You don’t always get to say thank you to the people who’ve helped you in life, especially after 35 years. But lucky for me, there’s Google, and I was able to track down the amazingly kind strangers who helped our family when we first arrived in the United States.
And also lucky for me, Don Ware was an easy man to find. He’s the mayor of Brownsville, Oregon, and he’s also the editor of the town paper. He and his wife Wannell changed the course of my family’s life. It all started with our connection to Holt International Children’s Services, an international adoption agency. My mother worked for Holt in Saigon right until the fall of Saigon on April 30th, 1975. The Wares adopted three children with the help of Holt.
Dean Hale, his wife Cindy Muniz, and Kevin Sweeney are all connected to Holt International Children’s Services. Cindy has retired, but Dean is Director of Programs for India and Mongolia, and Kevin is the Vice President of Finance and Administration. They and the Ware family, who had adopted three children through Holt, were part of an incredible effort at Holt to marshal the resources of their colleagues and two local churches, the Wesley United Methodist Church and Our Savior’s Lutheran Church.
“You didn’t have family and friends here. Everybody kind of adopted the family,” Sweeney remembered.
Together, they sponsored our family to the United States after receiving a letter from my mother. As far as she can remember, she simply wrote, “I worked for the Holt office in Saigon. My family escaped Vietnam. We’re at a refugee camp in Malaysia. Can you sponsor us?”
Wannell received that letter and for her, it wasn’t a question of how or why. “It was ‘Why not?’” she remembered with a smile. “I opened the mail that day and I read that letter and that’s it. As far as I’m concerned, they’re coming. It’s just what you do.” Hale said, “I remember everyone in the office saying there’s a letter, and we need to do something.”
They rented us an apartment, gathered clothes for our family of six, they even stocked the house with rice and fish sauce. Where you find fish sauce in 1980 in Eugene, Oregon, without the help of the internet remains an utter mystery.
Muniz said, “I think part of it was you are such wonderful people and you are so easy to know and to love and to want to help. I think people really loved you and thought you were wonderful good people.”
Incredibly, and with the help of the KEZI news director, Matt Templeman, I tracked down a short news clip showing my mother being interviewed by the KEZI news team in March 1980 when my family first arrived in Eugene. The footage was recently donated to the University of Oregon, and incredibly, the archivist and film curator there Elizabeth Peterson, hand-searched and scanned 15-20 DVDs to locate this video needle in a haystack. I ran to my photographer/editor Mark Villarreal and bear-hugged him when we got the clip.
My mother still looks just as radiant, but to see her as an immigrant who just arrived on the shores of America, shyly answering questions in quiet but steady English, was one of the highlights of this project.
Over the years, my family moved many times: first to Reno, where my mom dealt blackjack at a casino, and my father washed dishes on the graveyard shift for Harrah’s. My parents later operated a catering truck in San Jose, where they learned to make spaghetti, tacos and burgers for the tech crowd before start-ups offered gourmet cafeterias. They eventually moved north and opened the first Vietnamese-owned furniture store in Santa Rosa.
Times and styles have changed drastically since I got my first perm at the age of 3, at my Chinese babysitter’s house, but what has remained the same—the indelible sense of gratitude that I have for the Ware family and our friends at Holt. Because of their generosity and kindness, my family has lived an extraordinary life in America.
This is part one of a three-part series on Vicky’s journey from Saigon to San Jose. It aired May 26 2015th. Part two and part three will air in the 6PM news on May 27th and May 28th respectively. Follow Vicky on Twitter @vickydnguyen or Facebook for updates.