Coming to America to study and find a better job to help her family and others had been Trang Tran’s dream since she was 12 years old.
But if she couldn’t do that, she wanted to visit just once to attend the Giving It Back to Kids fundraising gala so she could thank all the people who helped change her life.
It’s been five months since Tran, 20, left all things familiar behind in Vietnam so she could start a new life. She is living with her sponsor, Nan Robertson, in Portland, Ore., where she is attending Portland Community College.
“Some days I wake up and ask myself why this dream lasts so long. I can’t believe I am here in the U.S.,” she said.
Tran spent 14 years in housing provided by Giving It Back to Kids, a nonprofit based in Huntington Beach, because her parents couldn’t afford to support all of her family.
“Thanks to my father’s decision, I have the best life ever. ... I cannot imagine how my life [would have] ended up if I was still at home,” Tran said. “I have all the things: food, water, clothes, books, house, family, love and especially a life. They have taught me all the necessary things in life.”
Tran will have the chance to express her gratitude during Giving It Back to Kids’ 17th annual Journey for Hope gala on Saturday. The event will run from 5:30 to 9 p.m. at Harborside Restaurant, 400 Main St., Newport Beach. Tickets are $150 per person. For more information, visit givingitbacktokids.org.
Giving It Back to Kids is the brainchild of Huntington Beach residents Robert and Dorothea Kalatschan, who in 1996 adopted a 2-week-old Vietnamese boy who had been born in Fountain Valley. Five years later, they arranged to adopt an 11-month-old girl from a government-run orphanage in Vietnam.
Their trips there, totaling five weeks, were spent mostly visiting orphanages and schools. Amid the culture shock, long days and 40-day wait to complete the process and pick up their baby, the couple vowed to never return.
But shortly after they arrived home, Robert, who had been haunted by the faces of the children they had seen, turned to Dorothea and said, “Honey, I think we’re supposed to do something.”
That became Giving It Back to Kids, which the Kalatschans founded in 2002 because they believed that every kid deserves a chance.
“I barely got through high school and had no history in nonprofits, but I kept thinking, ‘What’s going to happen to those kids?’” Robert said.
The Kalatschans went back to Vietnam with the purpose of transforming the lives of children and young adults through medicine, education, nutrition and love. The needs were deep and wide, ranging from bicycles to get kids to school, wheelchairs to provide them mobility and surgeries to help save their lives.
In Vietnam, a little goes a long way, with medical procedures costing significantly less than in the United States. For example, Giving It Back to Kids has helped provide 737 orthopedic surgeries costing $425 each, 990 heart surgeries ranging from $2,500 to $3,000 and cleft palate surgeries for as little as $60.
A donation from Newport Beach resident John Scudder made it possible last year for a young boy to receive a heart operation.
Scudder, a supporter of Giving It Back to Kids for 15 years, has visited Vietnam three times and believes that “one can assist anywhere; everyone’s life is as valuable as the other.”
“Dorothea and Robert are an example of how ordinary people can create extraordinary changes,” Scudder said.
Through Project New Hope, Giving It Back to Kids operates five homes that care for children, young adults and unwed mothers. The homes provide a safe place to live and study where meals, clothing and supplies are provided under the supervision of staff.
The organization, with 36 team members in Vietnam, also has provided housing for poor families living in shacks with dirt floors and no bathrooms.
Dorothea died in 2015, and Dorothea’s Project Legacy was launched as part of the organization. The tutoring program provides extra education in general subjects as well as life skills.
“I’m most proud that there are 82 students currently attending universities and colleges and 101 who have graduated,” Robert said. “That, to me, is helping them have the opportunity to be all that they can be.”
Robert, who was once part of his family’s pizza business, has now been to Vietnam 70 times, averaging more than four visits a year.
“I think there would be a lot less problems if more people go with what’s in their hearts. ... I’d rather be called a fool than miss something I was supposed to do,” he said. “I’m a pizza guy that fished a lot. If I can do it, anybody can.”
Susan Hoffman is a contributor to Times Community News.