Today, Grace’s huge smile lets you know she is calm, and safe. A Vincentian volunteer at The Most Holy Rosary St. Vincent de Paul Conference in Antioch, California. As a Vincentian, Grace helps her neighbors in need receive food, clothing, furniture, and other essentials denied to them by the tyranny of the moment. If you ask Grace why she does volunteers, she will tell you about feeling obligated by her faith – and by her family’s history.
“My family – me, my seven siblings, and my mother – were some of the first refugees to land in the United States from Vietnam in 1975,” Grace said. “We went from the Vietnam to the Philippines to Guam and then to Pennsylvania, all within 4 months. We had nothing except the clothes on our backs and each other – no money, no ability to speak English, it was terrifying.”
Grace said her father was unable to escape Vietnam with them, as he was in the military. Grace said she and her family were terrified they were never going to see their father again, as the task of tracking someone down in another country in 1975 seemed impossible. Grace said she was only 10 years old, and she still remembers the fear and worry she felt for her father.
Grace and her family spent only a few months in the refugee camp, before being sponsored for housing in Hayward, California. Grace said she will never forget the first two nights they spent in Hayward, as she said they transformed her life forever.
“The first night we were in Hayward, we were so alone. It was just my mother, my siblings and I in an empty house, with just the clothes we were wearing,” Grace said. “But then the next night, a group of men from the local St. Vincent de Paul group at St. Bede’s showed up – I think someone told them a refugee family had moved into the area – and they had food, clothing, and furniture with them. We didn’t even speak English, and couldn’t talk to them, but they made sure we had everything we could need. We were so grateful, and still are today. Soon, St. Vincent de Paul and the Church became our new extended family.”
Grace said the kindness showed to her family touched her in a way she still carries forward today. She said her family began attending Church every Sunday – her mother would make them walk the 45 minutes it took them to get to the church without fail. Soon their faith was rewarded, when the Red Cross helped Grace’s family track down and reunite with her father.
“My father had escaped to Malaysia,” Grace said. “Here we were in Hayward, and he was in Malaysia – there was a chance we would never see each other again! But the Red Cross helped us find him, and we were able to sponsor him to come to the United States. And then our family was back together, and we had this whole new extended family at the Church, life started to look a lot more promising.”
Faith and community had always been a cornerstone of Grace’s family. Her parents were both orphaned at 12 years old by the ravages of World War II. Grace’s father was raised Catholic, a minority in the primarily Buddhist country of Vietnam. Grace said her mother was raised Buddhist, but seeing the Catholic Church care for war orphans in the wake of World War II had a profound affect on her mother. Now, with their family once again on the receiving end of the love offered by people of faith – Grace said her mother and father wanted to find a way to repay their good fortune.
“We didn’t have much. My older sisters would work cleaning houses, and my brothers would all do landscaping. My father found work at a local factory helping make nails,” Grace said. “But despite not having much, my parents made sure our doors were always open. My mother would let other Vietnamese refugees come in any time of day for a hot meal, or somewhere to relax, or sometimes just to sit and talk in Vietnamese – because they felt so disconnected from their homes, culture and families.”
Grace said her parents decided to open their home up to other refugee families for more than just visitations. Soon, there were 5 refugee families living in the 3-bedroom home Grace’s family shared.
“We were so cramped,” Grace said! “But St. Vincent de Paul and the Church had shown my family so much kindness, my parents felt like they had to pay it forward and help as many people as they could.
“My parents have both always been very musical people,” Grace said. “And they decided they wanted to do something to help show their appreciation to the people that opened their arms to us, and help their fellow refugees at the same time. So, in 1978 we became the Vietnamese Partridge Family and formed a family band!”
Grace said her family would tour the local churches, performing traditional Vietnamese music for the churchgoers and their fellow refugees. Soon, Grace said, they began renting out venues and donating the proceeds their concerts made to World Vision, which launched an effort to help refugees in 1978.
“We had a lot of fun bringing out culture to the churches and people that helped us so much,” Grace said. “And I think it really helped some of the refugees who came over without their families. Often, they would come sit and cry in our home. I think our music helped them feel connected to their families again.”
Grace said her own son went on to attend The Most Holy Rosary school in Antioch, where she is a Vincentian today. Grace said she gets a sense of great spiritual satisfaction by helping people in need. Grace said she cannot help but remember how good it felt to have people open their arms to her family and help them when they first came to the United States, and she wants to repay the spirit of that kindness however she can.
“St. Vincent de Paul has done so much for my family, I just feel like I have to pay it forward,” Grace said. “I promised my father I would always share our family’s story if it might help other people, and I feel like it can.”