Sponsored child Tran receiving a generous gift from her sponsors in Vietnam

When sponsors Diane and Ken Matsuura learned about their sponsored child’s chronic health condition and need for monthly blood transfusions — as well as her commitment to her education — they felt inspired to give a generous gift above and beyond their monthly sponsorship.

Sometimes, growing up, Tran would start having scary symptoms toward the end of the month. She would feel dizzy and tired. She wouldn’t have much energy. She would grow feverish, and her skin would turn pale.

For any child, growing up in poverty can be scary. You worry about things other kids don’t have to worry about. Like having enough to eat for dinner. Or losing your home because your parents can’t afford rent. Or in some cases, being forced into early marriage or having to drop out of school to help earn income for your family.

But when you have a chronic health condition like Tran’s, growing up in poverty can literally mean life or death.

Tran was born with thalassemia, a blood disorder that causes your body to have less hemoglobin than normal. It can cause anemia and fatigue because you’re not getting enough oxygen to your cells. Severe anemia can damage organs and lead to death.

When you have a chronic health condition like Tran’s, growing up in poverty can literally mean life or death.

Tran’s thalassemia is so severe that she needs monthly blood transfusions. But her parents often struggled to cover the cost of her transfusion at the end of each month. Tran would grow increasingly weak and dizzy while her parents worked overtime or borrowed money to pay her hospital fees. And the longer she waited for a blood transfusion, the more iron that built up in her blood.

Tran’s parents were plagued with worry about their daughter.

But then in 2018 — when Tran was 14 — Holt’s team in Vietnam learned about her family’s circumstances and enrolled her in Holt’s child sponsorship program. Two long-time Holt sponsors, Ken and Diane Matsuura, began sponsoring Tran — and immediately, her life began to change.  

The Matsuuras’ sponsorship support helped cover the cost of Tran’s monthly transfusions, as well as some of her school fees and supplies — easing the financial burden on Tran’s parents. Tran didn’t have to wait as long for a blood transfusion each month, and her health improved.

Tran felt hopeful about her future.

Then, in early 2020, a dangerous contagion began to spread through Tran and her family’s community — filling hospitals and shutting down businesses and schools. By March, the COVID-19 pandemic had come to Tran’s village in the rural Mekong Delta region of Vietnam.

COVID, Poverty and the High Cost of Medical Care

Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the lives of millions of people — no matter their socioeconomic status. But for families already living in poverty, like Tran’s, in a country without a widespread social safety net, like Vietnam, the COVID crisis was even more dangerous.

“The complete shutdown order by the government of Vietnam pushed a number of families, especially daily earners, into losing jobs and income,” explains Hang Dam, Holt’s director of programs in Vietnam. “A shortage of food and lack of proper medical care was an issue when residents were not allowed to get out of their house.”

For an impoverished family raising a child with a chronic health condition, the pandemic was especially scary. How would they afford medicine, or a costly hospital visit when they couldn’t afford food? Scariest of all, what would happen if their child contracted COVID?

In Tran’s family, she was not the only one her parents had to worry about.

Sponsored child with chronic health condition thalassemia and her mom in Vietnam
Tran (right) with her mom outside their home in rural Vietnam.

Thalassemia runs in families and is more common in certain parts of the world — including Southeast Asia. Tran was diagnosed when she was 5 years old. Her older brother, Luong, also has thalassemia. He was diagnosed when he was 4.

Like his sister, Luong worked hard to graduate high school despite his limited health. He, too, needed monthly transfusions to manage the iron levels in his blood. Luong saw how difficult it was for his parents to cover the cost of both his and his sister’s monthly transfusions. Their family has a small rice farm that brings in about $260 U.S. dollars each year. Up until the COVID pandemic, their mom also sold vegetables in the market, earning about $3 per day.

Most months, their parents were short on money. After their rice harvest, their dad would work a second job as a manual laborer to help cover both Luong and Tran’s blood transfusions.

After he graduated, Luong was determined to find a job so he could pay for his own living expenses as well as his monthly transfusions. Through an acquaintance, he found a job working in a garment factory in Ho Chi Minh City that covered room and board — and paid him $87 per month. Luong could only work about 15 days each month due to his health. When he got tired, he would leave work to rest or return to his hometown for blood transfusions. But he had a position of responsibility and managed to keep his job despite his long absences.

Then, in March 2020, COVID hit Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City went into lockdown. The factory shut down operations and, like so many people around the world, Luong lost his job.

Luong returned home to his family’s rice farm, where the pandemic had also affected his family’s ability to earn an income. Due to strict quarantine orders, his mom couldn’t sell vegetables in the market anymore.

Thankfully, in Vietnam and other communities where Holt works around the world, sponsors and donors gave emergency gifts — making it possible to distribute additional nutrition support, health and hygiene kits, and other essential supplies to families that lost jobs and income due to the pandemic. In some hard-hit communities, Holt distributed cash transfers to help families pay rent and avoid eviction. In Vietnam, Holt sponsors and donors also made it possible to provide additional cash support to help families in our programs pay for basic necessities.

But with the global scale of this crisis, Holt’s emergency COVID funds could not cover every expense that families faced — such as a costly medical procedure like a blood transfusion, and the additional medical care costs they incurred during the pandemic.

With the global scale of this crisis, Holt’s emergency COVID funds could not cover every expense that families faced — such as a costly medical procedure like a blood transfusion, and the additional medical care costs they incurred during the pandemic.

As Hang explains, “Patients must pay additional costs for COVID tests and even room charges for isolation prior to their admission to the hospital for a blood transfusion.”

Suddenly, Luong and Tran’s parents needed to pay for both of their children’s monthly blood transfusions — and on less income than they earned before COVID impacted their community.

They had no choice but to go into debt to cover the high cost of medical care for their children.

If they caught COVID, Luong and Tran were also at heightened risk of a bad outcome. Because of the blood disorder they inherited, they both had weakened immune systems. Due to social distancing measures in Vietnam, the country’s blood bank was also in short supply.  

It was a truly fearful time for their family.

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A Sponsor’s Generous Gift

When Tran’s sponsors, Ken and Diane Matsuura, learned about the challenges she and her family faced, they knew they wanted to do more.

Holt sponsors for more than 20 years, the Matsuuras always sponsor five children at a time. As their sponsored children turn 18 and graduate from the sponsorship program or leave for other reasons, they will begin supporting another child who needs their help. And although they have a special connection to Korea — the country from which they adopted their youngest daughter, Cindy — they sponsor children from all over the world.

As Ken says, they sponsor “wherever the need is.”

Learning of Tran’s healthcare needs and the high cost of her monthly blood transfusions, the Matsuuras knew that sponsorship alone wouldn’t ease the economic burden on her family — or protect her from the scary symptoms she had to endure each month while waiting for her parents to come up with the money. With Tran nearing the end of high school, they also worried about what would become of her once she turned 18 and aged out of Holt’s child sponsorship program.

Donors Ken and Diane Matsuura post with the family who received their gift
In 2015, Ken and Diane Matsuura also provided the resources for another family in Vietnam to build a safer home.

“We saw that wow, she has this condition that requires medical attention once a month,” Diane explains. “I think the thing that really impressed us is that she’s getting older and will soon age out of the system in terms of support.”

What most impressed them, though, was Tran’s incredible dedication to her education and achieving her goals in life. Even though she misses four days each month while she stays in the hospital receiving a transfusion, Tran excels in her classes. Her social worker says she is well-liked by her teachers and peers because she is so friendly, patient and hard-working. She loves to write poems and stories and is gifted at drawing — often participating in art competitions at school. After finishing her homework, she helps with household chores and then goes to help take care of her grandparents.

“Although there are many difficulties now, I know that many kind hearts of Holt, Mr. Kenneth and Mrs. Diane Matsuura, are by my side. I promise that I will study well, try my best for my future so that I can reciprocate your trust and help towards my family and me.”

Tran, who received a generous gift from her sponsors to support her education and medical care

But above all, Tran’s social worker shared with the Matsuuras that Tran views school as the most important priority in her life, and she sees studying as a joy and a motivation for her to overcome the limitations caused by thalassemia. Even on days she feels too tired to ride her bike to school, Tran will ask her mom to drive her to school by motorbike. She doesn’t want to miss any tests or fall behind in any of her lessons.

“She has inspired us because of her perseverance despite her medical condition,” Diane says. “We would love to support someone who is trying hard.”

In July 2021, the Matsuuras donated $3,000 to go toward Tran’s medical and school fees, and they plan to continue supporting Tran through college graduation.

When Tran received this generous gift, she wrote a thank you letter to the Matsuuras sharing how she planned to use their gift — divided between her monthly blood transfusions and the cost of tutoring to help her study for important high school graduation and college entrance exams. The remaining funds would go into a savings account to cover college tuition fees.

“Although there are many difficulties now, I know that many kind hearts of Holt, Mr. Kenneth and Mrs. Diane Matsuura, are by my side,” Tran wrote in her thank you letter. “I promise that I will study well, try my best for my future so that I can reciprocate your trust and help towards my family and me.”

It’s the Child That Inspires You

A year has passed since Tran received the Matsuuras’ gift. In that time, a fourth wave of COVID-19 shut down businesses and schools and made it difficult for her family to earn income. But thankfully, because of Tran’s sponsors, her parents didn’t have to worry about covering the cost of Tran’s monthly blood transfusions. Tran has maintained stable health and worked hard to finish her final year of high school.

She is now studying for her final high school graduation exam and hopes to major in elementary education — starting college in October 2022.

Because Tran’s monthly transfusions are covered by the Matsuuras, her parents have not had to work as hard to pay for her brother Luong’s transfusions. Luong is in better health, and after shutdowns lifted, he was also able to return to work! He is now living in the city and independently supporting himself.

“She has inspired us because of her perseverance despite her medical condition. We would love to support someone who is trying hard.”

Diane Matsuura, Tran’s sponsor

Tran and Luong’s parents feel deep gratitude toward the Matsuuras for supporting their daughter during this difficult time for their family. “[Tran] would try her best to continue on the path of education to have a better future,” they wrote to their daughter’s sponsors. “We would like to wish you good health and success in life so that you can continue to spread your love and help for children with special circumstances to have condition to keep their schooling aimed to a bright future.”

From their perspective, the Matsuuras only see themselves as helpers and credit Tran and her family for doing the hard work of improving their lives.

As Diane says, “It’s the child that inspires you. But … their caregivers, everyone is giving them the opportunity to grow in healthy ways. So that to me is the inspiration to others to help. Because that’s what we’re doing, we’re just helping.”

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