Woman starts charity to help Vietnamese children

Lifestyles: Thu Le founded LeWaiss Rescue Mission, which helps put children in Vietnam through school

of the GatewayJanuary 1, 2014 

Thu Le came to the United States by boat in 1975. She escaped Vietnam just ahead of the fall of Saigon. Now, she’s giving back to her country, one child at a time.

Le founded the LeWaiss Rescue Mission two years ago after her husband died. For $60 a year, donors can put a Vietnamese child through a school.

Le personally delivers the tuition money and school supplies to the rural area where the children live. If donors go above and beyond the suggested donation, Le uses the money to purchase monthly food for the elderly and infirm in the village.

Le said it’s important that those who deserve education but cannot afford it are recognized for their academic work.

“You can tell that they’re good kids,” she said. “To me, they deserve to get help.”

Donors get a hand-written thank you note from the children they support. Le keeps a big, three-ring binder with all of the letters back and forth, from sponsor to child. She translates each letter from Vietnamese to English.

Le thinks back to her childhood when she looks at the students’ penmanship.

“It’s like my writing,” she said. “It’s how I was trained.”

Le bustles through her house. She designs quilts, makes pillows and embroiders panels — all to sell for her charity.

She has trouble finding frames for some of her embroidery. It’s unique to her country.

Extremely detailed, the panel is embroidered on both sides without knots showing. It takes a special standing frame to show off.

Those that are framed, in Vietnam, are sitting on Le’s dining room table. She designs quilts in a labyrinth pattern. Every Monday, a few friends come over to help Le craft.

Her escape from Vietnam was risky, but she said it was better than staying. With two children in tow and a third on the way, Le came to a country with a new culture, language and people.

It was scary, she said, but what did she have to lose?

“Otherwise,” she said with a laugh, “they kill us anyway.”

Her first husband was involved in politics. Later in life, she met Greg Waiss, a former Marine who served in Vietnam. He grew to love the culture and, before he died of cancer, Le and Waiss visited the country.

It was in the wake of his death that the charity was born.

On a trip in 2012, Le met Zet. From a rural town in Dien Khanh, Zet left school when he was in the 11th grade. His family had no money for shoes.

After he struggled through beatings and muggings in the city, trying to earn money, he became a Buddhist layperson and traveled between the city and the countryside.

Zet opened Le’s eyes to the poverty in the countryside. They combined to found the LeWaiss rescue mission.

Le is ready to release a book based on her life called “Almond Eyes, Porcelain Complexion: A Vietnamese Refugee’s Story.” It will be available on Amazon.com. Proceeds will go to help the children she supports.

An auction will be held to raise money for the mission. There is a suggested $35 donation. The auction will run from 3 to 7 p.m. May 31 at the Asia Pacific Cultural Center, 4851 S. Tacoma Way. Donations to the mission can be made at www.LeWaissRescueMission.com.

Le has had recent health problems, and she hopes someone will take over the rescue mission. She’d like to see the legacy live on after she’s gone.

For now, she wants to spend her life helping as many people as possible.

“I feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’d better hurry,’ ” she said.

Reporter Karen Miller can be reached at 253-358-4155 or by email at karen.miller@gateline.com. Follow her on Twitter, @gateway_karen.

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