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Joy My Lien and her 14-year journey of tracing roots

Updated : 11:50 AM, 07/16/2006
Joy My Lien and her 14-year journey of tracing roots
The Vietnamese-born American hopes one day she will gather successful Vietnamese businesspeople in the US who were adopted by American couples to participate in humanitarian activities in the homeland.

I happened to meet Joy My Lien at an opening ceremony of an English class for orphans and poor children in Da Nang sponsored by the Degenhardt Foundation. She immediately attracted me because she looked healthy and self-confident with her graceful smile, but did not hide the sadness on her face. Though her Vietnamese was quite fractured after being unused for decades, I was moved to hear her story.

“I was an orphan”

That was My Kien’s first sentence at the ceremony. She said she became an orphan at birth – her mother was a victim of the fierce US war in Vietnam in 1968. She was taken to an orphanage in Cam Ranh. When she was four years old, she was adopted by a Dawn C. Degenhardt – the largest stakeholder of McDonalds. Leaving Vietnam aboard a US military aircraft with other children in 1972, the four-year-old girl took a new name - Joy My Lien Degenhardt. Joy started to learn English and a month later she could understand what her adopted parents said.  

Joy’s childhood was a fulfilling and happy time. When she was 18, she attended Southern Maine University studying children education. Two years later, she moved on to Hawaii University, studying international business.

1992 was considered a turning point in her life. She graduated from Hawaii University and as a present, her American parents bought her a flight back to Vietnam. Twenty years after she left Vietnam, she now felt deeply moved by setting foot again on the soil of the homeland. Joy could not hold back her tears when visiting unfortunate children at the Thuy An Disabled Orphanage in the north-western mountainous province of Hoa Binh. She decided to give up her Japanese class and the dream of following the career at McDonalds and stay in Vietnam. Over the past 14 years, she has sponsored many charity projects and programmes for orphans and disabled children across the country.

She recalled: “When I visited the Thuy An Orphanage, I was deeply affected. Life there was full of hard knocks. Looking at those children, I still remembered the time when I was an orphan more than 20 years ago. But I was lucky. What about these children?. I once asked my mother how I could help them. My mother said she had helped me overcome hardship and hoped I would know how to help those children. Her words obsessed me and after a while I decided to return to Vietnam. I wanted to help change their fates in my homeland, not the United States.”

Joy worked as the director of the Maine Aid and Protection Services (MAPS) initiated and run by Dawn C. Degenhard. Since 1993, MAPS has co-operated with the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs to implement a number of humanitarian programmes in Vietnam. During the past 14 years, the organisation has poured US$4 million into projects for needy children and women in nine cities and provinces. My Lien has travelled every corner of Vietnam, from Hanoi and Hoa Binh in the north to Hue, Da Nang, Quang Nam and Khanh Hoa in the centre and HCM City, Ben Tre and Tay Ninh in the south. Her wish is to implement more humanitarian projects to bring happiness to those with unfortunate fates.

When My Lien was 24 years old, she adopted a four-year-old girl at Hoi An Orphanage in central Da Nang city. She considered the girl her daughter and provided all for her. Later, the girl’s parents arrived and received her back. My Lien was overjoyed that the girl could now be brought up by her parents.

It is hard to imagine that My Lien gave up everything including her profitable career in the US to return and lead a hard life in Vietnam. She learnt to speak Vietnamese herself. With a Chinese-made motorcycle, she travelled widely to seek co-sponsors and implement projects. She met a lot of difficulties, but they did not shake her will. From the bottom of her heart, My Lien considered herself a Vietnamese national and wanted to do something for the homeland.

In early 2006, the Degenhardt Foundation was established with US$500,000 initial capital as an award from the Degenhardts for their three adopted children, namely My Lien, David Vinh and Heather Kim. My Lien was appointed to be the director of the foundation. The organisation is targeted at poor children and orphans and the first project was implemented at the Da Nang Centre for street children. In the future, it will implement a “wise stick” project for 1,400 blind people and build a hostel and vocational training centre for orphans and disabled children in Da Nang. It will co-operate with Hai Chau hospital in Da Nang city to provide free reproductive healthcare services for poor women and buy modern equipment for foetus check-ups. In early June 2006, the foundation co-ordinated with the Hoi An town People’s Committee to implement an e-library for youngsters in the town.

She said she hopes that one day she will gather successful Vietnamese businesspeople in the US who were adopted by American couples to participate in humanitarian activities in the homeland. Accordingly, her foundation will help them return to Vietnam, learn the Vietnamese language, join cultural exchanges, look for their genuine parents and participate in voluntary activities for the poor. In doing so, she hopes that the distance between Vietnamese nationals residing overseas like her and their compatriots at home is overcome.

2006 Jul 16