When someone asks Kids Without Borders founder Son Michael Pham for help, he can’t refuse.
“One thing I’m bad at — saying no,” the Sammamish resident said with a laugh.
His willingness to give is what birthed Kids Without Borders (KWB), an Eastside-based organization that started sorting and distributing surplus goods to under served kids in January 2001. Since then it has expanded to put youth through college, provide financial and emotional support for orphans and send 11 groups of local volunteers to Vietnam, where it does most of its work.
In KWB’s latest project, they are bringing a family across the Pacific Ocean. Thien Nhan, a 2-year-old Vietnamese boy who was abandoned at birth by his mother and mutilated from the waist down by an animal, is coming to the United States for reconstructive surgery donated by Dr. Joe Rosen of Dartmouth College.
Nhan and his adoptive mother and father are scheduled to arrive in New Hampshire in mid-August, but they needed a way to get there. So, KWB committed to providing round-trip transportation for them from Hanoi to the United States.
“We wanted to play a small part. This is the beginning of somebody’s life. We have the opportunity to turn something tragic into something positive,” Pham said. “We hate to not be part of something like that.”
But KWB’s goal is not just to help kids. They go a step further.
“Kids Without Borders’ whole mission is to help kids get involved with other kids,” said Dawn Sanders, a member of the KWB Board of Directors, volunteer coordinator for the city of Sammamish and Sammamish Chamber president. “I’ve seen the kids that have gotten involved with KWB and what a difference it’s made in their lives when they see what they can do.”
One of those youth is Eastlake High School senior Alice Tian, who will actually be joining the KWB team as Program Director until she leaves for college in the fall of 2009. She’s volunteering as part of her senior project, a graduation requirement at Eastlake.
“It started out as me wanting to do my senior project and collaborate with them,” Tian said. “The fact that we’re helping others makes me personally feel good.”
The nonprofit first began helping underprivileged kids in 2001 when Kids In Distressed Situations, a national organization, called Pham and told him that they had a lot of excess children’s pajamas and were looking for a venue where they could distribute them. Pham saw this as the perfect opportunity for others, as well as himself, to do some good.
“I thought, ‘How about getting children in our communities involved in distributing these products?’” he said.
After that first batch had been sorted and given to those in need, KIDS called again, this time handing over surplus clothes from Sears on an 18-wheeler.
Now Pham and youth volunteers coordinate the donations from KIDS and give them out to organizations, including the Ronald McDonald House in Seattle and the North Bend Food Bank. But KWB doesn’t just work locally – it has touched the lives of children in 20 countries around the world.
“It’s really great when you have time to just focus and really help the world little step by little step,” Tian said.
Most of the program’s work is done in Vietnam, where Pham has a strong friendship with several orphanages in rural areas. Through KWB’s biannual HumaniTours, Pham has brought 11 groups of volunteers to Vietnam to not only visit these orphanages and deliver donated goods personally, but also to explore the country.
“To be able to go and to meet the Vietnamese people and to see where history took place was really interesting for us,” said Sanders, a two-time HumaniTour participant.
Although KWB maintains a good relationship with the kids while they are still living in the orphanages, they don’t abandon them when they turn 18 and leave. Orphans apply to participate in a KWB project called Teach Me to Fish, where they sponsor kids for their first one or two years out of the orphanage. If they choose to go on to secondary education, KWB will raise the funds to make that happen. One young woman, Ngoc Ha, wanted to pursue medical school.
“We paid her college tuition for six years, and she became a doctor,” Pham said.
The total cost was $1,800.
“After she became a doctor, she would go back to the orphanage and care for the children,” Pham said.
Now she is in Nagasaki, Japan, earning her PhD on a scholarship.
“We created an opportunity for one human being that eventually could make a huge difference in a developing country like Vietnam – it’s a ripple effect,” Pham said. “That’s just one pebble that created ripples that reached areas so far out that we never thought our work could reach.”
In order to continue their work, KWB is looking for more volunteers, like Tian. They’ll have a stand at the Sammamish Farmer’s Market on Aug. 6.
“Our goal is to sustain what we do by engaging more youth,” Pham said. “Hopefully we can turn it over to the next generation.”