Long Beach student, business owner raise funds for toddler's surgery

Friday, February 26, 2010

Millikan High senior Lauren Briand and Socheat Nha in Briand's Long Beach home on Wednesday. (Jeff Gritchen/Press-Telegram)
Socheat Nha at Lauren Briand's home. Behind her is Nha's father, Phin Ken, and her cousin, Kenha Heang, right. (Jeff Gritchen/Press-Telegram)


By Greg Mellen, Staff Writer
Long Beach Press Telegram

Want to help?
  • What: Garage sale fund-raiser
  • When: Saturday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. weather permitting.
  • Rain date Saturday March 6
  • Where: 2324 Palo Verde Ave.
  • Information: Bracelets available from Peter Chhun 818-640-6191.
LONG BEACH - A student and a Long Beach business owner are raising money to help save the life of a Cambodian toddler and support the fledgling local nonprofit that finds treatment for destitute children.

When Lauren Briand went to Cambodia, she was looking for a project. At Angkor Children's Hospital, her project found a purpose. Now that purpose has a face.

Lauren and her mom, Debbie, were part of an educational and humanitarian tour to Cambodia led by Cal State Long Beach professor Alex Morales. Lauren was hoping to find something that would inspire her for her upcoming senior project at Millikan High.

The 17-year-old found it when the group went to Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap and saw scores of children in need of help. Already looking ahead to a future in medicine, Lauren found a natural fit in doing something to aid those in need.

However, it remained somewhat abstract - the idea of helping an anonymous child in a country far away whom she likely would never see.

That abstraction disappeared when Hearts Without Boundaries, a Long Beach nonprofit that helps children with heart ailments that can't be treated in Cambodia, decided to bring Socheat Nha to the United States for surgery.

Heather Duncan, owner of Blue Windows, a lifestyle and boutique store in Belmont Shore, had no idea what was ahead when she chose Hearts Without Boundaries to be a beneficiary of a portion of store sales in February. Certainly she never expected that two of the children the nonprofit helps would show up at her shop.

Socheat suffers from a defect known as tetralogy of Fallot. In addition to a large hole in her heart, Socheat has a second hole and other problems.

Possibly due in part to her heart ailments, Socheat weights half the median for an American girl her age.

While the heart condition is treated with relative ease in the U.S., usually in infancy, for the destitute in Cambodia it means a hard life and an early death.

Now, Lauren's QUEST project, raising money to help pay for Socheat's journey, is very real. And the Blue Windows charity drive is a little more personal.

That point was driven home Wednesday when Socheat, 2, and her family paid a visit to the Briand house and later to the Belmont Shore store.

As Socheat played with several toy ponies and chattered away happily in Khmer, Lauren and Deborah were all smiles.

"This makes me want to work SO much harder," Lauren said as she watched Socheat play. "She's a beautiful, vibrant little girl who can use the help. It's inspiring to me."

Lauren has several events lined up to help raise money for Socheat, including a garage sale Saturday, weather permitting, or the following Saturday in case of inclement weather.

There is also talk of a benefit concert in May or June.

Lauren also bought more than 1,000 yellow and white rubber bracelets that say "Help Heal a Heart," which she sells for $2 apiece. More than half of the allotment is already gone.

"A lot of people like them," Lauren said of the bracelets. "Especially when they hear the story."

Lauren has been selling the bracelets at school and community events and Debbie has had them at Carver Elementary, where she teaches fifth grade. More are available at Sophy's Cambodian and Thai restaurant in Long Beach.

Although Debbie said she told students and staffers at Carver about Socheat and her daughter's project, it struck a chord when she brought in newspaper accounts and pictures of the girl.

"(The students) were very excited, because they could see it was this kid," Debbie said. "Once they heard the story and knew it was a real kid, they were more willing to help."

Each month this year, Blue Windows will set aside portions of sales for local charities. In February, 10 percent of sales in jewelry go to Hearts Without Boundaries through Sunday. Duncan expects the amount raised be somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000. Duncan is blogging about her experiences online at http://bluewindows.net/journal/.

She picked Hearts Without Boundaries in part because it is a small nonprofit and in part because of the obvious tie-in between hearts and Valentines Day.

"Obviously yesterday was very special," Duncan said of meeting not only Socheat but Davik Teng, the first girl Hearts Without Boundaries brought to the U.S. for surgery. "To go from just picking a charity to meeting the girls is exactly why I did this."

Duncan gave Davik a necklace with hearts and Socheat a stuffed animal.

"This was particularly special," Duncan said. "It's not every time you do something like this that you get to see the face of what you're raising money for."

Peter Chhun, founder of Hearts Without Boundaries, is touched by the response to Socheat's arrival and the return of Davik, whom he first brought to the U.S. two years ago for repair of a quarter-sized hole in her heart.

"It's a great feeling to have all these kinds of support from the community," said Chhun, who recently retired as a news producer at NBC to devote all his time to Hearts Without Boundaries. "I feel so blessed. It really shows that people still care about these destitute children."

Debbie marveled at the circumstances that came together to turn a chance trip to Cambodia into so much more, something she says is life altering.

"It almost makes me feel like (Socheat's) a part of my family now," Debbie said. "Who knew that eight months (after visiting Cambodia) Socheat would be in our house?"

greg.mellen@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1291


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