By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
Veteran actress Shirley Jones and Betty Tisdale both understand what it’s like to be the matriarch of a musical family.
Jones portrayed Shirley Partridge, the mother of five children who sang (or more accurately, lip-synched) pop music at various venues in the 1970s TV show “The Partridge Family.”
Tisdale is the real-life mother of five sons — Patrick, Danny, Sean, James, and Neal — and of adopted Vietnamese daughters Xuan Fields, Lien Titus, Mai Lara Tisdale, Thuvan DeBellis, and Kim Lan Tisdale.
Betty Tisdale, 88, has 13 grandchildren.
She flew to Columbus, Ga. last year to hear former orphans from Vietnam sing. In unison, they sang “Life is but a dream” and other lines from the popular children’s song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
They also sang “Old MacDonald,” another song she had taught them when they were children.
“I felt like I had just come home,” Tisdale said about the 35-year reunion for Vietnamese orphans left behind during the fall of Saigon (now officially Ho Chi Minh City, though commonly referred to as Saigon).
Prevented from emigrating to the United States in 1975, they were placed in re-education camps.
“I had no contact with any of them,” she added. “I could not do anything for them, and, actually, I was afraid to for fear that they would be hurt.”
In 1975, the Vietnamese government told her that she was not allowed to take orphans over the age of 10 out of the country. Realizing many “were tiny,” she forged birth certificates and put many of the tiny but older orphans on two airplanes headed for the United States.
Jones has also portrayed Tisdale, herself, in the 1980 made-for-TV movie “The Children of An Lac.”
Filmed in the Philippines and written by Blanche Hanalis, it featured actress Ina Balin. The movie told the story of the single largest airlift of infants and children from one orphanage — 219, to be exact.
“I knew all of them,” said Tisdale about the reunion attendees. “There’s something about the An Lac children that I could spot anywhere. I think I could spot them on the street.”
Unable to visit Vietnam last year due to a visit to Haitian orphanages, she flew to Vietnam last month. She still remembers the Vietnamese orphans she saw in 2009. “I’m in touch with practically all the kids at one time or another. I’m their grandmother now.”
“I pay for my own trips, so I couldn’t afford two extended trips,” she emphasized.
Stops during her recent 13-day visit included two government orphanages and the Vinh Son Orphanage in the province of Kon Tum, which lies in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam.
Her organization, Helping and Loving Orphans (HALO), in the past, provided a library, computers, and bathrooms to its orphanages. This year, HALO began plans to construct a kindergarten and a playground.
Tisdale checked to make sure HALO’s cash donations are spent on needed projects at its orphanages. She is always happy to accept more from anyone interested in supporting HALO’s efforts. HALO “is dedicated to bettering the lives of orphans and at-risk children around the world, especially in developing countries.”
Building a well, a house for those affected by leprosy at the Dakkia Leper Village in Kon Tum province, and finishing construction of schools makes life easier for them, she says.
With her daughters Kim Lan and Mai Lara and a few of their friends, Tisdale spent almost two weeks handing out Dooley kits — small fabric bags named after humanitarian Dr. Tom Dooley, her role model. She filled the bags with such items as a toothbrush, small toys, and shampoo.
“The last time I was there was in 1995,” Kim Lan, HALO’s secretary, said. “We brought all kinds of things, [including] notepads, crayons, anything that can just be given to one child and that’s theirs.”
She noticed the orphans were “extremely polite” and stood in line to receive their Dooley kits.
“They would take one and run off squealing. You would see them with their heads practically inside these little bags saying, ‘What’s that?’ and sharing with fellow kids there.”
Kim Lan also noticed her mother got swept away at each orphanage.
“It’s as if they’re all hers,” she said. “She has incredible empathy for children in need.” ♦
For more information on Helping and Loving Orphans, go to www.bettytisdale.com.
James Tabafunda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.