Supporter Spotlight: Carol Konyha

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Sgt. Tony Konyha in Vietnam—in uniform on one of the bases he served at (left), and during a moment of relaxation (right).

Carol Konyha’s father, Toby Konyha, was stationed in Vietnam for a year between August 1967 and August 1968, serving as a mess sergeant at both An Khe and Pleiku military bases east of the Cambodian-Vietnam highlands. This was a heavily forested region. Even in the lower coastal areas, in the tropical climate, dense vegetation provided ample cover for the North Vietnamese Army, who were staging attacks from neighboring Cambodia at the time. US military commanders’ institution of “Operation Ranch Hand,” the infamous aerial spraying of Agent Orange and other defoliants in Vietnam, helped eliminate enemy cover and thereby reduce the threat to its combatant forces. [To see an interactive map of spraying missions, visit: Chicago Tribune Watchdog.]

The widespread chemical warfare had devastating side effects, not only for Vietnam’s environment, but for many of the humans caught in the drift. Dioxin, a highly toxic byproduct of the Agent Orange formula, caused permanent health problems, even death, to both military and civilian personnel on both sides of the conflict, including genetic mutations that resulted in children being born with severe birth defects such as spinal bifida and other neurological disorders. Sgt. Toby Konyha was one of those whose exposure to the herbicidal “agent” eventually took a heavy toll on his health and on his family.

In 1973, just five years after his stint in Vietnam, and the same year American troops pulled out of the country, Sgt. Toby Konyha died after being diagnosed with leukemia. At the time of his death, he and his wife Mary had seven children: Dorothy, age 22; Jim, 20; Suzanne, 17; Carol, 8; Ed, 6, Christine, 4; and Dan, 2. In addition to his own illness, Toby’s exposure to Agent Orange led to his youngest daughter Christine being born with a malformed spine and water on the brain, as well as an abnormality that required her to undergo open-heart surgery when she was only 2 years old. The first child to be born after he returned from Vietnam, Christine was conceived in Hawaii, when Mary joined him there for a mid-tour R&R break (rest and relaxation).

Despite her physical difficulties, Christine, nicknamed “Ina,” matured into adulthood and managed to live a relatively full life. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Windsor and had a dream of helping children with disabilities and their parents. She suffered a setback, though, in 1997, when she lost her eyesight, a loss directly caused by her birth defects. A shunt implanted as a baby to drain fluid from her brain had deteriorated over time, causing permanent damage to her optic nerves and ultimately, blindness. Ina was just getting her life back on track when she suffered a serious fall, a tragic accident from which she never recovered; she was on life support for nine months before dying at the age of 34.

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Left: Christine “Ina” Konyha in her first communion dress, with her grandmother, Ida. Right: Ina as an adult.

Brother Ed Konyha describes the ripple effect on their family. “The Agent Orange not only killed Dad, it killed Ina too. Mom was devastated after Dad died and she was never the same again. She suffered terrible and persistent depression after being left a widow and having to raise four young children as a single mother in her forties and fifties…it aged her prematurely.”

Toby and Mary’s middle child, Carol Konyha, lived near her younger brothers in Vancouver, British Columbia in the 1990s, but during the final months of Ina’s life, she relocated to Phoenix, Arizona to help care for her sister. In 2003, Ed called to tell her about a documentary titled The Friendship Village he’d happened to see on Canadian television. Produced by Canadian filmmaker Michelle Mason, it tells the story of George Mizo, the American veteran who played a major role in the founding of the Vietnam Friendship Village, and documents the ongoing tragic legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Mizo himself had suffered serious health consequences from his wartime exposure to dioxin, and passed away in 2002. When she watched The Friendship Village, Carol felt an immediate connection with the Vietnamese families interviewed in the film. The health issues they described were much the same as her own family’s experiences. She subsequently became a regular supporter of the Friendship Village, through VFVP-USA, always dedicating her donations “In memory of Sgt. Toby Konyha and Christine Konyha.”

Three years ago, Carol decided to step up her support for the Friendship Village. She asked herself, “What can someone like me do that would be even halfway meaningful?” She figured she could raise some money within her own circle of friends and family, but felt that everyone was probably already inundated by donation requests. She wanted to do the fundraising in a way that would be fun and appealing. A freelance baker known for her chocolate cake and cupcakes, she finally hit upon the idea of holding a month-long bake sale.

Carol’s first bake sale, held in 2012, brought in close to $400. The next year, she raised $578. In 2014, in addition to a bake sale, she decided to throw a “Christmas in February” party—a celebration she had hosted when she lived in Vancouver, just for fun. Carol said party guests were happy to contribute to “her charity”—Vietnam Friendship Village—and most generously gave more than the $10 suggested. On her invitation, she also provided the option to donate online, and some friends did so. By combining a fun social event with her bake sale, Carol tripled her return, raising $1,487 this year!

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Left: Carol’s chocolate cupcakes are always a big hit. Right: Carol offers up a tray of Danish sandwiches at her 2014 “Christmas in February” party. From left: David Smith, Carol Konyha, Carolyn Christy, Patrick Murphy and Joseph Ho.

VFVP-USA depends on volunteers to help with our fundraising efforts, and to have someone like Carol, who knows firsthand what it means to be a “victim of Agent Orange” is all the more meaningful. We hope her family’s story, and her “fun and appealing” fundraising model will inspire other Friendship Village supporters to consider what they can do.

“The devastation caused by Agent Orange on our family is massive. It goes beyond Dad’s death. It left young children without a father, killed our sister and caused her to extreme physical and psychological pain throughout her life, prematurely aged and devastated our mother, and left grandchildren without grandparents. The horror of war and chemical warfare came home with Dad. This is why we relate to those children in Vietnam so well—they are Ina’s mirror image. Their families are our mirror image. We are them and they are us… That recognition is the one silver lining that can be salvaged from all of this: By supporting them, however we can, we heal our own wounds.”

—Ed Konyha

Resident Spotlight: Hay Quang Ngo

Big thanks to Jennifer Nguyen, American volunteer-in-residence at Friendship Village, for providing us with this in-depth profile of a former resident of Vietnam Friendship Village, Nay Quong Ngo. You may also click on the graphic at left to access the PDF file. We look forward to sharing  personal stories like these on a regular basis.

Resident Spotlight: Hay Quang Ngo

Click to download PDF

Hay Quang Ngo, 21, has a winning smile. He has a humble nature to his demeanor every time I see him ride into the Friendship Village on his bicycle, as he always greets me with a wave and a slightly reserved, but sincere grin. Even though he and his family have faced many hardships surrounding poverty, one would never think that Hay has experienced any adversities due to his positive and bright attitude that can lift anyone’s spirits.

Hay Ngo with his father and mother.

Hay with his parents, Nha and Thu, at their home in Duong Duc

Born in 1993 and the youngest of six children, Hay has lived a very difficult life living in the rural commune of Duong Duc in Bac Giang province. His parents work arduously as farmers who raise livestock such as chickens, ducks, pigs, and cows on their small compound that have been in Hay’s father’s side of the family for generations. Hay, however, has never once complained about the struggles that he and his family have faced and continue to face; it was only when I had asked him to answer honestly about his upbringing in Duong Duc that he had timidly confided to me the difficulties that his parents had to endure raising his large family.

During the American War, Hay’s father, Nha Quang Ngo, 64, fought in Dak Lak province for eight years where he was physically injured and disabled in 1971 when bullets had pummeled through his arm and foot during gunfire. Nha has physical mobility difficulties due to his injuries sustained in war, which has made it nearly impossible for him to do his work as a farmer. This has resulted in Hay’s mother, Thu Thi Nguyen, 62, needing to work twice as hard as the sole provider in order to support her family. During war-time, Nha was also exposed to herbicides which have resulted in Hay being born with an irregular spine and Hay’s older sister, Hoa Thi Ngo, 32, being born with a lower mental capacity and short-term memory loss.

Instead of Hay’s sister being selected to go the Friend-ship Village, the Veterans Association of Bac Giang province wanted Hay to take her place because Hoa was over the age limit. Hay’s family also felt that Hay would greatly benefit in being able to have an educational opportunity that he would not have gotten otherwise staying in Duong Duc. In doing so, Hay could lessen the pressure for his parents by helping to financially support his large family once he finished his schooling and found a well-paying job. When I had visited Hay’s family in Duong Duc, Nha also expressed to me that he wishes for Hay to continue to work hard in school so that he can find a job where he doesn’t put any strain on his back doing labor-intensive work. Visiting Hay’s family in their old, life-stained home and hearing their heartfelt stories made me realize just how humble and kind Hay was, especially because of the reasons he wanted to attend university. In this brief visit, I also experienced such genuine hospitality from his parents which culminated in a feast that his family had spent hours preparing beforehand.

From 2009 to 2012, Hay resided at the Friendship Village where he attended high school outside of the village and was taken care of at the residential facility for three years. In this time, the Friendship Village was able to pay for his school fees, books and supplies, and provide a warm place to eat and sleep. Although he is no longer a Friendship Village resident, he still visits the village on a daily basis in order to continue to build the relationships that he has developed with residents and staff.

Currently, he is attending the University of Industry in Hanoi where he is in his second year studying to be a mechanic. Since his hometown in the countryside is too far from school, he rents and shares a small, cramped room with another university student where his life consists of school, soccer, and studying. He hopes to be able to help provide for his family once he finishes his schooling, because he wants to give back to his parents and show how much he appreciates all of the struggles that they have experienced in order to shape the compassionate, young man that he is today.

Impressions: Words and Pictures

Friendship Village Houses

Friendship Village Residences [photo by Daniel Wagner]

After participating in a photography workshop held at the Friendship Village, a young German man by the name of Daniel Wagner emailed a selection of his photographs to Rosemarie “Rosi” Höhn-Mizo (president of our German and International Committees), along with the lyrics for a song he was inspired to write based on his impression of the Vietnam Friendship Village and its residents. Here is a translation of the message he wrote to Rosi:

Dear Mrs. Rosemarie Höhn-Mizo,
I would like to say that the institution and the thoughts behind the project have impressed me very much. Your committed support for the Friendship Village give me hope that the children who suffer from Agent Orange, in spite of their difficult destiny, will have a better life. My experiences with the children at Friendship Village were thoroughly positive. I felt they are grateful for the help and special education they receive.
If it is possible, I hope to return to the Village and lend additional support to this project.
Sincerely,
Daniel Wagner

A selection of Daniel’s photographs can be found on the Visitor Albums page of our Photo Gallery. Here are the song lyrics inspired by his experience:

AS YOU CAME
by Daniel Wagner

You show me something,
I missed for a long time.

It’s how to smile
and how to live my life.

You gave me something,
I already forgot.

It’s how to love
and how to give someone a hug.

When I see you standing here,
and I feel your power of love.
The struggle and the pain,
the feeling of being not the same.

But I promise you, I love you as you came.

When I got here,
to this foreign place.
I was not sure,
if I could handle this mace.

A new country,
another language and morals.

You took my hand
and made me ignore it.
You shown me something,
I already unlearned.

It’s how to think
of a better world.

When I see you standing here,
and I feel your power of love.
The struggle and the pain,
the feeling of being not the same.

But I promise you, I love you as you came.

 

Looking forward to 2014

washing veggies

As we turn the calendar to another year, we find ourselves a little bit behind… Our Fall 2013 print newsletter is just now being prepared to be mailed, and our New Year email has just now been sent—one sole message riding on the tail end of a great flurry of solicitations mailed in the past month by too many organizations.

Our message is simple. The Friendship Village is a one-of-a-kind facility that provides nourishment, medical care, physical therapy, and special educational opportunities to about 120 children of varying ages (as well as rotating groups of aging Vietnamese veterans whose care is funded by the Veterans Association of Vietnam). Many of the medical conditions or physical disabilities treated there are presumed caused by Agent Orange, lingering effects of the American war in Vietnam.

Now in its sixteenth year of operations, the Vietnam Friendship Village has an inspirational founding story, having grown from one American veteran’s gesture of peace and reconciliation toward his former “enemies.” George Mizo’s dream lives on and continues to inspire people from all over the world who find the Friendship Village and are moved to become part of our extended community of volunteers and donors.

In 2014, our U.S. Committee will continue our efforts to double our fundraising capacity. Your help is needed and there are many ways to contribute. Whether making a personal financial donation, serving on our board, or helping introduce Friendship Village to new supporters via word of mouth, social networking, or a special event (film, slide show, or fundraising party), we welcome your involvement!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Veteran’s Day

Vietnamese Military Cemetary

Last December my father and I traveled around the demilitarized zone in Vietnam with the son of a Vietnamese veteran.  We visited the cemetery pictured above.  All of these stones are for unknown soldiers.  All of them Northern Vietnamese.  As far as I could tell, there didn’t seem to be any national memorials honoring the memory or spirit of the Southern Vietnamese soldiers.  Our guide Quang’s father fell during the early part of the war so his family was lucky enough to have had a military burial.

On this Veteran’s Day I would like to honor all veteran’s and acknowledge the possibility of peace between friends and former enemies.

I called my father to wish him a happy veteran’s day, and to thank him.  He told me a funny little story that I think shows how much has changed in the past 40 years.

This morning he was chatting with our friend Mr. Po, a resident of the Vietnam Friendship Village.  My father told Mr. Po that today is a holiday in the United States, “Veteran’s Day.”  Mr. Po thought this was interesting and asked my father why there would be a holiday that was celebrated by refraining from eating meat…  My father’s confusion broke when he realized Mr. Po was asking about “Vegetarian’s Day.”  After many laughs, they were able to understand one another, and give thanks for what they have, each honoring veterans in their own way.  I will always be amazed that a Vietnam veteran can have these simple happy interactions with a young Vietnamese man forty years after conflict…

Peter Abatiell with Vietnamese veteran at the Friendship Village

Peter Abatiell with Vietnamese veteran at the Friendship Village

 

 

US students visit village!

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This month 5 high school students from different parts of the US spent 3 days volunteering at the Friendship Village.  The visit was part of a month long Southeast Asia service trip organized by Adventures Cross Country (ARCC) of Mill Valley, CA.  The 5 young women, ages 15 through 17, were not sure what to expect from their stay at the village.

“I was pleasantly surprised at how comforting and welcoming the place was. The minute we arrived, we were greeted by an excited Mr. Long and others eager to meet our acquaintance in a friendly fashion. We received many affectionate hugs upon arrival from anyone we came across, which was quite refreshing coming from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. The hugs continued throughout our stay and were much appreciated by our group.” – Naomi

Despite cultural and language barriers the US students were able to make personal connections with students their own age, living at the Friendship Village.

“I was nervous that I would become overly emotional in front of the children, but I soon found out that there was nothing sad about them and there was actually something very beautiful about each of them and our connection. The pure happiness of these kids really taught me that you have to decide to be happy in every situation you are in.

I was kindly greeted by a girl named Long who lived at the Friendship Village. Her happiness emanated off of her as she approached us, her visitors. I don’t know how but we could both tell that we immediately had a deep connection. Even though we couldn’t communicate with words in the same language, whenever we would talk I could understand everything she was trying to say to me. Every time we were able to spend time together we would laugh, smile, and play. It was hard for me to explain in words, but it was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had.” – Chloe

Grace also made a connection with a young girl at the village, and reflected upon the importance of the project.

“From my perch next to the girl, I watched friendships being made despite the language barrier. I saw in action the success of the VFV’s mission statement:  “uniting caring citizens through international cooperation in the building and support of the Village of Friendship.”

One of the new experiences the young volunteers faced was providing evening English lessons for some of the older residents of the village as well as the cook.

“I feel like I learned more from their passion & enthusiasm for learning than they did from listening to our English lesson. At the end of the lessons, not only did our students feel accomplished with learning, but our group felt the positive energy from them as well. In the end we all bonded and ate together to commence the last lesson. We had brought cookies and they brought out traditional Vietnamese snacks such as rice crackers and dried fish. This potluck brought us all together perfectly as we compared stories of our very polar opposite, but always somehow similar lives.” – Emily

Like many young volunteers, the ARCC students found that they personally received a great deal from their experience.  They have a new perspective on their world and a refined sense of self.  They wish to continue their support for the Friendship Village in the future.

“I’m very grateful that the Friendship Village does exactly what it does, and that is, present the hope for those to grow and learn how to be better than they already are. That is why I feel so strongly about this organization, and I am deeply humbled that I was even able to stay there, even if it was just for a short time. Being partially Vietnamese not only motivates me to help, but personally strengthens my cultural bond to the Friendship Village.” – Emily

Welcome Springtime!

blossomThe Vietnam Friendship Village Project’s U.S. Committee — that’s us! — is a very small group of people, currently made up of eight core members (our board of directors), plus a few stalwart supporters and volunteers. Although we consider our group to be national, that is, we wish to be raising funds throughout the USA, most of us core members are grounded in the West: Judy resides in Alaska; Becky, Don, Dan and Bill in Oregon; Carl and Paul in Northern and Southern California respectively. Then there is Liliane, who sometimes feels kind of lonesome way over there in Maryland…

Our little nonprofit is also unique in that we have no office, no paid staff, and no physical assets to speak of. We meet monthly via conference call; once in a blue moon we try for an in-person meeting. We all do what we can to share tasks, and although some of us may feel spread thin at times, we are proud to be able to say our efforts on behalf of the Van Canh Friendship Village are 100% volunteer. The same thing can be said for our counterparts, the Friendship Village’s German, French, Japanese and Canadian Committees.

In order to boost our fundraising capacity, we have set a high — yet do-able — goal to raise $50,000 during the current fiscal year (Our year starts on October 1st.) At the time we set this goal, each of us board members committed to personally bringing in at least $1,000. My favorite way to do fundraising is by organizing public events, and I’m happy to report that on March 10, my friends and I managed to raise a total of $720 in Santa Cruz, California. (Details to be blogged sometime soon…) I am now looking forward to a second event in Portland, Oregon: a Springtime dinner benefit slated for the evening of March 21, the first day of Spring! Through good food, music, poetry and story-telling, we will celebrate the Fifteenth Anniversary of the Van Canh Friendship Village and the (approximate) Twentieth Anniversary of our U.S. Committee. All the details can be found on the flier below (click for downloadable half-page version). Please help us spread the word… THANK YOU and Happy Spring!

In Memoriam: David Rocovits

David Rocovits, a long-time board member of VFVP-USA, a.k.a. the U.S. Committee, passed away suddenly on January 5, 2013, of difficulties related to a blood clot. He was a good friend to the Viet Nam Friendship Village—a frequent visitor and one of its most dedicated supporters. He will be greatly missed.

David’s brother Dan has resided in Hanoi for many years, and after being introduced to the VFV on a visit to the city in the early 2000s, David made a point of visiting every time he came to Viet Nam, usually every year or two. He was invited to join VFVP-USA’s Board of Directors in 2007, and in 2010 he attended the biennial international meeting at the Friendship Village as the U.S. Committee’s official representative. Over the years, David documented life at the village with his photographs, many of which have been published in our newsletters and on our website. He was a creative fundraiser and brought in a large share of the contributions raised in the USA. Here is the bio Dave submitted several years ago for our Board of Directors web page:

David Rocovits received a BS in Civil Engineering in 1963 from Case Institute of Technology and has been a practicing engineer in Nevada since 1973. He was drafted into the army and served from 1964 to 1966 as a research engineer in nuclear weapons effects. Between 1968 and 1972 he backpacked throughout much of the remote region of Asia from Turkey to Taiwan, and developed a love and respect for the Asian people and their culture. He worked for the California Division of Highways and several consulting firms before going into business for himself, acquiring and restoring residential buildings and managing them as rental properties. Dave and his wife Amy, a native of Taiwan, have a daughter who is an attorney in Reno and a son who is a college student. Dave’s hobbies include photography, pistol shooting, and restoration of Borgward automobiles. Dave has visited the Friendship Village multiple times and enlisted many of his friends, family members and associates in his efforts to raise financial support for the project.

The Rocovits family asks that memorial donations be made to the Viet Nam Friendship Village. Checks should be made to “Vietnam Friendship Village Project USA” and mailed to P.O. Box 599, Arcata, CA 95518-0599.

NOTE: Below is a small gallery of photographs of David Rocovits, taken (with his camera) at the Friendship Village in 2008, 2010, and 2011. The solo pic is from 2010 when he represented our committee at the international meeting, as is the photo of him and Paul Wicker sitting on the bench that was arranged by Dave to memorialize Don Flaxman, a VFVP-USA board member who passed away earlier that year. Dave preferred eating alongside the children in their dining hall rather than in the guesthouse dining room. Of all our board members, Dave was the least “political” in terms of identifying as a “peace activist” or working for peace or against war in any organized way, but he really understood the importance of reconciliation. He always made a point of visiting with groups of veterans who happened to be at the village during the times he was there (with the help of an interpreter). I think part of his motivation was simply cultural exchange. He probably brought along the small photo album of his travels—the same one he shared with me when we were getting to know each other. But he undoubtedly also meant to create more positive perceptions of Americans in the minds of a number of these Vietnamese veterans, and in that I have no doubt he succeeded.

Come Sit at Our Table

US Committee table at Friendship Village

VFVP-USA members Paul Wicker, Becky Luening and Don Blackburn enjoy a meal at the Friendship Village.

As we get ready to turn the calendar page from 2012 to 2013, I want to thank all of our friends in the USA and elsewhere who have helped support the Viet Nam Friendship Village with a donation this year—whether $10 or $1,000 or more. Inflation continues to drive up the cost of food and other basic supplies around the world, including Viet Nam, so every dollar is appreciated.

If you have not yet given, I invite you to do so. Become part of our international community…come sit at our table. Make a donation to the Friendship Village today.

Whether it is time, labor or funds we donate to this project, we are all volunteers, but once in a while our contribution to the Friendship Village is rewarded. I felt like the recipient of a gift when I picked up this email message on Christmas Eve from our friend Long, who works in the computer classroom at VFV [edited slightly for readability]:

Dear Becky,

The kids and I  like to thank the international committee for your assistance and the pleasure you have brought to our lives. For us who were unlucky enough to be born with a disability, it helps to know there are people out there who understand and care about us. The gift you give us is not just a meal, but the great gift of the spirit, of sharing.

You are like the Santa Claus of the Vietnam Friendship Village.

I hope you will convey to your heartfelt charity my cordial words and wishes for good health as you continue your work in the new year.

Happy MerryChristMas from Long in computer classroom at the VietNam Friendship Village

Group photo in computer classroom

Members of the International Committee pose for a picture with computer class instructors and students. (Long is first person on left in front row.)

Flat Stanley Visits the Village

by Paul Wicker

When you see the title of this post, you may ask, who is Flat Stanley and where did he come from?

Well, Stanley was an ordinary student in Mrs. Stunkard’s Fifth Grade class at Paradise Professional Development School in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA until one day, while taking a nap, he was flattened by a falling bulletin board. But that did not stop Stanley. He knew that many children had to overcome physical disabilities to achieve their dreams.

Stanley had always wanted to travel, so his teacher put him in an envelope and asked me to him with me on some of my trips. In 2010 Stanley went with me to El Salvador in Central America. He traveled with other friends to exotic places like Turkey and Lebanon. When he returns to his fifth-grade classroom he always shows his pictures to his classmates and tells them about the wonderful people he has met.

This year when Stan heard I was going to Vietnam Friendship Village he begged me to take him with me so he could visit the residents and have his picture taken with them.

Flat Stanley with a Friendship Village friend

Flat Stanley with Ngo Hai Mai

Click here to see more photos of Flat Stanley at Viet Nam Friendship Village.

Click here to find out how to become a financial supporter of the Viet Nam Friendship Village.