Saigon, 1975 and the city is in chaos. In fierce fighting, the Vietcong routes the South Vietnamese Army and the government collapses. At the U.S. Embassy, U.S. citizens are quickly evacuated as thousands of Vietnamese beg to be evacuated to America as well, but most are left behind.
In the middle of this chaos Betty Tisdale somehow got 219 Vietnamese orphans to America and helped all of them find new homes with well qualified adoptive parents.
The story of Betty’s dramatic rescue of these children is told in the CBS television movie, “The Children of An Lac,” starring Shirley Jones as Betty. And I briefly told the story last week as well on
www.kazantoday.com. You can read it by clicking on “Archive.”
However 1975 was long ago. What became of Betty? Today, she is 85-years-old, an age when most people are retired, with some living in managed care facilities. But Betty never slowed down.
In 2000, Betty, a 5 foot, 1 inch dynamo of a grandmother, set up HALO – Helping And Loving Orphans, a one woman organization that raises money to help those in desperate need. She still jumps on airplanes and gets actively involved with orphans or with children in dire circumstances.
Betty helps support orphanages in Vietnam, Colombia, Mexico and Afghanistan. “There could be many, many more,” she said. “But I can’t raise enough money for more. In Vietnam, I have three orphanages plus a leper village plus another village where they need vocational schools.
“And I have garbage pail kids who work in the garbage dumps for 80 cents a day. The garbage trucks dump and the kids run over and pickup the recyclables like plastics. The more they pickup, the more money they make.” Because of Betty’s fund raising, 30 of these Vietnamese kids have scholarships to a private school.
“The kids still live in the garbage dump,” Betty said in frustration because she wants them out of there. “But now 30 of them can go to school, have clean clothes and showers and food. We pay the parents what the kids would have made and so they’re okay with it.”
In January, Betty returned to Luz y Vida (“Light and Life”) Orphanage in Bogotá, Colombia run for 200 disabled children by a Catholic nun, Sister Valeriana. When I asked for a story about a child there, Betty took a deep sigh, and then told me about 14-year-old Claudia.
“Her face is scarred and she has no fingers on one hand and she has no toes,” said Betty. “Her father had set fire to the house when Claudia was a little girl like 5 or 6.” Claudia has been in the orphanage ever since.
“She has what I consider a beautiful face, Betty said. “Her lips are gone and what remains of her nose is little and short. The rest of her face is all scarred. She has curly black hair, beautiful hair. She smiles and she’s very personable.” If Claudia’s family visits her, Betty hasn’t seen them. Yet she added with hope, “But I only go once a year.”
Then there is the Casa de Cuna (“House of the Cradle”) Orphanage in Uruapan, Mexico, run by Madre Rosita, which rescues children from the streets. Retired Nebraska attorney Jim Bruckner is their major fund raiser.
Working with HALO Jim built a library, installed computers so the children can learn to use them, pays a gifted teacher who grew up in the orphanage to educate them, re-did the dormitories, put in a safe and modern kitchen, rebuilt the bathrooms, built a playground and installed playground equipment and the list goes on.
One orphan, Sonja Ruiz and her little brother were dropped off at the orphanage by their father after their mother died. Sonja grew up there, and as a gifted student, was awarded scholarships and eventually graduated from law school. Today at 38, she is a successful attorney.
But until last year, Sonja chose to live in a tiny windowless room in the orphanage, helping to care for the children, and I suspect she also helped to fund that orphanage.
In war torn Afghanistan, HALO supports a vital physical therapy program. In one case, a little 9-year-old boy was forced to scoot around on his bottom until hip and ankle surgery and physical therapy allowed him to walk.
At the Allahoddin Orphanage in Kabul, 600 children shiver in the icy cold of winter because there is no electricity, no glass in the window openings, and its roof and walls leak rain. The children try to sleep at night with thin little blankets on them.
Betty is determined to improve the facility and to build a vocational school so the children, when they become adults, will be able to support themselves. And she takes great joy in seeing some U.S. servicemen and women volunteer their off-duty time to play with the children and give them toys and clothing.
HALO also donates in the U.S.: After 9/11 contributions were made to the police and firefighters of New York City and after Hurricane Katrina, for rental housing and child care for its victims.
Where does Betty get the money to donate? She lives in a little old house in Seattle and depends on her Social Security check and on her savings, so she is not a wealthy woman.
“I’m the most penny pinching person in the world,” she replied with a chuckle, having grown up as a child of The Great Depression. “I’m a scrounger. I cut out coupons; I go to Costco and buy gas. There isn’t anything in my house that isn’t from a yard sale or was second hand.
“Except the TV and cell phone and my computer and digital camera which were given to me by my family because I would never buy these things new,” Betty added.
Betty flies using mileage people donate to her and she sleeps in $8 a night hotels or sometimes in the orphanages, wherever she can find a place to lay her head. All of the money she raises is donated as she absorbs her own modest overhead.
“I don’t get large amounts: $25, $10, $100,” she said. The Priest in our local cathedral sends me $25 a month.” But Betty is always speaking to groups whose members donate to her and others donate from the media coverage she continues to receive.
For example, the newly published Chicken Soup for the Adopted Soul included an article about Betty and the publisher and coauthors will donate a portion of the proceeds of the book to HALO.
If you would like to help, you can send a check to HALO at 2416 2nd Avenue North, Seattle, WA 98109 or contact Betty at www.BettyTisdale.com. Whatever few dollars or airline miles you can spare could make a big difference in the life of a child in desperate need.