When Nouphone Chindavong saw in the news that nurses did not have enough masks, she knew she wanted to help out. She and her cousin Orasa Ken decided to make fabric face masks with a pocket for filters to donate to healthcare workers using the materials from her shop.
Chindavong, a seamstress who owns Tremont Tailoring & Alteration in Upper Arlington, Ohio, had closed her shop a week before Ohio Governor Mike DeWine mandated a “stay-at-home” order on March 23.
She spends 12 hours each day with Ken and others in the back room cutting, pasting, sewing, and ironing the masks. She says they can make around 80 masks a day. They have donated almost 400 masks so far to her husband’s workplace at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, to local nursing homes, and doctors offices.
Chindavong, originally from a southern city in Laos, came to America through the sponsorship of her uncle in 2003 in hopes of achieving the American dream.
For the first three years, she took English as a second language class while working as a seamstress. “When you come here, you have to learn a lot [about the American culture and language],” Chindavong said.
While learning the language, Chindavong said she was touched by the kindness shown to her. “They like to help people who cannot speak English,” Chindavong said. “ When you go to work, the American people, they like to help people. That’s what I’m happy about.”
Dream Business Put on Hold
It had been Ken’s dream to open her own nail salon after working as an esthetician for many years at other salons. In January of this year, she and her business partner opened AXO Nails & Skin in Hillard. But as business was beginning to pick up, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic put a halt to everything.
Ken closed her salon on March 15 and had to lay off employees. She was glad to be able to help Chindavong with the masks. “I don’t know how to sew, but I’m cutting the fabric and all that,” said Ken. “We have an assembly line going.”
Although the 12 hour shifts are long, Ken says, “I feel when someone needs something, whether it’s little things that we do, you’re helping, you’re contributing something.”
“There have been times when I needed help and I was able to find it, there’s always somebody out there. And I feel like, if you can help, then help. That’s my philosophy.”
Ken is also from the same city in Laos as Chindavong. She and her family escaped the country after the communist Pathet Lao took over in 1975.
Ken’s father was a government employee of the Royal Lao government and had to flee the country to avoid being arrested and possibly persecuted. “I remember some neighbor coming to tell us, we were having dinner, and they were telling my dad that he had to leave, some soldiers were looking for him,” Ken said. “We didn’t see him again until a long, long time.”
Ken, her mother, and her three siblings did not attempt to escape Laos until a couple of weeks after her mother had given birth to her younger sister. “I remember having to get dressed at dawn and they were layering us up,” Ken said. “Just traveling in the woods at night.”
Ken said she still remembers the experience even though she was only 5 years old at the time. “When you go through something like that, you don’t forget it,” Ken said. “It’s always in your head.”
In the jungle, they could only eat berries, bugs, and any other fruits they could find. Ken says she remembers “drinking water from the leaf, [from] the raindrops.”
Ken’s mother had to use the little money she had to bribe people to help them get to Thailand after failing the first time. It would be months before they would reunite with her father, but “somehow God reunited us again,” Ken said.
Ken and her family were sponsored by a church in Pennsylvania in 1978, and moved to Ohio in 1981.
Ken says her parents have instilled in her “compassion and faith.”
“I’m grateful every day no matter what the situation is,” she said. “I always look at the positive side of things.”
Free Meals for All Children
Having grown up on free school lunches, Lauren Le told her husband, Dat Le, that they had to do something after learning about schools closing a week before the shelter-in-place order was signed by Governor Tim Walz on March 27.
Lauren and Dat are owners of a Vietnamese restaurant, Que Viet, in Minneapolis. The restaurant has been part of the community for 40 years, when Dat’s grandfather bought it in 1980.
Lauren said they decided to offer a large container of chicken or pork fried rice to any student who stopped by the restaurant. Lauren said they have given out about an average of 55 containers of fried rice a day.
Lauren noticed that some of the parents felt uneasy asking for the fried rice. To help resolve that, she told parents they just need to say they were there for an order for ‘Kylsea’ (pronounced Kelsea) and the staff would know what to do.
Lauren said if they ever had a daughter, they would have named her Kelsey. “That’s kind of my go-to,” she said. “Everything that I like, I say it’s Kelsey.”
Both of her college sons are home and helping at the restaurant as they have had to let go of half of their staff. “We always tell them to help out, but I don’t think they’ve ever had to experience it the way they are now,” Lauren said. “I think it helps them feel like they can help out just a little bit.”
For Lauren, seeing parents come in with their children and knowing they have food to eat has helped her overcome her concerns of getting the virus in keeping the restaurant open during the pandemic. “When this first happened, I was crying every day,” Lauren said. “It has actually helped me. Something good was coming out of it.”
Giving back and working hard are two important qualities for the Les. For Lauren, her mother is her inspiration. Even in her 70s, Lauren says her mother is making, “100 face masks a day” and giving them to Lauren’s brother’s clinic, to nursing homes, and anyone who needs it.
“She’s always like you have to be grateful and you always have to give back,” Lauren said. “No matter what I do, I’m always thinking of what I can do to help out here or there.”
Dat and Lauren left Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975 to flee oppression and hardship. Dat’s father was a pilot, and right when Saigon fell to the communist Viet Cong, they were already at the airport waiting to fly out.
Lauren and her family were not as fortunate. They had to take a small boat with three other families to flee Vietnam toward the end of the 70s. “We were supposed to go somewhere else, but my dad said we ended up in Malaysia,” Lauren said.
Many Vietnamese people who escaped on a boat were either killed or taken by pirates. The boat Lauren’s family was on got robbed at least three times by pirates, “but we miraculously all survived,” Lauren said.
Dat came to Minnesota in 1978, and Lauren in 1981. Both families were sponsored by churches in Minneapolis.
Dat and Lauren have been overwhelmed by the community’s support. Many people have called to help by donating money or giving $100 tips after hearing they were offering free meals to children.
“I just believe that if you do good to yourself and try to help others as much as you can, hopefully good things will happen to you,” Lauren said.