited a small group of others who wanted to help, and the nonprofit Children of VSO (Vinh Son Orphanages) was born.

“So far, it’s a small, grass roots effort,” Van Tran said. “We’re doing what we can.”

Primarily, they raise funds to help the orphanage with food, medical needs, continuing education, and other services. None of the group is paid; all are volunteers. When they go to Vietnam, they pay their own way.

Marie goes to the orphanages about once a year to teach English. She said the children generally have few prospects in the rural, farming region.

Once they reach age 18, they have to leave the orphanage. The boys often return to farming; the girls get married and raise families, and the cycle continues.

While the Children of VSO group’s immediate goals focus on ensuring that the children have adequate food and medical care, it also helps some of them move beyond basic education.

“The key is education,” Marie said, “including learning entrepreneurship.”

Van said she would like to help promising children continue their education.

“I’d like to start scholarships for the older kids when they finish high school,” she said.

Perhaps they could go to college or a trade school, she suggested, then come back to help at the orphanages for a year or two.

“Education is the only way to move them out of poverty,” Van said. “We’d like to see more opportunities for the children.”

If she could obtain her ideal, Marie would open a school and teach students marketable skills, such as computer and technology courses, as well as English.

In the meantime, she settles for helping as best she can.

“I’m so thankful, because it allows me to do what I do best – which is teach,” she said.

Locally, they try to come up with novel ways to help the orphans.

Marie has enlisted students at EdCC to write letters to the orphans or make friendship bracelets.

“It makes the children feel very special,” she said.

To raise money, they encourage people to think outside the box. One couple asked people attending their wedding to donate to the orphanage rather than give wedding gifts.

Others have given their tax refunds to the cause.

Groups such as the Knights of Columbus at Holy Rosary Church also have raised funds for the nonprofit.

“If everybody does a little bit, it goes a long way,” Marie said.

To learn more about the Children of VSO, go to www.vinhsonorphanage.org.

 

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