Ken and Doris Richards traveled the world to create their close-knit family of seven. Identical twins Alex (Hung Thanh Tran) and Andy (Hai Thanh Tran) were born in Vietnam and adopted by the Richards in August 1999. Anha (Thuy Anh Thi Le), who was also born in Vietnam, joined the family in February 2001. Alysha (Hussainatu Koroma) and Ayasha (Hassanatu Koroma) were 5 when they were adopted from Sierra Leone.
Though the kids have traveled thousands of miles from their countries of birth, Ken and Doris have made it a priority to expose their children to the history, traditions and culture of their homelands. They also promised their children that they would take them back to Vietnam when they all reached middle school. That time came this summer.
The Richards traveled with close friends of theirs, friends they'd traveled with twice before to Vietnam when they adopted Andy and Alex. Their friends had adopted a daughter from Vietnam at the same time and she too was ready to see her homeland. So they joined Children of Peace International (COPI) on their summer medical mission trip which started in Hanoi and ended in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
Vietnam is described as a developing country still mired in poverty and recovering from many years of war. The years of turmoil created a large number of orphans. COPI founder Binh Rybacki — a Vietnamese refugee — is dedicated to providing homes, education, medical attention and love to more than 6,000 orphan children in 14 orphanages and schools, hospitals and clinics throughout Vietnam.
Medical care is rare in the rural areas of Vietnam, so through two annual medical missions COPI provides hygiene training and basic medical and dental care. The team of volunteers is made up of American and Vietnamese medical and dental professionals, nurses, students, and other concerned citizens willing to give their time and effort for these two-and-a-half week trips.
Through medical missions the Richards children would be given the opportunity to serve others at an important and influential time in their lives and for the three who were born in Vietnam, the experience of seeing their country as it really is — as opposed to just visiting the tourist highlights.
After a 13-hour flight from Los Angeles, they landed at Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi (population five million). The next morning they were on a bus to the first clinic at Thanh Ba in Viet Tri.
Altogether COPI conducted eight clinics. Along the way they visited orphanages and schools supported by COPI. The team was usually up no later than 6 a.m. and rarely back to their hotel before 8 p.m. after seeing 250 to 300 people each day. At a school for indigenous children in northern Vietnam, the Richards presented funds donated by the Presbyterian Church of Delta. While the donation of $700 may seem modest by U.S. standards, it will purchase a year's worth of books and pencils for all 500 of the school's students. The Vietnamese government does not recognize the rights of their indigenous population, so without the support of outside organizations such as COPI or the Presbyterian Church of Delta, these children would not receive an education. Other funds donated by the church were used to purchase medical supplies.
At the medical clinics, the kids were first gathered in a staging area. Alex and Andy kicked around a soccer ball to help keep the kids entertained while they waited to be checked in. From the staging area each patient was checked into the clinic where basic medical information was gathered and tracking sheets were pinned to their shirts. From here the kids moved on to the hygiene station where they washed their hands and faces and brushed their teeth. so they would be clean for the medical professionals. Doris and other volunteers worked this station, assisted at times by Alex and Andy. Each kid was given a packet of toiletries that included a toothbrush and toothpaste, washcloth, fingernail clippers and comb. The kids were given lessons on how to properly brush their teeth and wash their hands.
At the next station, the volunteer nurses cleaned the kids' ears, checked their vital signs and conducted a visual assessment of their health. Examinations were conducted by doctors at the next stop. Those who needed a tooth pulled or a cavity filled were directed to the dental station. While professional dentists and dental hygienists provided services, volunteer team members including Ayasha and Alysha assisted the dentists and comforted small patients while other members cleaned and sterilized the dental instruments.
A pharmacist accompanied the team as well and filled prescriptions at the next stop. In addition, all of the children were given vitamins.
The final stop was the "toy" station where each child was given a toy or treasure. This is where Anha often helped out.
The trained volunteer medical team included five nurses, three medical doctors, four dentists and a pharmacist. Everyone else supported the medical team.
Between stations, volunteers kept the kids occupied with face painting, coloring, painting or beading. Vietnamese speaking volunteers helped facilitate the transition from station to station. It's a system that has been perfected over the years, to allow COPI volunteers to see as many patients as possible during the short clinics.
Ken arrived midway through the clinic schedule, but was able to step in and take the place of another volunteer who had to fly back to the U.S. early. The final clinic was conducted at the orphanage where Alex, Andy and Anha once lived. In 2001 the Delta Presbyterian Church donated funds to purchase two large instant hot and cold water bottle dispensers. They were still in use and in good condition at the orphanage that now cares for significant numbers of severely disabled children, including those born with deformities related to the ongoing effects of Agent Orange that Americans used to defoliate the jungle during the war.
After the medical clinics were concluded, and during the two free days built into the clinic schedule, the Richards explored Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta and Chu Chi. They also stopped outside the hospital where Alex and Andy were born. The twins, who weighed 2.8 and 3 pounds at birth, remained in the hospital for nearly six months before they were strong enough to be taken to the orphanage. They also stopped by the American Embassy which was built after Vietnam was re-opened to travel in 1993. Ken and Doris were among the first Americans to pass through the doors of the new embassy in 1999. They were processing paperwork in August 1999 when the embassy brought in dignitaries from around the globe for an open house; Ken and Doris were interviewed by CNN International.
City streets, filled with bicycles 10 years ago, are now teeming with moped and motorcycle traffic. Exhaust fumes were sometimes overwhelming. There were very few traffic signals, so crossing a busy street required courage and fortitude.
COPI is now raising funds to open a new children's cancer wing at a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. Currently there is only one cancer wing for children in another part of the city. Ayasha and Alysha, along with other members of the team, visited the hospital where they saw poor conditions for the children who were suffering from cancer. Once the patients were admitted, their non-medical care fell to family members who brought in food, changed the bedpans and aired out the sheets and blankets. Family members gathered in a cell-like waiting area, sometimes going into the streets to beg for money. Although socialized medical care is provided for all citizens of Vietnam, often there are no medicines or supplies available.
Like many Americans traveling abroad, the Richards returned home realizing how fully their lives have been blessed. They urge everyone to do what they can to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Anyone interested in a COPI medical mission trip can visit childrenofpeace.org to learn more.
"The mission was a lot of hard work, but it was also very enjoyable," said Doris. "The organization is well run, and anyone is welcome to join as long as they love people."blog comments powered by Disqus