Every year, Son Michael Pham, leads a special trip to Vietnam called HumaniTour. The trip combines tourism with humanitarianism by exposing participants to the wonders of Vietnam while they visit and volunteer at a local rehabilitation center for disabled children affected by Agent Orange – the Thanh Xuan Peace Village.
We sat down with Son Michael to learn about HumaniTour, his life and his story.
MAOH: Why did you start HumaniTour and what gave you the idea?
2010 HumaniTour participants prepare donated wheelchairs for a distribution cermemony in Ho Chi Minh City.
SMP: My first HumaniTour was in 2001, at the urging of my colleague, as an opportunity for others to see ‘Son Michael’s Vietnam’ and help others. Some would call the HumaniTour trip ‘travel with a purpose’. As I was born and grew up in Vietnam, I could share with others the ‘then and now’ of the country, the people, the children, the needs, and how all of us can be good ambassadors and make small differences.
MAOH: In 2010, your group donated 280 wheelchairs to disabled people in Vietnam. How did you raise the money for this and who did the wheelchairs go to?
SMP: Funding for the container of wheelchairs came from Rotary, Kids Without Borders and Pro Sports Club. Through the Wheelchair Foundation the container arrived in Vietnam and the distribution was coordinated on our behalf by the Vietnam Red Cross. The wheelchairs were distributed to orphanages and children service centers, and to poor disabled people just outside of Saigon.
MAOH: You emigrated to the United States in 1975 immediately after the war, can you (briefly) explain how this experience has shaped who you are and what you do?
SMP: My family left Saigon on the very last day of the war in April 1975. We survived after two weeks on the Pacific without food and water and arrived at an American Naval Base in the Philippines. I was the oldest of five children, and our parents. After time in various refugee camps, we settled in Chicago, Illinois. In the refugee camps, I volunteered helping others. In Chicago, I volunteered helping other refugees. Two weeks after we arrived in Chicago, Catholic Charities hired me as Refugee Resettlement Coordinator – my first job in America. Volunteering and serving others is my way to ‘pay it forward’ for the opportunities America has given to me and my family.
MAOH: The HumaniTour frequently visits the Thanh Xuan Peace Village in Hanoi. What has your experience been over the years working with these disabled children? Do they remember you? Are there any special experiences that have stood out in your mind?
SMP: I adopted the Thanh Xuan Peace Village after my introduction to this place. Behind the sad stories are the smiling faces of the children and the commitment of the dedicated staff. The kids do remember when someone returns again (the toys and candies help). One of the most moving experiences was when Dr. Thanh Phuong (the director of the village) answered a question from our group about Agent Orange. He said that the war has been gone for many years, people forget. But for the children with disabilities caused Agent Orange, they feel that they also have been forgotten.
MAOH: What can HumaniTour participants do upon returning from Vietnam to stay involved and continue to help the people they have seen?
SMP: I truly believe that the HumaniTour offers participants opportunities to connect and continue to make a difference long after the trip. Some provide annual sponsorship for The Teach Me To Fish program (education and/or vocational support for orphans after they leave the orphanage). Some raise funds for clean water systems for the Peace Village.
The words ‘life changing’ have often being used to describe the trip.
MAOH: Can you tell us one thing that you consider unique or special about Vietnam?
SMP: Approaching Tet, the Lunar New Year celebration in Vietnam, one of the many traditions is how one prepares for the new year – pay your debts, mend broken relationships and differences, forgive your enemies, renew friendships, … Everyone would make their way back to their families, their birth places. Moving forward and not living in the past, that’s how one begins a new year.
MAOH: Final question, when do you sleep?
I sleep really good on the long flights between Seattle and Viet Nam