Table of Contents
by Dawn Degenhardt
December 5, 1998
"Don't call me until they are on the plane and it has taken off", I said in utter frustration. Another postponement - how many had there been. It had been 12 months since we had heard we would be able to adopt Nguyen Thi My Lien, (Joy) 3 ½ years old, from the orphanage at Cam Ranh Bay. There were eight children from Cam Ranh waiting in Saigon at Rosemary Taylor's center. They had joined four children from Saigon coming to the United States for adoption. Eight were coming to Cleveland and two were ours. It had taken 18 months to process our little boy, Nguyen Van Vinh (David), from Sister Robert's orphanage in Cholon. The war was raging and this was one of the first groups to be escorted from Saigon, the very first children from the Cam Ranh Bay area. There had been several children adopted from Saigon and Danang, however.
During the war the conditions were dire. On one occasion 17 babies died because of measles. We were known as the Cleveland group (COAC – Council on Adoptable Children) - just a parent group who wanted to find families for children waiting everywhere. Through Johanna Spicuzza we had become involved with the orphans of the Vietnam War. She had adopted twins and was determined to save as many children as she could. She had arranged the adoption of Vinh (now David). There were also groups in other parts of the country - Georgia, New Jersey, Denver, Utah, Montreal, etc. Somehow we connected with one another and this informal network did everything they could to save as many children as possible. There were no "agencies" involved back then. Many of these dedicated people later became licensed agencies and continue their work today - helping the world's children into forever families.
But I digress. This is Joy's Story. (Nguyen Thi My Lien). I believe Joy was one of the many miracles coming out of this terrible war. How did it happen. While waiting for the development of the processing of adoption to smooth out during the adoption of David from Saigon, we had heard of an Air Force chaplain who had just returned to the States from the Cam Ranh Bay area near Nha Tranh. He was stationed at Plattsburgh Air Force Base – we called him up and asked him if he would help us adopt a little girl from Cam Ranh. He listened to our story - we had two children, Freddie age 5 and Heidi age 3, adopted locally. We were approved by INS for two children and had a boy assigned. He said he and his crew had volunteered at the orphanage near the base and he knew Sister Mary Lieu well. He would write her a letter and call her and ask her to send us a little girl. He said even though they did all they could the children had many unmet needs. Many were true orphans and many were half American. We also wrote a letter to Sister Mary Lieu explaining who we were. Within a very short time she sent us a letter with pictures of two little girls, one almost 4 and one almost 5. Since we had a 3 and 5 year old - we chose the 4 year old and found another family for the 5 year old. Later that month another letter arrived from Sister Mary Lieu with 13 children she wanted us to find families for and we did. In those days everyone was a volunteer and the total cost to adopt a child, including delivery to Cleveland, was $780.
There were, however, several problems. They had never processed an adoption in Ca Ranh. There was no safe way to get the children to Saigon for transporting out. They could not go overland because of the landmines. Our lawyer in Saigon was contacted (Lawyer Phu) and he said he would do his best. Through the informal network we heard that Roma Conroy (the Utah group) had a son who had just returned from Vietnam. He had been stationed in Cam Ranh and was willing to return to help these eight children get to Saigon. He would also help escort them to the U.S. Once the paper work was completed he did what he said he would. With the help of his buddies he commandeered a truck to take the children to the helicopter pad. They were smuggled onto the helicopter to the Military airport - and then smuggled onto the plane for the flight to Saigon. This was the established procedure for all children coming out of the Cam Ranh area and it worked.
Throughout this long wait we had been called several times saying the children would arrive - and something happened and they were postponed. It was August 9th when the call came to say they were in the air and would be arriving on the 10th. After much celebration and calling everyone with this joyous news we went to bed happy that our children were in the air. However, in the middle of the night we received another phone call telling us that the plane had engine trouble and had to emergency land in Hawaii and would arrive 24 hours later - August 11th. It was a Friday evening - the red eye special from LA. As the parade of businessmen with their brief cases got off the plane they all waited to see these eight children meet their new families.
Since it was questionable whether it was legal to bring these children into the state of Ohio we purposely did not want any publicity about the children. The State at that time said we could only adopt through licensed agencies and since there were no agencies in Vietnam we could not adopt from there. However, according to INS regulations it was legal and the Probate Judge ... but that is also another long story.
We had invited only family and close friends to come to the airport. With eight children arriving that meant a rather large crowd anyway. As the full plane unloaded and we waited anxiously for the children to appear we began to think they were not on that plane. At last the children deplaned. David was first off and Joy was second. I was holding David - Ed was holding Joy. We were all in shock. The crew of the airplane were helping to deliver the other children to their new parents. I wanted to meet them all. When the last child was placed in the loving arms of his parents everyone waiting, including those tough businessmen let out a cheer – there was not a dry eye in the area. Luckily we have a short movie of this momentous event.
Joy was very small for her age - although 4 ½ she wore a size three dress. She was this miniature person. The first month we spent a lot of time at the doctor's office. For a while neither child wanted to get into the car as it meant doctor's visits. Both children had several problems - malnutrition, protein deficiency, parasites, lice, skin conditions, enlarged liver and spleen, etc. David was very sick. Joy was quick to respond to treatment and very active. She also was very much in charge.
Oh, yes, I forgot to mention that on July 3rd we had adopted Annie, a seven year old girl from South Dakota. We had been in the process of adopting an American Indian child long before our Vietnam involvement. We also were in the process of adopting a black/Vietnamese baby through Sister Angela's Sacred Heart Orphanage in Danang - Heather arrived on December 1st. So we went from two children to six children in a five month period. The oldest was 7 - the youngest was 12 months old. Two were very sick for quite a while and three were in diapers. Somehow it didn't seem difficult at the time. Now I look back and wonder how we did it.
There was no preparation for international adoption back then - no training - no one with experience to teach us. It was truly on the job training. And without the parent support group (COAC) and other experienced mothers around the country - I could not have functioned. We were all in the same boat and learning from each other. Many of us are still in contact today – known as the dynasaurs of adoption. Many have become the experts, have written books, developed training, founded their own agencies, etc.
Joy was very traumatized by all that had happened to her. We were told she had been brought to the orphanage the day she was born. Her birth parents were young and both in the Vietnamese army. They had hopes of returning soon to claim her - but had not been able to. We had also been told they had both died. Life in the orphanage was difficult. Not enough of anything for all the children. Not enough staff either. All the children had a job. At age two they helped with the washing and cleaning. At age 3 they were assigned a baby to care for. Joy at 4 ½ was very able to handle babies. She would often tell me I was not doing things right for Heather. She would sling Heather over her hip and take over her care and feeding. She had a special bond with David - even though they had not met until they got on the airplane in Saigon. If things didn't go her way she would threaten to take David and return to Vietnam.
Joy was acting normally within a few weeks. She ate all the time, slept well, attended Montessori school, played well with siblings and friends, etc. However, every other day or so she would withdraw into her "trauma". Something would happen - we never knew what - and she would shrink quietly into herself. Her eyes would glaze over and become fixed and she was not in there. She would not allow me to move her so I would just sit and hold her hand. This would last 20 to 40 minutes and then large tears would silently fall down her face and she would join us again and be OK. - until the next time. I could only guess what memories and nightmares she was reliving. These episodes lessened in frequency and in time spent "in her trauma". If I was not in the room when it happened one of the other kids would say "Mama come quick - Joy's in her trauma". I soon learned that the way to Joy's heart was through her stomach. She particularly liked pickles, popcorn, and potato chips. As her trauma became lighter I would lead her to the refrigerator and give her a pickle and she would come right out of it. I only did this when schedules didn't allow the time it took for her to go to where she went. I felt it was important for her to grieve her life in this manner. What did I know?
Within a month of her arrival she understood everything we said to her and was speaking some English. We had a visit from a GI and his Vietnamese bride. When Joy saw this lovely young woman she went right into her trauma and pretended not to understand or speak Vietnamese. The woman knew she was upsetting Joy so she left very quickly. I believe that Joy was fearful that this woman was going to take her back to Vietnam. After she left, Joy came up to me and said "Joy no Vietnamese - Joy Indian". Annie had been wearing an Indian headband around so we made Joy a headband and she became an Indian for a while. I told her not to worry she could be anything she wanted to be.
Within 18 months we moved to Northern Maine where our children were the only non-Caucasian children in the community. The children were very well accepted, did well in school and loved the great north woods. Joy learned to downhill ski, dance (ballet and tap), play piano and flute, swim, water ski, etc. A rather typical up scale American childhood. In high school she sat first chair flute in the band, was on the State championship soccer team and was ready to go off to college after graduation at age 18. Majoring in early childhood education at University of Southern Maine for two years she realized that was not what she wanted to do. She transferred to the University of Hawaii in Honolulu to study Japanese and international business. We also felt it was important for her to be in a "more Asian culture". She graduated in 1992. As a graduation gift she asked if I would take her back to Vietnam for a visit. I had always told all of my children I would help them when it was possible and when it was safe to visit their motherland. Through a very interesting set of circumstances we received an invitation from the Vietnamese government to visit orphanages and government officials. In August of 1992 we found ourselves on a plane to Hanoi. We were met by the Ministry of Labour officials who had planned our itinerary. We were taken to a class D mini hotel where Joy exclaimed she couldn't sleep in that room or stay in that dirty, noisy place. We did stay - but asked to go to another hotel the following night.
What an adventure, everywhere we went we were welcomed with kindness, interest and curiosity. I was asked by often if I was Russian or Canadian. It was a time when there were many Russians in Hanoi and few Americans. I was taken to areas where they had never seen an American - or a Caucasian women. They wanted to touch my freckles and thinning hair. They stared at my blue eyes. I knew what it was like to be in the minority. Joy was welcomed by all. Her story was told in several newspapers - the adopted child who had come back to see her motherland and to find her birth family. However, on that trip we were not allowed to visit the Cam Ranh Bay/Nha Tranh area as it was still occupied by the Russians. It was two more years before Joy was allowed to visit the Cam Ranh area.
Visiting orphanages became a daily occurrence. The first one was a baby center which was very primitive but the babies were loved and well cared for. They were healthy and happy. The day we were taken to Thuy An Handicapped Children's Center was unusual. Most of the children were handicapped in some way. We toured the facility and it was devastating to see - the exercise area with no equipment. There were any post-polio kids sitting in rusty wheelchairs with nothing to do, It was a colorless, difficult existence. After meeting and talking to the children it was time to give them each a gift. As Joy was preparing the bag of gifts she looked up and saw all those beautiful children - smiling and waiting. She began to cry, she covered her face with her hands and sobbed. As everyone watched they all began to cry - the director, the doctor, the staff and the children. I went over to her and said, "Joy, please control yourself -the children are waiting for their gift". I knew if I sympathized with her we would all become a puddle.
Later I asked if she had a flash-back as this orphanage was very much like the one she came from. She said "No, Mom, I told you I have forgotten everything about my early life in Vietnam - I looked at those kids and I felt so sad. I kept thinking what my life would have been if you and Dad had not adopted me. Mom, we have to do something to help these kids". I said "I know what I can do, honey - but what are you willing to do".
We were asked to start an adoption program. At that time there were only two American agencies providing humanitarian aid and placing children for adoption in American homes. Very few children had been processed. We returned home - me to northern Maine and Joy to complete her last semester of college. She graduated in December and came home for the holidays. She was engaged, and had opportunities to work in Japan. Again, she said she had to do something for the children and would put her life on hold and volunteer for a year to begin the work of humanitarian aid and adoption. Joy has referred to herself as a V.P. (Vietnamese American Princess). She was used to the best and just expected it. I wondered how she would cope living in Hanoi - not speaking the language - and with very little money - truly a foreign culture. She left January 17, 1993.
At that time the Ministry assigned orphanages to each agency. A good plan - I thought as that removed the competition among the agencies. We were assigned the Handicapped Children's Center at Thuy An/Bavi. Our task was to renovate, remodel and begin new programs for the children. Today it looks nothing like it did then. Today it is all painted and remodeled with walkways between the buildings. There are plantings and greenery where there was only mud before. There is a wonderful exercise-playground area outside designed for handicapped children. First we provided the library, the sewing center, the embroidery center, and all the material to make Kimonos, and embroider them. We still sell them and return all moneys to the center. Then it was embroidered T-shirts. You may also buy them – and all money is returned to the center. We developed and renovated a baby center - trained staff and developed an adoption program. We particularly wanted to place handicapped and older children. It is easy to find families for babies - but it is a challenge and so exciting to find families for handicapped and special needs children. A container was shipped with medical and exercise equipment for the children. New and used wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, etc were sent. The empty gym is now full of equipment and many of the children have made incredible progress.
The most fun was the music program - funded by Le Thu's adoptive parents. Traditional instruments, music and costumes were purchased. An instructor was hired and each time staff went to Vietnam to escort children we brought in western instruments donated by generous benefactors. We were often asked if we were a traveling orchestra. Within eight months the Le Thu Music Program was performing locally - for functions and on television. What a thrill the first time they performed for me. I remember one teenager in particular. When I first saw her she was sitting under a tree in a rusty wheel chair. Now she was on the stage, her beautiful face with makeup on, dressed in a lovely traditional costume and singing into the microphone. She had the most beautiful voice. There were many tears as we watched these handicapped children - many of them deaf - dance and sing without missing a beat. It was such an incredibly wonderful experience.
As Joy learned the language, the customs and the work of humanitarian aid and adoption she was frustrated by how long it took to accomplish what she had set out to do. She was also gratified by the difference she was making in the lives of the children being adopted and the ones left behind. Our first two children were placed for adoption in March of 1993 - they were a sibling pair of girls - 18 month old and three years old. My husband, Ed, and I went over to escort these first two children home. That first year 12 children came home. Joy was very busy learning the language, the culture, and developing programs in other areas as the ministry asked us to - building new orphanages, funding and developing programs, putting in water systems, etc. Many benefactors heard Joy's story and wanted to help out. Donations began to arrive. Specific donations for special projects would arrive. There were times when we would commit to a project and I had no idea where the money would come from - but it always came. There are some truly wonderful caring people out there.
Hoa Binh was our second major project and Joy expanded the work, under the guidance of the Ministry of Labour, to Hue, Danang and Saigon. Later Tay Ninh and Nha Trang were developed. A hospital wing was built in Danang and totally furnished. A fourth container of medical equipment and supplies was shipped last week and we plan another one soon. Sponsorship programs were developed and continue today. Not only for the children but also for the elderly and for graduates of the orphanage attending college. So many projects were developed and completed it is hard to keep track. In fact, MAPS was asked to change its name in Vietnam as adoption was such a small part of what we did. We are a registered NGO (one of only two adoption agencies who have been given that status) and our new name is Maine Aid and Protection Services. We are still MAPS.
After Joy completed her first promised year she came home for the holidays and said "Mom, we have to talk". After all her frustrations and loneliness I thought for sure she was going to say she was done and was coming home. She apologized that it had taken her so long to accomplish so little. And she was determined to go back for another year. As most of you know, she is still there after five years. She is still developing new projects and programs and remains totally dedicated to the children.
On September 20th Joy, still single, adopted a little girl. She found her in one of MAPS supported orphanages and was in our sponsorship program. Vanessa Ha Thu Degenhardt was 4 ½ years old when they found each other - the same age that Joy was when she was adopted!! Imagine that.
On December 18th Joy and Thu will be home for the holidays. Thu will meet her new family - all 25 of us. Oh, yes, we adopted three more children - Jeanne age 9, Tony age 10 and Douglas age 8. Now all grown. Thu is our eighth grandchild - the first adopted. But I am sure not the last. What goes around comes around.
With your continued support and God's continued blessing Joy will continue her work for the children of Vietnam.
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