BY CYNTHIA WAY — When Duyen, an 11-year-old orphan in Vietnam, asked me if she could call me Mom, I was a little freaked out. My friend Bonnie (from Tampa, Fla.) and I were visiting Ham Tan Orphanage in Vietnam in 2008 with our other friend, Rebecca (from Hyattsville), who was there to adopt Thai, now 5. Rebecca had also adopted Thai’s sister Lina, now 10, as a baby in Cambodia.
But I fell in love with Duyen. Adoptions between the U.S. and Vietnam were about to close, and at her age I knew the chances of Duyen’s ever being adopted were slim to none. Bonnie had a similar heart connection with two girls, Hang and Hong, 16 and 14. We promised them we’d come back to see them one day.
Little did I know that would lead to us co-founding our own nonprofit, Big Big World Project, Inc., and that we would return the very next year, fall in love with all the kids at the orphanage, and in effect, “adopt” the whole orphanage!
Big Big World sponsors the orphanage with the goal of helping the children lead successful, happy lives by providing for their social, emotional, educational, medical and basic needs. Just last month, we partnered with an international medical relief group that will provide medical, dental and eye care to them and other needy children in nearby communities. On October 29, we’re hosting a “Party With a Purpose” fundraiser for their benefit, in Arlington.
So back to Duyen. I didn’t want to set up false expectations that I might one day adopt her. I wondered what the implications were, what she would expect of me. But I’ve since changed my mind about being not only her “Mom,” but Mom to about two dozen children in Vietnam.
Here’s what did it. One of the older boys, Son Lon, told me in his limited English that he had an American father. I was a little perplexed and wondered if he literally meant a biological father, thinking maybe his dad was a Vietnam vet. Then Son Lon asked me if I wanted to see a photo. He proceeded to show me not only a photo, but retrieved a very worn manila envelope filled with letters from his “father,” Richard. Richard and his wife adopted a child from the orphanage several years back, and I guess Richard made a connection with Son, much like I did with Duyen.
At Son’s encouragement, I read one of the letters. Richard was encouraging him, assuring Son of his love for him, asking Son about school, etc. Son was so proud and so happy to have someone he called Father. I got the impression that Richard was a huge motivating force for him and a source of love and endearment.
I thought, “Wow, it is so important for children to have someone to call Mother or Father. Someone they know loves them. Even if that person lives on the other side of the earth, and in the case of Son, only met in person once.” I am getting goosebumps as I write this. One of the boys calls me M.O.M., which he says stands for “My Other Mother.” I love it!
So now I embrace being Mom – or in Vietnamese, “Me,” pronounced Meh. I tell the children how much I love them, how I love them like they are my family/my daughter/my son. And it means the world to them. It’s a little scary, too. It comes with responsibility: responsibility to keep the connection, to keep the promises, to keep the words of love coming, to stay in touch.
It’s a responsibility that I am deeply honored to have and that I carry forward with the work I do now as president of Big Big World Project, Inc.
Cynthia Way is a 10-plus year resident of Hyattsville. She celebrated her 50th birthday this July with the children of Ham Tan Orphanage while on her fourth trip to Vietnam. For information about the nonprofit or the “Party With a Purpose” on Saturday, October 29, contact her at Cynthia@bigbigworld.org.