Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

 In Partners Magazine

Inspired by her parents’ Vietnam ordeal, Clark student directs her giving-back passion

By Lindsey Ponder ’13

Van Huynh and his friends wore borrowed clothes for this photo in their refugee makeshift home in Pulau Bidong.

Van Huynh (in yellow and blue striped shirt) and his friends wore borrowed clothes, sent to them from the U.S., for this photo in their makeshift home in Pulau Bidong. (photo provided by Vi Huynh)


Eighteen-year-old Van Huynh was stranded on an island—by choice.

The island was Malaysian-owned Pulau Bidong, a bleak and brutal rock barely able to sustain vegetation, let alone his life and the lives of the 40,000 other people attempting to survive there.

No trees grew on Pulau Bidong. No food or clean water could be found. No animals remained to be hunted. What was prevalent on the island, Van would one day tell his daughter, was human fecal matter and the occasional human corpse.

Existence was utter misery. Why did he choose to be there? Van and the others were refugees from Vietnam.

After the Vietnam War, a Communist government seized control of the country. Throughout the late 1970s, citizens like Van who were opposed to Communism were forced to flee the country or suffer persecution or death.

Even after escaping the country, countless Vietnamese died on Pulau Bidong of injuries, as well as from diseases like cholera, tuberculosis and hepatitis.

Doctors sought refuge on the island as well, but they had no medical supplies and couldn’t slow the death rate—the frequency of which was unceasing, Van said.

“`You didn’t count the days,’” he recounted to his daughter. “`You just lived one day at a time, or you’d go crazy.’”

Meanwhile, in the city of Haino in northern Vietnam, Annie Nguyen, who was 14 at the time, witnessed the effects of a similar lack of proper medical care. Her acquaintances, neighbors and even grandmother were slowly dying of various illnesses and injuries brought on by the war’s devastation. No one came to their aid

Relief and hope

Vi Huynh donates her time to local charities as a tribute to her parents.

Vi Huynh donates her time to local charities as a tribute to her parents. (photo by Clark College/Jenny Shadley)

Thirty-five years later in a bustling coffee shop in downtown Vancouver, Wash., Van and Annie’s daughter, Vi Huynh, paused in her retelling of her parents’ stories. Her brow furrowed and her neglected iced mocha slowly melted.

“I cannot imagine what they went through as kids,” Huynh said.

Huynh is a 22-year-old Clark College student with a passion for volunteering and helping others. The source of that passion is her knowledge of the hardships her parents experienced as young people in Vietnam, she said.

Especially strong is her desire to partner with nonprofit organizations to improve the circumstances and living conditions of people in situations similar to those her parents endured.

“Even before I thought of finding a job, I wanted to join a nonprofit that helps other people. Without nonprofits. . . my parents would still be stuck,” Huynh explained, adding that charitable organizations brought relief and hope to her family.

Van lost track of time on Pulau Bidong, as each day spent searching for food blurred into the next. Then, one day a white boat arrived on the island and broke the monotony. Aboard were Red Cross members from France and Malaysia who brought with them fresh medical supplies and a plan to build a hospital.

Under their guidance, the island’s inhabitants got to work, and before long a hodge-podge hospital stood, fashioned from corrugated metal, planks of wood and bits of debris. The refugees dubbed the structure “Sick Bay,” Van told his daughter, and although not all the refugees were cured, fewer died after that.

In fact, thanks to proper medical attention and treatment, one of Van’s friends, who was close to dying from cholera, lived.

Passage to America

Van left Pulau Bidong for the United States in 1980, funded through the United States Catholic Charity (USCC), which also aided in Annie’s passage.

American journalists documenting the need for medical care in Vietnam following the war had taken pictures of sick citizens in Haino, including Annie’s grandmother.

Members of the USCC, who saw the pictures, paid for the photos’ subjects and their immediate families to come to the U.S. to receive medical attention. In 1982, Annie, her parents and grandmother arrived in America.

Thanks largely to caring organizations and dedicated volunteers, Van and Annie were able to meet in California and marry in 1989. Together they started a new legacy for Huynh and her 18-year-old sister, Ly.

Unlike her parents, Huynh and her sister had typical childhoods, with one exception.

The memory of their parents’ suffering was always present. “My childhood wasn’t that normal. . . . I had the knowledge that there are always people out there who need help,” Huynh said.

And helping others is exactly what she’s doing today.

Clark’s volunteers

When Huynh started attending Clark four years ago, she took action locally by getting involved with the college’s Career & Volunteer Service-Learning program (VSL).

VSL serves two purposes: to benefit and promote positive change within Clark County and the immediate community, and to provide Clark students with on-the-job training.

Last year, the VSL office directed 16 community service projects, VSL coordinator Katie Colleran said. Clark students—about 3,400—collectively devoted more than 8,000 hours to serving holiday meals to seniors at the Luepke Center, assisting at Esther Short Park concerts and constructing homes with Habitat for Humanity.

Huynh contributed about 15 of last year’s hours to projects like planting trees, cleaning up the college campus and working with children at Clark’s Math Engineering Science Art conference and the City of Vancouver’s “Get Outdoors” event.

One of her favorite projects was building a house last summer with Habitat for Humanity. “[My uncle’s] house is from Habitat for Humanity,” Huynh said. “Having the ability to do it myself was amazing.”

The VSL program also serves as a bridge between students and roughly 50 local nonprofit organizations, connecting them with opportunities to work as volunteers in fields similar to those in which they hope to one day work for pay, Colleran said. Through that process, students gain valuable job skills.

For example, while she awaits admittance into Clark’s Nursing program, Huynh volunteers regularly with the organization that once aided her father and the refugees on Pulau Bidong—the Red Cross.

Huynh has volunteered for the Red Cross at least once a week and the experience has helped her develop a résumé-ready skill set.

“Basically, my entire résumé is volunteer work,” Huynh said.

Among the skills Huynh has learned are working with and leading a team, thinking on her feet and making decisions under pressure. She’s also gained practical knowledge by assisting phlebotomists in the Blood Van, a mobile blood donation facility, and working at the registration desk and assisting donors in the canteen area.

That experience helped her get a job at the Quarry Senior Living center in Vancouver. It may one day help her when she starts searching for a nursing job.

Destined for Syria

Although Huynh’s father encouraged her from a young age to become a doctor and her mom wanted her to be a nurse, Huynh said the choice to enter the nursing field was her own—inspired by her volunteer work.

“It just fits,” she said, smiling. “After volunteering and helping people, I knew this was a better choice.”

Someday, Huynh hopes to widen her scope from volunteering at a local level to serving internationally. After completing the Nursing program at Clark and earning a bachelor’s from Washington State University Vancouver, she intends to work in a Syrian orphanage.

That’s been her dream since high school, when she researched the country and encountered pictures of a Syrian orphanage that reminded her of photos she’d seen of the area in which her mother grew up.

The ongoing Syrian civil war hasn’t stifled her resolve; instead, it’s renewed her motivation.

“I still want to go,” she said. “My parents went through this, and it’s happening again. . . I just really want to help.

“I feel as if I can do anything if I put my mind to it,” she added, a resolve inspired from her parents’ tenacity.

What’s her end goal?

Huynh beamed. “A moment where everyone is happy and everyone is at peace,” she said.

Lindsey Ponder ’13 is a writer based in Vancouver, Wash. She studied journalism at Clark College, while writing for the student newspaper, The Independent.


Bank of America’s Gift Bolsters On-The-Job Training

Last summer, Bank of America donated $15,000 to Clark College’s Career & Volunteer Service-Learning program to prepare students with valuable on-the-job training, while improving their chances of completing their education.

“Providing grants to local nonprofit organizations that support career readiness is part of Bank of America’s broader effort to help create economically vibrant communities,” said Roger Hinshaw, Bank of America’s president in Oregon and Southwest Washington. “As part of that, we’re proud to support Clark College’s Career & Volunteer Service-Learning program that helps prepare college students to enter the workforce and, in turn, support our local economy.”

Last year, about 3,400 Clark students collectively devoted more than 8,000 hours to organizations such as the Luepke Center, Habitat for Humanity, American Red Cross, Boys and Girls Clubs, Clark County Health, Clark County Food Bank, Clark County Parks and Recreation and the Alzheimer Association.



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