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Son Michael Pham, Founder of Kids Without Borders Shares Stories at Third Place Commons

Humanitarian, Son Michael Pham shares stories of his life, lessons of forgiveness and how local organizations are helped by Kids without Borders.

"What if Everyone Read the Same Book," is a nationwide program that encourages people in the community to read and discuss the same book. In Lake Forest Park, the Library Committee chose the book “Matterhorn” by Karl Marlantes.  Marlantes writes about the heroes and horrors of the Vietnam War. 

Last week, Matterhorn and Son Michael Pham (founder of Kids Without Borders) brought community members together to talk about Pham’s experience of growing up in Vietnam and living through the war.  Pham also discussed some of realties that exist, 36 years after the war ended.

Patch had a chance to speak to Pham before he went on stage.

Patch:  Tell us about yourself.

Son Michael Pham:  I was born in the 1950s in Vietnam.  I met my wife in Chicago.  We do travel together with our non-profit group.  Both of our lives are involved with children.  She is a special education teacher for more than 30 years. Currently, she works for The Lake Washington School District.   Chicago was my first home in the U.S.  Now, I live in Sammamish, Washington.  We’ve been out here since 1988.  I founded Kids Without Borders in 2001. 

Patch: Tell us about your journey to America.

Son Michael Pham:  We were one of the first groups of refugee families that were sponsored by Catholic Charities of Chicago.  I am the oldest of 5 children.

Patch:  What inspired you to create Kids without Borders?

Son Michael Pham: I was one of the first refugees that got a job when we first arrived in Chicago.  The first group was about 63 people. The Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Chicago had just recovered from a heart attack and it was a big deal.  It was his first public appearance since the heart attack.

As soon as I got out of the refugee camp, I volunteered for Catholic Charities.  It was part of how I was raised by my parents.  We were Catholics from Vietnam.  I went to Catholic school in Vietnam.

We were always taught to give of our time and ourselves to our community.  So Catholic Charities hired me and that was my first and only time involved in a non-profit that I was paid to do my work.  After that I volunteered more and more.  They (Catholic Charities of Chicago) had a refugee re-settlement program in 1975.

Patch: Tell us about your connection to Matterhorn

Son Michael Pham:  I started a project called Humani-Tour.  Humanitarism and tourism.  One of the people that went with me on Humani-tour told me I should read the book.  I went to Costco and bought the book and read it. That’s the connection.

Patch:  Does Kids Without Borders do things locally?

Son Michael Pham:  Yes, 70 percent of our work is done locally.  For example:

  • In Shoreline, we’ve been supporting the program with women and babies.   Healthy Start Program at The Shoreline Center for Human Services.
  • In Tukwila we have a clothing bank.  Tukwila was selected because it has the highest rate of diversity in people.  The school district in Tukwila is ranked number one for diversity.  Incoming refugees continue to arrive.  There are youths and adults in the area who are responsible for collecting, sorting, packing and distributing clothes to the kids in the area.
  • Bed time basics for babies.  Baskets for babies from birth to six months old.  Also helps low-income families.

 Patch:  Tell us about your work outside of Kids without Borders

Son Michael Pham:  I am an entrepreneur.  One of my main businesses is franchise development.  I am in charge of a national franchise here in the state of Washington.  I oversee over 210 small companies.  Performance Franchising Inc. is the name of my company.  We are part of a master franchise company.

Prior to this, I had a career in the hotel management industry.

Patch:  In your opinion, has there been a healing since The Vietnam War?

Son Michael Pham:  My groups that tour Vietnam…one of the things they learn about the Vietnamese people is their ability to move ahead and forgive and forget.  Vietnamese people embrace the American visitors right when we land.  One of the examples is one time we went to the churches in Hanoi. 

There was an old man sitting on the ground with two missing legs.  He was sitting there begging for food.  One person in my group went over to speak to the man.  This person wanted to have a conversation with the old man so I became the interpreter.  The person said to the old man, “What happened to you?”  The old man said with a big smile, “A bomb came down and took my legs.”  The old Vietnamese man was speaking to an American.  He wasn’t angry or bitter at all.  That is something we can always learn from. 

Every year before Tet (our Lunar New Years), the Vietnamese culture practices forgiving and forgetting, paying off our debts, let go our enemies, mending our fences and do all of that.  Just imagine if we do that over here every year? You know, we don’t hold grudges.  Lots of things can be learned from the Vietnamese people.”

During his speech, Pham spoke to the crowd about the legacy of the war:  Some things handed down from the past, not good things.

1.  Land Mines:  Since 1989 the U.S. government has spent more than $100 million to de-mine Vietnam and assist victims.  Most of the mines are along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and DMZ area.  Land mines do exist.  They simply don’t go away.  Natural disasters happen.  Land and water shift, things move and we have to start over.

2.     Agent Orange:  Spraying of Agent Orange started as early as 1962.  About 12 million gallons. In 1971 we stopped spraying Agent Orange.  War has been over for 36 years and Agent Orange still exists in Vietnam.  Children have been born with many deformities related to Orange Agent.  In 1989 we finally got the recognition to take care of the veterans and sickness related to Agent Orange.  However in Vietnam, nobody takes care of the children and others affected by Agent Orange.

3.      Operation Baby Lift:  Gerald Ford had extra money.  Ford wanted to bring babies to U.S. before the end of the war.  During Operation Baby Lift 175 out 328 were killed.  Betty Tisdale who lives in Queen Anne a got hold of aircraft and lifted 51 babies to safety.  These kids are about 35 or 36 yrs old now.  They created “Operation Re-unite.”  They collected DNA of themselves and try to find people who may be able to trace their families.

4.      Amer-Asian Children.  Kids fathered by U.S. military men who were born in Vietnam.  There is lots of discrimination against them.  Back in early 80’s some of them were allowed to come to U.S.  They had to prove that they were Amer-Asian.

Patch spoke to volunteers and others who traveled and/or have benefitted from the generosity of Pham's work.

Katrina Dohn from the Tukwila School District said,  “For years, we had a huge gathering of clothes from clothing drives.  Two years ago we had huge influx of refugees and kids who needed clothes.  We received a call from a woman.   The woman said, 'We have 54 kids who need clothes desperately.  Can you help us?'  I said, “I will find a way.  With my friendVerna Seal who is with Tukwila Rotary and also a city council member, we started searching for a solution.  We got an e-mail from a man named Son Michael Pham who said he could help.”

“Welcome to world headquarters of Kids Without Borders,” as Pham opened up three storage doors full of clothes.  Dohn said, “We were able to help ourselves to as much clothes as we needed for the kids.  We also learned about his vision and programs.  So we started Kids without Borders South as in South Puget Sound.  We got a storage facility down there and then we started a store in South King County.”

Dohn said, “I went on a humanitarian-tour to Vietnam with Pham.  My experiences were life changing and made me understand that I didn’t know about Vietnam and its history.    It was amazing to see Son’s love for the people of Vietnam and especially the kids.  They knew Son was there to love them.”

Dianna Finnerty, director of Ronald McDonald House in Seattle said, "We serve families with seriously ill children.  Some families arrive in the summer/fall to accompany their kids who are sick.  Sometimes they have to stay through the winter.  Son has this warehouse.  He donates winter jackets and other clothing needed to stay warm.  His organization also provides car seats and shoes for babies and kids."

Kathy Odawa, veterinarian, met Son in 2005 because “My ex at the time had Son speak at one of our rotary club functions.  I have been on four trips to Vietnam with Son Michael ever since 2005.”

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