Kim McCluskey first saw the three Vietnamese girls during a sea-kayaking trip he was guiding last year. They were living on a chunk of Styrofoam floating in Ha Long Bay off the northeast coast of Vietnam.
“It was a block of Styrofoam about 10′ by 10′, with some sticks bent over and a tarp over it. How they made it through the monsoon season, I don’t know,” McCluskey said.
McCluskey, 56, supervises adventure travel trips for Piragis Northwoods Co. in Ely. He first learned about the plight of the three sisters during a trip to Ha Long Bay in April 2003.
“Their mother had died, and their father had sold their home, run off and left them on the raft,” McCluskey said.
Vu Huy, a Vietnamese man who owns the tour company with which Piragis works, said the girls were thought to be 15, 11 and 9. To earn a modest living, they would knock oysters off the limestone rocks in Ha Long Bay, keep a few for themselves and sell the others so they could buy food.
Many fishermen and their families live on floating houses in the bay, McCluskey said.
McCluskey told his paddling clients about the girls, and they immediately chipped in $200 for the girls. Sally and Bob Neill of Ogden, Utah, were among the clients.
“We were in kayaks and floating by,” Sally Neill said. “We knew of them and had the story explained to us while we were there. You could see the situation they were living in. It was pretty bleak, floating around on pieces of Styrofoam. They really had nothing.”
In September, McCluskey returned to Ha Long Bay leading another sea-kayaking trip. There were the girls.
“They were still there,” he said. “I told Huy: ‘This bothers me.
We gotta do something. What would it cost to build them a house?’
“I don’t know how to say it. It was a heart thing. I just could not walk away from it.”
Huy told McCluskey that $3,000 would build the girls a good floating home. Huy started the process of getting government permission for the project. McCluskey came home and began raising money.
“I sent an e-mail to everyone on my (trips) list,” he said. “The Ely Echo did a front-page story on it. The Girl Scouts held a bake sale and raised $150.”
Money began to roll in.
“Little old ladies I didn’t know would come up to me at the grocery store and give me $10. They’d say, ‘This is for the girls,’ ” McCluskey said. “Past clients sent me money. People in the office gave me money.
Checks came in from everywhere.”
“I was delighted that Huy and Kim had arranged to help,” said Sally Neill, whose family contributed to the fund. “It takes such little money to help in a big way.”
By November, McCluskey had the $3,000.
“By December, they had a house,” McCluskey said.
Huy presented the girls with their new home. Although McCluskey wasn’t there, he understands it was an emotional moment.
“They couldn’t understand it,” McCluskey said. “They just started crying.”
In an e-mail to McCluskey, Huy wrote: “First of all, from my heart, I would like to say thank you very, very much for all you had done for poor little girls. It was very touching when the house is given to them, tears from the little girls, tears of thanks and touched I would like to send it to your golden heart. I myself, very proud of having a friend like you. God bless you, your family and your friends.”
For the first time in 18 months, the girls had a real home with a roof over their heads. But the story doesn’t end there.
McCluskey also takes his clients hiking into remote villages in the jungles of Vietnam. He knows that schools and school supplies are scarce there.
“I’d go buy $50 worth of books and pens and pencils and hike ’em into the jungle,” McCluskey said. “I thought if I had enough money, we could build a school.”
McCluskey has created a nonprofit company to raise money. He calls it Sun In My Heart.
The name came to him on his way to his family home in Arkansas this winter, with sun streaming through the window, warming his chest.
McCluskey realized that’s the same feeling he got from helping the Vietnamese orphans.
“We all live in opulence and don’t realize what the rest of the world lives like,” he said.
McCluskey wants to build a school in a village “up north” in Vietnam, where he knows about 70 kids have no school. He hopes to raise $10,000 to $15,000 to build a one- or two-room school. Already, Huy has received permission from the government to build it. The government will provide teachers to staff it, McCluskey said.
McCluskey doesn’t have another trip to Vietnam scheduled until September.
“I’m hoping by then we’ve raised enough money to break ground for the school,” he said.
McCluskey has always enjoyed the trips he has led to Ha Long Bay. But raising money to help children in Vietnam has changed his perspective.
“It’s given me a meaning to be there,” he said.
McCluskey has been touched by people’s generosity. The story is getting out. Reader’s Digest plans to include an article about the Vietnamese girls and their new home in its July issue.
Meanwhile, McCluskey isn’t through dreaming.
“An orphanage is next,” he said