Church of God member begins effort to help Vietnam orphans

By Mac Overton

A United Church of God member who lives in Ellensburg, Wash.--after returning two years ago to visit Vietnam, where he had served with U.S. forces during the Vietnam War--has begun an organization to help orphans in that country.

Dennis Koselke, 49, said that in the winter of 1997 he began thinking about going back to Vietnam. Last April, to help relieve the plight of Vietnamese orphans, he founded SEACAP, the Southeast Asian Children's Assistance Project.

"It just kept pressing me harder and harder, and I realized I had to make the return trip," said Mr. Koselke, who served in the Navy Seabees, a construction battalion, in what was then the Republic of South Vietnam from 1968 to 1972.

Mr. Koselke made friends with some South Vietnamese citizens while serving there, and, among other things, he wanted to see how they were faring.

"It's hard to explain, but I had to tie up some loose ends," he said. "There were just some personal things I had to tie up or find out. There were some people I knew. I wanted to go back to see if they were still alive."

He also wanted to see the land in peacetime.

Friends long gone

"The other thing that was pressing on me was I felt there was a need," he said. "I remembered orphans and widows, and I assumed there would still be a need there, and I wanted to explore that possibility, especially since I'm going into children's-counseling psychology."

Mr. Koselke is a full-time student at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, majoring in psychology. After earning his bachelor's degree, in September he entered the graduate program in counseling psychology.

On his recent trip to Vietnam, Mr. Koselke didn't find who he was looking for: the friends who had resided near the Cambodian border in the late 1970s when the Khmer Rouge invaded and killed 5,000 civilians.

"I think almost all the people we knew are probably gone; I couldn't find them. That part I had to leave undone. But then I traveled the whole length of the country."

During the war Mr. Koselke befriended many Vietnamese, including children.

"I remembered the little children, and they helped me several times," he said. "Sometimes they would warn me of danger. But I just came to like them. I got to know them as human beings. Most of our military people saw them as not human."

Although his friends from the war were South Vietnamese, on his visit last winter he met several former Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army veterans.

"I met everyone from Viet Cong to generals in charge of the defense system," he said. "I even met a diplomat who met with Henry Kissinger in the Paris Peace Talks."

Mr. Koselke attempted to visit all the orphanages and relief organizations he could find from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to Hanoi and back.

"I found a great need in that country: a tremendous need for social services, for assistance, from education of kids to medical help to Band-Aids and vitamins."

Orphans are numerous in Vietnam, he said. "There are kids who have lost their parents to sickness. They might have one parent left. In the cities some people are quite wealthy, but the average income is $300 per year."

When many Vietnamese children are 9, 10 or 11 years old, they feel compelled to go to cities to try to earn a little money. They then get trapped in the city, they get stolen from, they are abused, and their parents can't even afford to come and find them.

"We're not talking a small city. Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, is somewhere between five and seven million people."

He found the country to be quite productive agriculturally, and tourism is a major industry in the cities.

The capital of Vietnam, united since the fall of Saigon in 1974, is Hanoi. The country has about 79 million people, most of whom were born after the war.

Motorcycle travel

On his way north, Mr. Koselke stopped in the city of Hue, where a great battle was fought in 1968.

"I befriended a former North Vietnamese Army [NVA] soldier and his wife at a streetside cafe," he related. "I spent a couple of days there, and I asked him if he could show me some orphanages.

"We spent a day or two traveling on his motorcycle. He would take me out to various orphanages. We found three big ones. This is difficult to explain, but a U.S. veteran riding on the back of a former NVA soldier's little Honda was just incredible."

Mr. Koselke visited a small Buddhist monastery on the outskirts of Hue where Buddhist nuns take care of about 150 orphans and other young children.

The former NVA soldier made introductions, then Mr. Koselke entered a dark room with about 30 people seated.

While drinking tea, Mr. Koselke and his hosts talked about world peace. A nun who was apparently the director talked about the residual effects of the war. She said children are still injured by stepping on mines planted during the war, which the Vietnamese refer to as the American War.

Mr. Koselke talked about the future, when peace will reign.

He also visited Hanoi, where he felt welcome in all the orphanages and relief centers he visited. He said no one asked for any kind of assistance.

"If they did, it was more implied, and they're extremely resourceful," he said. "Most of them are managing what they have very well."

Mr. Koselke has established SEACAP as a nonprofit organization in the state of Washington to help with relief efforts. Its board includes Mr. Koselke, two university professors and a Vietnamese student.

SEACAP focuses its efforts on three organizations Mr. Koselke visited in Ho Chi Minh City. Its main project in Vietnam is the Open House Shelter for children in the Can Gio district.

"We are committing our efforts to help feed, clothe and provide basic needs for 67 children there, 23 of whom are orphans," he said. "They are children from a very poor, rural tidal area that is unlike other parts of Vietnam. The local residents include crocodiles, deer, otters and monkeys. This mangrove swamp covers about 1,400 square kilometers. Their families live in the mangrove forests and protect the trees from unlawful cutting and fire damage.

"Each family lives in a remote location, and the government has given them responsibility for about 80 hectares of forest. They can live on the land free of charge and also receive a small amount of money for their work. They are very poor and lack many necessities like fresh water. The water in this region is salty or brackish; during the dry season, drinking water must be purchased from their meager wages.

"They also lack proper food and medicine for protection against malaria. Because of the salty soil, the people cannot grow most types of fruits and vegetables, so they generally have a poor diet."

Mr. Koselke said the area was replanted after defoliation during the war by Agent Orange.

Funding for these 67 children was being provided by a European group, but the Europeans ceased helping at the end of September, diverting their funds to the Kosovo region.

"It would seem that we arrived at the right time to help these kids," Mr. Koselke said. "On Sept. 1 we purchased and delivered 1,000 kilograms of rice, along with some clothes, toys and other items for the children."

Dependent on contributions

He said all the items were greatly appreciated.

"Our initial commitment, which is always dependent on the contributions we receive, is to cover at least their required 800 kilograms of rice per month, plus additional vegetables, fruit, fish and poultry to supplement their diets. We also want to provide some decent clothes for the kids. This will be about $500 per month for the bare basics. Eventually we hope to cover most of their needs at a total cost of about $1,200 per month. That's about $18 per child per month--very cost effective."

A volunteer regional coordinator for SEACAP's Vietnam operation, Lam Hoang Oanh, purchases and delivers these items every month. Mr. Koselke said the semiretired woman "definitely knows how to get things done and for the best price. She also has a strong dedication to helping these kids in need, so we know exactly where the contributions go and how they are being used. I think this is very important for potential contributors to understand."

He said the Open House Shelter also has an urgent need for improved toilet and shower facilities.

"These kids have to shower with only an outside hose," he said. "The toilets consist of two wooden enclosures with a plastic curtain for privacy."

One of SEACAP's smaller projects is helping an agency called EFD, Education for Development, which works exclusively with street kids.

"They teach them the basics; they help with medical problems, that sort of thing. They also try to work with kids to get them to a point where they could be self-sufficient and safe."

"Street kids" in Vietnam differ from American street kids, he commented.

"These kids don't have earrings, tattoos and orange hair, and they're not doing drugs. By and large they're mainly rural kids who got trapped in the city, and they're trying to make it. Most of them are willing to work hard. They shine shoes; they sell lottery tickets and post cards."

SEACAP helps EFD by paying six months of wages (at about $50 per month) for a social worker who assists the street children.

Another of the smaller SEACAP targets is the Warm Shelter for Girls in Ho Chi Minh City.

Twenty to 30 young people between the ages of 12 and 17 live there.

"Many have been raped or beaten regularly," Mr. Koselke said. "Some of them have had to run away from their homes because their parents have tried selling them to husbands in neighboring countries or forced them to beg or work as prostitutes."

These girls in many cases have suffered severe trauma.

"If it weren't for the Warm Shelter and the care they receive there, in some cases they would be forced into prostitution just to survive on their own. Twelve-year-old girls should not be faced with these difficulties.

"At the Warm Shelter they have several caring women to help them. The girls at the shelter are receiving a basic education and getting vocational training. They are also slowly beginning to learn to trust and smile again."

SEACAP has delivered limited financial aid to help the Warm Shelter with transportation costs. This allows the girls to contact friends, siblings and other extended-family members who are safe to contact.

SEACAP hopes to help them soon purchase a water-purification system, which will cost about $200.

Form and substance

Mr. Koselke, who was baptized in 1973 after leaving the military, joined the United Church of God, an International Association, when it formed in 1995.

He felt moved to act to help the Vietnamese orphans because "I think many of us are growing just a little bit tired of form without substance."

Many Church of God members, he observed, go through certain rituals, attending Sabbath services and keep the feast days, which is good. But the Bible contains many scriptures about helping the poor and doing good works.

Worldwide Church of God founder Herbert W. Armstrong reached into Thailand and Sri Lanka to help with projects there, Mr. Koselke noted.

He also cited work by United elder Victor Kubik of Indianapolis, Ind., among Sabbatarians in Eastern Europe and the work of Legacy Institute, founded by Leon Sexton of Rowlett, Texas, in Thailand and Myanmar.

"It's kind of interesting how these things are cropping up," Mr. Koselke said.

When Mr. Koselke travels to Vietnam, he pays everything out of his own pocket, and no board members take anything from donations.

"Every dollar that comes in goes directly to the orphans."

He returned in September after seven weeks in Vietnam and "solidifying our relationships with governments, organizations and leaders."

In Vietnam "these contacts and relationships based on trust and mutual respect are very important.

Many times heartfelt appreciation was expressed for SEACAP's concern and help for the children in need. Strong family ties, a stable society and conservative values are still important in Vietnam."

Government employees and social workers are concerned about the problems of poverty, lack of adequate opportunities for young people and an increase in social ills, and they welcome help, said Mr. Koselke.

The biggest problem invariably seems to come down to a lack of financial resources to provide the necessary assistance and opportunities for those with the greatest need.

No welfare departments exist in Vietnam. "If they don't make it, they starve."

For more information, check out the SEACAP Web site, Write Mr. Koselke at or 1204 B St., Apt. G, Ellensburg, Wash. 98926, U.S.A. Or phone him at (509) 933-1680.

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