One woman's mission to help orphans in Vietnam

The children at Vinh Son Orphanage have transformed Marie Tran’s life. Photo: Courtesy Marie Tran The children at Vinh Son Orphanage have transformed Marie Tran’s life. Photo: Courtesy Marie Tran

At a low point in her life, Marie Tran turned toward God and found a life-changing mission

Marie Tran doesn’t talk much about the circumstances that led her back to Vietnam in the summer of 2010. It was a dark time in her life, as she grieved the end of a 17-year marriage. In her “brokenness,” she turned toward the Catholic faith she had drifted away from over the years.

“I found God again, and he was the source of my strength,” she said.

She prayed for God’s direction, and then made a momentous decision: She would find a way to serve others in need of healing.

“I just needed to reach out, to do something, to stop focusing on myself,” she said. “I thought, OK, what skills has God given me that I could use to help other people?”

A friend told her about Vinh Son Orphanage, six facilities in Vietnam’s Kon Tum Province, where the Sisters of the Miraculous Medal care for more than 700 children.

Tran felt called to return to the country of her birth. At the age of 9, she had fled Vietnam with her parents and nine siblings, seven days before the fall of Saigon in April 1975. “I wanted to go back and do something to help others in the country that I left,” she said.

Marie Tran with food
Photo: Courtesy Marie Tran

‘You look so happy there!’

She arrived at one of the largest orphanages, VSO 1, in June 2010. She soon understood how important her mere presence was to the 200 children there, who had only eight or so sisters to care for them all.

“These kids are craving for attention and love,” Tran said. “All you have to do is get there and you’ll have five or six babies just crawling on your lap, and they’re pushing the other ones out because they want to be touched and they want to be loved.”

Tran felt God had given her the gift of teaching (she’s on the business management faculty at Edmonds Community College), so she taught the children English through music.

“We started doing a lot of Christian songs,” she said. “It was funny because I didn’t have children of my own so I didn’t know too many children’s songs. So I was in my hotel room Googling different songs that I could teach them — everything from ‘This Little Light of Mine’ to ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ to ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ — so I was having a great time with it.”

Tran’s two months at VSO 1 fanned the flickering flame of her long-neglected faith and gave her a sense of peace and joy. When she posted photos on Facebook, friends would comment, “You look so happy there!”

But conditions at the orphanages were rough. One day Tran discovered that the sisters’ food stores were nearly depleted, “and they had been praying that they would get somebody to come forward to help them with food.” She gave them $600.

‘God will provide’

That gift, it turned out, marked the unofficial start of Children of Vinh Son Orphanage, the nonprofit Tran co-founded in 2011 with her sister Van, of Boise, Idaho.

They started raising money to support the orphanages — mostly from friends and family, and also through fundraisers. Since 2014, the Knights of Columbus at Tran’s parish, Holy Rosary in Edmonds, have hosted an annual crab dinner for Children of VSO; this year they raised $6,550.

“We’re a very small group,” Tran said of the nonprofit. “All of us are volunteers.”

They’re inspired by the famous line attributed to Mother Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

Some people might look at the magnitude of the need — hundreds of children, just at these orphanages — and think, “There’s no way we can help them all,” said treasurer Thanh Le, a member of Holy Family Parish in Kirkland. “So they end up not doing anything about it.”

But, said his wife, board member Van Nguyen, “If you give a dollar with all your heart, it means everything.”

“We start pouring our heart out and God will provide,” Le added.

And soon those dollars start to add up. Last year, Children of VSO gave more than $32,000, including $13,600 for food and other necessities, $4,700 for school tuition and supplies, and $4,100 toward dental care for the children.

Tran keeps a thick binder stuffed with all the colorfully illustrated letters she’s received from the children at the orphanages, in English and Vietnamese. She’s looking forward to visiting them again next summer.

“I see God’s love in the children,” she said. “They’ve just transformed my life.”

Dung Le is baptized
Bishop Eusebio Elizondo baptized Dung Le at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe on Jan. 23, 2015. Photo: Stephen Brashear

An unlikely benefactor

Children of Vinh Son Orphanage found one of its most faithful and generous donors in an unexpected place: the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe.

There, Dung Le is serving the 24th year of his sentence for a 1992 murder. “I cannot apologize enough for what I have done,” he wrote in a letter to Northwest Catholic. “I’m filled with an aching sorrow.”

About six years ago, Le started attending Mass at the prison, though he wasn’t Catholic. He got to know a married couple, Thanh Le and Van Nguyen, volunteers from Holy Family Parish in Kirkland. Like him, they had come to the U.S. from Vietnam.

In 2013, Thanh and Van met Marie Tran. They shared her passion for helping orphans in Vietnam, and that summer they visited Vihn Son Orphanage and joined the board of Children of VSO. Back at Monroe, they told Dung Le about the children at the orphanages.

“It brings tears to my eyes and touches my heart,” Le wrote. He started donating $10 a month from the meager wages he earns working in the prison print shop, and he encouraged his family and friends to donate as well.

“My efforts to help are small, like a pebble in the garden,” he wrote, but “I know that my help will prevent one child from suffering or maybe it will make a difference in that child’s life.”

The Catholic ministry at Monroe has certainly made a difference in Le’s life.

“Catholicism has given me a new perspective,” he wrote. “I developed the love I have for myself and for others. I believe that God has shaped each one of our lives for a reason. I don’t know what his reason is for me, maybe I will never know, but you don’t have to know the meaning of life to know that life has a meaning.”

On Jan. 23, 2015, Dung Le received the sacrament of baptism from Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo. Thanh and Van served as his sponsors, and Marie Tran was there to witness it.

“This baptism has given me a new life,” Le wrote. “It has allowed me to serve the [L]ord for the rest of my life on this earth, whether in prison or the outside world.”

Feeding the hungry

Vietnamese orphansPhoto: Courtesy Marie Tran


Every six months, Children of Vinh Son Orphanage sponsors a delivery of food and other necessities to the six orphanages in Vietnam’s Kon Tum Province. The kids get excited when the trucks arrive, said treasurer Thanh Le, a member of Holy Family Parish in Kirkland. “You can see the smiles on their faces,” he said. “They are so happy, and then they all help out carrying the food.” Among other items, this year’s spring shipment included:

27,000 packages of noodles

2,381 pounds of rice

1,587 pounds of flour

595 pounds of sugar

360 bottles of fish sauce

714 pounds of detergent

450 bars of soap

180 bottles of shampoo

This article was originally published as "Doing small things with great love" in the October 2016 issue of Northwest Catholic magazine.

Kevin Birnbaum

Kevin Birnbaum is the assistant editor of Northwest Catholic and a member of Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Contact him at Kevin.Birnbaum@seattlearch.org.