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Caring U.S. Group Helps Heal Vietnam's Outcasts

Charity: Organization funds surgery for village children with disfiguring or debilitating conditions who would otherwise face ostracism.

July 29, 2002|VIVIAN LETRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At La Quinta High School in Westminster, Thanh Nguyen teaches students how to make sense of abstract math equations. Outside the classroom, he teaches a more important topic: compassion.

The 44-year-old Garden Grove resident is co-founder of Social Assistance for Vietnam, a nonprofit group that provides medical assistance to children in rural and remote villages in Vietnam.

In those tiny hamlets, where access roads, electricity, toilets and clean running water are a novelty, children with conditions such as cleft palate, clubfoot and polio often are treated as outcasts.

"They are just invisible people," said Chau Nguyen, an optometrist and another founding member with Thanh Nguyen. The two are not related. "You will never hear Thanh mention it, but every day after classes end, he is working on these projects until evening."

Saturday, Thanh Nguyen begins his annual monthlong trip to Vietnam, taking with him 246,000 pounds of medical supplies that recently filled a Garden Grove warehouse.

The journey marks a decade of service for Social Assistance.

Nguyen and volunteers raise funds with raffles, by courting private contributors and placing donation boxes at restaurants and markets. In recent years, the group has raised about $150,000 annually--money that allows them to help as many as 640 children.

The funds pay for surgery, transportation from the remote villages to hospitals in Saigon, Da Nang and in provinces. Money for food, medical supplies and recovery beds also is provided.

Social Assistance's main focus is to provide corrective surgery for children between 18 months and 16 years old, most of whom are burn victims, or who contracted polio or were born with birth defects. The group works with doctors and volunteers in Vietnam, plus nuns and monks who run free clinics there.Nguyen and four others founded the organization in 1992 with $1,755 from their own pockets. The group has built homes and schools and provided wheelchairs to the needy.

Nguyen has seen struggles all his life. Growing up in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, the third-oldest of nine children, he recalls his mother's charity.

"My mother only owned a small fabric shop, but any time a stranger or friend came by our door asking for a few dollars, she gave it to them," Nguyen said. "I grew up in a family where, if we had something to eat and someone else didn't, we shared our food with them."

After 1975, his father was imprisoned in a reeducation camp and his mother's shop was confiscated.

Nguyen escaped Ho Chi Minh City in 1982, staying at refugee camps in the Philippines and Malaysia. There he began his role as a volunteer and teacher, helping others adjust to a new life. He also met his wife-to-be, Ann.

He came to the United States in 1983. Five years later, he returned to work in a refugee camp in Hong Kong.

"It has to do with the compassion that we were all taught," said Nguyen, a Buddhist.

In 1989, he graduated from UC Irvine with a degree in computer science, and married Ann. They have two children. He taught computer and math classes in Los Angeles before coming to La Quinta in 1994.

Nguyen envisioned an organization built on compassion, direct involvement--and one that would last. "I didn't want this organization to be born and then dissolve in a year," Nguyen said. "We needed to know that we could control and supervise the program to make sure our help would go directly to the recipients, and we need to make sure we had the right people to manage the project here and in Vietnam.

"We see ourselves as a bridge to connect those in need in Vietnam with those here in the United States who want to help those in need," Nguyen said.

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