Hayley Votolato's first trip to Vietnam was drawing to a close.
She turned around for a final glimpse and there stood the children, tears coursing down their cheeks.
Six years have passed, but it is this sight that comes to mind when the Texas Christian University senior recalls her two-week visit to Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang.
After receiving an informational flier in the mail, Hayley had accompanied Robert Kalatschan, a Huntington Beach resident and co-founder of Giving It Back to Kids, to volunteer at Vietnamese orphanages.
Her parents had previously met Kalatschan and his wife, Dorothea, through common friends, a couple who, at their twins' birthday party each year, would ask attendees to donate to the nonprofit in lieu of gifts.
Harrowed by the living conditions she'd witnessed, Hayley, 21, who distributed bicycles, rice and wheelchairs and even observed heart surgery screenings, felt a growing desire to serve. She returned to Southeast Asia the following year, also spurring her brother, Hunter, to action.
"These children, not even 5 years old, were experiencing heart problems ... and were diagnosed with leaking heart valves," she said. "I remember the exact moment I put my hand upon a child's chest and felt the blood swooshing with each beat. Never have I ever experienced something like this before.
"It was difficult to comprehend how they weren't able to race to the emergency room and have heart surgery. I have always known my life was blessed, but at that moment, I knew I could never look at my life the same."
An unexpected mission
Children lie at the epicenter of this organization — not only in terms of its services, but also its creation.
In 2001, the Kalatschans, then parents to a Vietnamese-American boy, Tommy, were in Vietnam to adopt 11-month-old Kristina.
Accustomed to the comforts of Orange County, Robert remembers counting down until the flight home, praying that there would never be a need for him to return to the area.
His life panned out differently, though, taking him back to Vietnam 55 times since that initial reaction.
"I was haunted and I still remember mental images of the kids I'd met," Robert said. "I really felt that every kid deserves a chance. What they do with that is up to them, but they deserve an opportunity."
Back home, with Kristina, he turned to his wife and mumbled, "Honey, I think we are supposed to try and do something." Dorothea replied: "Yes, dear, I think we are."
And so, Giving It Back to Kids was born.
In its 12 years, the group, which began with only a name and $500 contributed by each founding board member, has provided food, shelter, dental braces, an education, 479 heart surgeries and more than 700 orthopedic procedures, among other aid, to boys and girls who have either lived in its facilities or been referred by local government officials, neighbors and other charities.
Robert now oversees the six homes in Vietnam that his group owns — two for college-aged youths and one for unwed mothers — and two others in Cambodia.
But the numbers that make him glow are the 48 students currently enrolled in a university and the 70,000-plus wheelchairs that have been distributed by Giving It Back to Kids.
"Children who cannot walk get to go to school until no one has the strength to carry them," said Don Schoendorfer, president and founder of Irvine-based Free Wheelchair Mission, who counts Robert among his favorite partners. "At that point, their education ends, and this often forces a family member to give up their job to become a full-time caretaker."
Schoendorfer knew his engineering background could be applied to a philanthropic endeavor after witnessing a disabled woman dragging herself across a Moroccan dirt road. Now, his China-manufactured wheelchairs, which combine basic resin patio chairs with mountain bike tires, are found in 90 developing countries where more than 100-million people are stricken by disabilities — stemming from diseases, poor nutrition, war or a lack of proper medical treatment — that restrict their mobility and force them to slide around using stools or their hands.
'As if it were our kid'
Robert, who believes that Giving It Back to Kids is a Vietnamese organization with an American president, has chosen to work in this region because that's where he can make a difference. He said lives can be saved or improved with modest funds, estimating that $15 can send a child to school for a month, $600 can pay for a year of college and $2,500 is plenty for a cardiac operation.
"We help through all the stages of their lives," he said. "We do what we do as if it were our kid."
He is now expanding the nonprofit to include emotional health services. Many who arrive at the group's doors have been victims of sexual abuse and human trafficking; they may have been abandoned and forced into prostitution, he said.
In such cases, the youths' grades suffer and they act out after prolonged repression. It is the Kalatschan family's goal to provide a voice to women and other marginalized populations.
Robert got a glimpse of that world during a conversation with a former employee, Linh Nguyen, who oversaw a children's home.
"She turned to me and said, 'I hate it when it rains,'" Robert recalled. "She looked visibly disturbed, so I asked her, 'Why?' And she said, 'It reminds me of the day my mother dropped me off.... I was 3 years old.'"
John Vairo, 67, also of Huntington Beach, only fully understood the extent of the work done by Giving It Back to Kids during a 2006 trip to Vietnam. His wife, Marina, 57, will travel with Robert in March. Stateside, the Varios have stuffed envelopes, supported appreciation dinners for donors and volunteers, and helped with whatever else was needed.
In Vietnam, Marina will spend time with the children, distribute provisions and, again, jump in where needed.
"At first, I thought that we were involved with just offering triage in the form of building homes, schools and orphanages, distributing bicycles and wheelchairs, performing life-changing orthopedic surgeries and life-saving heart surgeries," he said. "These programs were huge in their effect on the Vietnamese people.
"But I soon discovered that we went beyond triage and were developing long-term relationships. GIBTK differs from many other NGOs in that it stays in contact with the children and adults that it helps. It is relational, and that is as vital to a healthy life as any kind of physical help."
Teaming up with Robert was also a perspicuous choice for Fountain Valley resident Jo-An Verstraete, who had already worked with Child Help USA and Long Beach-based Cedar House. Although her primary responsibility is organizing Giving It Back to Kids' October fundraiser in Newport Beach, where $100,000 to $200,000 have been raised annually, Verstraete grasps every opportunity to encourage family and friends to help children achieve their maximum potential.
How do they respond? "They just say, 'Yes,'" she said.