As she has done in each of her 25 years in the United States, Trang Moreland, of Dennison, returned recently to her hometown in Vietnam to give notebooks to children at her former school, located in Binh Chanh, a suburb of Ho Chi Minh City in the southern part of the country.
The charitable effort grew from her own experience of not having her own notebooks as a child. As one of five children raised by her widowed mother, she never sought money from the woman who toiled daily in a rice paddy and never received a paycheck.
"My mom struggled, didn't have money to buy notebooks for me," Moreland said. "I just usually go after a friend and ask for a piece of paper. And I would write from top to bottom, real small."
Even when she did have a notebook, she would use one for all subjects, rather than using a different one for each class.
She said the project fills a need within herself.
"I know I do it for the kids, but I feel I do it for me," she said. "I always hungered and I wanted that notebook so bad."
During a recent interview at her Uhrichsville salon, Moreland said that when she gives the notebooks to the children, it feels like she is giving them to herself.
"When I see the kids get it, I just feel like, 'Well, that's at least one thing they don't have to worry about.' "
On a two-week trip to Vietnam that ended Jan. 13, Moreland, husband Jay and their children, Melissa and Rick, gave away 5,000 notebooks to 250 children. The paper goods -- bought in Vietnam -- cost $1,600, according to Moreland, who uses her own notebook to keep an account of the donations that individuals and groups make toward the projec. One salon patron donated $300 she received as a birthday present.
Other contributions came from churches, including those where Moreland has spoken about her life, which began with an impoverished childhood in war-torn Vietnam, and changed in a big way when she came to Dennison to marry Jay. She has worked in fast food, owned a restaurant, opened a beauty salon, invested in real estate and raised two children. She became a regular on the local motivational speaking circuit even before the recent publication of her autobiography, "Just Smile and Say Hello."
She said she appreciates the support others have given to the annual charitable endeavor that she started on her own.
"I just want to thank them for donating because I wouldn't have been able to do this many without their help," Moreland said.
In the first years of the project, Moreland gave notebooks to all the students at her former school, Tan Nhut, in Binh Chanh. But the focus of the charity has changed along with the community.
"People are moving to the city because the city's grown now," she said. "A long time ago, people didn't have a job. But now, people have a manufacturing job. They don't make a lot of money, but they do have jobs."
Now Moreland distributes notebooks -- 20 per child -- only to those from poor families, as identified by the school administration.
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The community's recent growth has led to construction of a new school that is larger than the one the Morelands previously visited. That meant that on this year's trip, there were many children who never had seen the American benefactors.
Pupils at the older, smaller school had seen Trang and Jay Moreland hand out notebooks with their children Rick and Melissa, now 24 and 21, respectively, since they were in diapers.
"The new school, they were in shock when they saw Rick and Melissa," Trang said. "They're thinking like the kids are like movie stars or something."
The schoolchildren crowded around Rick and Melissa to ask them for their autographs, and went to shake Jay's hand. Melissa, a senior fashion design student at Kent State University, signed scraps of paper for the children who crowded around her. Rick, a cook at Gavin's on the Square in New Philadelphia, took a break from the crowd in a quiet room, his mother said.
The trip countered Moreland's fears that her children would be "too American" because of having been raised with this country's many comforts.
Rick, who has worked since the age of 14, gave to his grandmother, uncle and aunts the spending money he had taken to Vietnam.
Just as the Moreland children showed gratitude for their blessings by sharing their time and treasure with schoolchildren half a world away from their home, the recipients of their generosity demonstrated their appreciation when they received the notebooks.
"Every single one of them said, 'Thank you' in English," Trang said. "Their teachers must be teaching them."
Reach Nancy at 330-364-8402 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @nmolnarTR
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