Bio: Betty Tisdale, 92, is the founder of H.A.L.O (Helping and Loving Orphans), which helps orphans and at-risk children around the world, including Vietnam.
Biggest accomplishment: Tisdale orchestrated “Operation Babylift,” a plan to airlift 219 orphans at the An Lac orphanage out of the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), days before the communist regime took over. Tisdale and Madame Vu Thi Ngai, the orphanage director, placed the children, all under 10, in “sturdy” cardboard boxes and loaded them onto two military freight planes. The children landed in Fort Benning, Ga., on April 12, 1975.
“It was definitely the biggest accomplishment of my life … The odds were stacked up against us.”
Biggest challenge: When Tisdale reached Saigon with the plan to evacuate the orphans, she approached the U.S. ambassador and appealed on behalf of the children. He offered to get her an Air Force plane to fly the children out of the country, but only if she could produce birth certificates and a legal name for each child.
That posed a problem: Orphans in Vietnam were denied legal birth certificates and didn’t have legal names. “So I ran to the local hospital, got some blank birth certificates and made up a lot of names and birthdays,” Tisdale recalls.
After arriving in the U.S., the An Lac children were adopted around the country. Five years ago, on April 30, 2010, Tisdale and several of the orphans, now in their 40s, held an emotional reunion at the Nguoi Viet Daily News office in Westminster.
Inspiration: Dr. Tom Dooley, a U.S. Navy physician, worked with the children in An Lac. He also set up jungle clinics in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. “Dr. Dooley … overcame a lot of odds and did it all by himself. He gave me hope that I, too, can make a difference.”
What values are important? “Saving a human life is the most valuable thing to me.”
Can’t do without: “Prayer. It makes the impossible possible.”
What’s next: Tisdale lives in Seattle and continues to run her nonprofit. “I’d like to do more work in Tibet. Not many people are aware of the genocide that’s happened there and how many people are suffering.”
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Refugees thank rescuer of Vietnamese orphans
Vu Tien Kinh believes he is 35 years old now.
The public school music teacher in Connecticut has always celebrated his birthday in January, but never knew his real birthday.
Kinh was one of 219 young orphans at the An Lac orphanage who were airlifted from the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, days before the communist regime took over on April 30, 1975.
Kinh and others who were part of “Operation Babylift” say they owe their lives to the one woman who masterminded and achieved that near-impossible feat – Betty Tisdale.
“If Betty hadn’t rescued me, I would have been dead,” Kinh says plainly.
Kinh was one of the speakers in Westminster’s Little Saigon April 30 during Tisdale’s “town hall” with the local community.
“I don’t think I’ve received so many hugs in my whole life,” Tisdale, 87, said, after attending the event organized by Nguoi Viet Daily News.
Thirty five years may have passed. But the warm reception in Little Saigon showed Tisdale that no one had forgotten what she had done for the helpless orphans at An Lac.
Smitten at first sight
Tisdale still remembers the first time she set foot into the An Lac Orphanage in Saigon. An Lac in Vietnamese literally translated to “A Happy Place.”
But Tisdale recalls that it was anything but.
“When I stepped into that orphanage in the sweltering heat of Saigon, I knew my life as a swinging single woman in New York City was over,” she said. “This was it. This was my destiny.”
Tisdale first went to Vietnam in 1959, touched by a book written by Dr. Tom Dooley, a naval doctor, who himself did a lot of work with the children in An Lac and set up jungle clinics in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
The conditions at the orphanage were dire, to say the least, Tisdale recalls. The rusted cribs with chipped enamel and no sheets, hammocks made of rags strung between cribs, two or three babies crammed into one crib – everything reeked of desperation.
The babies were malnourished, their bodies covered with sores. Still, she says, their bony fingers reached out to her.
“I simply couldn’t erase these little ones from my mind and heart,” she said.
She started helping Dooley and volunteered her secretarial skills. But when he died of cancer one day after his 34th birthday, Tisdale took over.
That’s precisely when her journey – or adventure – began.
Building a relationship
Tisdale visited the orphanage every year at least twice. She and her husband, Dr. Patrick Tisdale, adopted 10 children from An Lac. Five boys came first and then five girls.
Tisdale got help from American soldiers to refurbish the orphanage. She brought boxes of Tang so the children would get their share of Vitamin C.
But when she returned, she saw that the boxes were still intact. She asked Madam Vu Thi Ngai, who owned and ran An Lac, why they hadn’t been given to the children.
“It’s funny, when you send things from here, you tend to assume people know what to do with it,” she said with a laugh.
As it turned out, Ngai did not know that the powdered Tang had to be mixed with water.
During her visits, Tisdale got close to several children. But she also had to watch many children die, most of them babies.
“We took their bodies in shoeboxes to the cemetery,” she recalled. “It was heartbreaking.”
Still, love always overrode the pain for Tisdale.
“Sometimes, it seemed like there was not much I could do,” she said. “But I felt that if I could just hold those little babies for five minutes, they would at least have had that much love.”
When the communist takeover was imminent, Tisdale left her 10 children at home, packed her bags and left for Saigon.
“I knew I wasn’t going to leave my babies there,” she said. “But at the time I had no idea how I would get them out of there.”
Before she left, Tisdale called Pan American Airlines. The fee was exorbitant. She called the general at Fort Benning in her home state of Georgia. When he did not return her calls, Tisdale called the Secretary of the Army. When he did not get back to her, Tisdale called his mother.
“I told her I was leaving for Vietnam and begged her to help me,” she said.
When Tisdale reached Saigon, she saw the U.S. ambassador and appealed on behalf of the children. He told Tisdale that if she could produce birth certificates and a legal name for each one of the babies, he could get her a U.S. Air Force plane.
“So I ran to the local hospital, got some blank birth certificates and made up a lot of names and birthdays,” Tisdale said.
Orphans in Vietnam were denied legal birth certificates and did not have legal names, so she did not have much of a choice. Along with Madam Ngai, Tisdale loaded the 219 children in baskets and took them to the air field.
When they were told the baskets were unsafe, Tisdale located sturdy cardboard boxes, placed the children in them and strapped them in. The two military freight planes bearing the precious cargo reached the Philippines, where Tisdale got a phone call from the general’s mother that a school in Fort Benning had been converted to care for the children.
The planes landed in Los Angeles early April 1975 and reached Fort Benning on April 12, 1975. As soon as she arrived, Tisdale contacted Tressler Lutheran Adoption Agency for help.
Within one month, each one of the An Lac babies had found a home.
“She made a difference”
Jason Robertson, now 39, was a toddler when he was rescued by Tisdale.
In March, he organized a three-day reunion for the An Lac children with Tisdale to which 65 came.
“It was an extremely emotional reunion for all of us,” he said. “What Betty did for us 35 years ago is something not many would have dared or even attempted to do.”
Life was not all easy for Robertson after he got here. His adoptive parents lived in rural Alabama, which was predominantly white.
“When I got there, there were still separate waiting rooms for blacks and whites,” he said. “I’ll just say I wasn’t the most popular kid in school.”
But segregation and identity crisis are smaller problems compared to living in a country where opportunities for survival were minimal, he says.
Robertson is now a motivational speaker.
“I hope to inspire people just as Betty inspired me,” he says. “She taught me that one person can make a difference.”
The journey continues
Tisdale says she is “lucky to have had the children” in her life.
“The children of An Lac changed my life,” she said.
Tisdale, who now lives in Seattle, still runs her nonprofit, Helping and Loving Orphans. In addition to Vietnam, she has continued her work in impoverished countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Afghanistan and most recently in Haiti.
At the Westminster town hall, Tisdale met an orphan from An Lac she hadn’t seen in 35 years – Baly Bafour. Now 50 years old, Bafour, a Garden Grove resident, could not get in the plane with Tisdale because he was considered “too old” at the time to be adopted.
“It broke my heart to leave my Baly behind,” Tisdale says.
Bafour said he escaped the orphanage after the fall of Saigon and found his way to France and then moved to the United States.
“I saw in the Vietnamese papers that Betty was going to be here,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
On a recent morning, Bafour hugged Tisdale as he came to visit her at the Garden Grove hotel where she was staying.
As he sat down to show her pictures of his wife and children, Bafour looked up and asked Tisdale: “Can I call you mom?”
Tisdale laughed as her eyes welled up, and nodded.
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