Vietnamese orphans thrive with help from San Jose nonprofit

When Phi Nguyen walked into the Dieu Giac orphanage in his native Vietnam one December day, he greeted dozens of small children, immediately engaging them with a sleight of hand magic trick where an entwined rubber band seems to mysteriously shift from one finger to another. The kids were skeptical and awed at the same time.

According to a report by, in this orphanage, children surrendered by some of the country’s poorest families are given a second chance — a chance to thrive. They’re clothed, fed and taught basic skills, the result of the dogged philanthropic efforts of a small, grassroots Vietnamese organization in San Jose.

Nguyen, of San Jose, makes frequent visits to his home country as program director of VNHelp. For nearly 30 years, the nonprofit has assisted some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in Vietnam through a slew of programs focused on education, health, clean water, economic development and assisting street children and orphans. But across the six orphanages managed by the organization, VNHelp leaders noticed a startling gap: while the nearly 500 orphans under their care are well-fed and clothed, they lack social and developmental skills, career guidance and the emotional support to face the psychological damage many of them have experienced at a young age.

The absence of those resources leaves many of them with no clear plan for the future — and with significant obstacles — once they age out of the orphanages.

“In our program they are taken care of in terms of physical needs,” said the organization’s founder, Thu Anh Do. “The thing they lack most is mental development.”

“When they go into the teenage ages, they face difficulties because they don’t have mentors,” she said.

Nguyen said the teens can legally stay at the orphanages until they turn 18. “But most of them don’t know what to do after that,” he said.

So, after more than 20 years — and with the help of dozens of San Jose donors looking to stay connected to a country many of them left after the Vietnam War — the organization is marking a new chapter in its philanthropy with a program aimed at addressing this gap.

Six psychology and sociology students joined one of the orphanages, Dieu Giac, in March to provide counseling, psychological care and special education to some of the neediest orphans, with the hope that it’ll give them the developmental skills to successfully integrate into society once they age out of the orphanage.

VNHELP President and Executive Director Thu Do, left, speaks with a donor at the VNHelp office in Milpitas, California, on Thursday, March 22, 2018. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

“We want the kids to have a stable life with a real job where they can make a living,” said Do. “We’ve learned in the past of some kids who have moved out of the orphanage and they just do odd jobs. Odd jobs mean a very unstable income, and we worry about what’s next for them.”

At the same time, the program aims to provide career development to the psychology students to increase their chances of finding jobs in their field after graduation — an obstacle many students face in their young careers.

The organization collaborated with local universities to offer scholarships to psychology and sociology students who submitted project proposals that could be applied at the orphanages, such as special education programs for kids with developmental disabilities.

“Right now (orphanage leaders) play the role of nannies, they provide physical safety and so on, but the kids need more,” said Nguyen, who’s transitioning out of a successful tech career in Silicon Valley to focus full time on his philanthropic efforts.

Scholarship recipient Tinh Le, a student at Nhan Van University, a university of Social Sciences and Humanities, said she chose psychology as a career path “to discover myself” and those around her.

At the Chua Tu Hanh orphanage — run by Buddhist monks contracted by VNHelp — an ornate temple hovers over the entire compound. On one December morning, incense sticks burned in pots and candles were lit as people prayed at the temple. On the complex was also a building where blankets are manufactured or sewn, outdoor covered tables for lunch, and various buildings where children slept.

During a recent visit, Le worked with Tran Thi Tuyet Dung, who was dropped off at the Dieu Giac orphanage when she was 5 or 6 and diagnosed with a delayed developmental issue.

No one has ever come to visit her, and the orphanage director worries about her being sexually abused, as she has a body of a woman but “a child’s brain.” Orphanage director Van Thi Thu Thuy said Dung was once returned to the orphanage with a 500,000 VND bill ($20) after being outside and didn’t say where she got the money.

Part of Le’s project proposal includes hiring teachers to teach sexual education at the orphanages, a topic she says isn’t discussed openly enough, especially for the teens who lack mentors.

“Vietnamese society doesn’t pay attention to… hasn’t paid enough attention to sexual education,” she said. “Even though it’s really needed.”

Nguyen and Do plan to expand the scholarship program to two additional orphanages in the following months and, eventually, to all six.

“We don’t want them to come back to the orphanage after they turn 18,” said Nguyen. “We want that to stop. We want them to graduate completely, to integrate into life.”