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Huy Nguyen: Bellman of Hope and Dreams
on March 8, 2012
Huy (pronounced WE) Nguyen’s mother escaped Vietnam on the last day of the war during the fall of Saigon in 1975. Her own mother sent her back into the city from Saigon Port on a bicycle to find her 3 remaining family members—her father and two brothers. Evading North Vietnamese patrols both ways, she returned with her younger brother atop her handlebars. She was just 17. Later that evening with several of her immediate family members still missing, Tu-Anh Phan, along with 150 other refugees, set themselves adrift into the black of the South China Sea…
Huy Nguyen’s life has been about honoring the sacrifices of his mother, leading him as a bellman at Downtown Portland’s Monaco Hotel, to creating one of the largest local toy drives in America.
I’m curious, so why toys instead of a vital necessity like food?
On a human level, toys feed the souls of children.
What’s it like for parents not to be able to buy toys for their kids?
I have seen cases of shame, sorrow, tears, as well as depression. I think most parents, when they come to the realization that they cannot provide for their children with something as simple toys during the holidays, it hits them in profound way.
Do you feel like you have something to prove either to yourself or your mom? I mean, do you feel burdened or pressured by her sacrifice?
Well, my mom raised me to be the best that I can be, to take advantage of every available resource that’s been given to me. My mother having been a refugee from Vietnam, shared a lot of stories about what she went without growing up, having only two sets of clothing throughout her entire childhood. She lived in a household that would struggle every day. It makes me reflect and think about the advantages that I had growing up here in America. I have the opportunity and the freedom to pursue my dreams.
What is Metro Toy Drive and where do the toys go?
Metro Toy Drive is a non-profit organization that collects donations, toys and books for kids year-round. What we do with the toys is we give them to other organizations that can reach out directly to families in need, and, we act and serve as a promotional advocate to help raise collections and drive action within the community.
Was the recession the specific catalyst that caused you to start the Toy Drive?
It happened during the holiday season of 2009. I was sitting down at the kitchen table with my mother. At that point my real estate business—I was a real estate broker for almost five years—started to take a dive with the economy and there were many months where there wasn’t a paycheck. Instead of just rolling with the wave of the down economy, I told my mom that I wanted to do something to help out, that I wanted to do something to really connect with the community. So I asked my mother and her suggestion was, “You should do something for kids.”
I connected with a local toy drive charity and started volunteering for them. Eventually, I decided to start my own organization and broaden the scope.
What is it like, on a human level, to give a kid a toy?
It is incomparable, it really is. You are giving to a child something that only they have a full appreciation for. When you are a child, the most exciting thing, the most motivational thing in your life, outside the love of your parents, is usually the toys that you receive. Someday they will grow up, and the hope and the happiness—or lack of it—that they experience as children will have a huge impact on what they become. The generosity of others, to some degree shapes who these kids are and their values. Believe it or not, it gives them something to believe in. They will always remember it. Think about the toys you yourself received as a child and try to imagine your past without them.
Tell me more about how the recession impacted you personally and your desire to start the Toy Drive?
It made me take a really introspective look at myself, my worth, what I was capable of. Sales went down. Income started to disappear, and then regular paychecks that a realtor would expect back during the boom disappeared. At that point it makes you think and realize—wow, am I really living within my means or are my means changing now? Or, what is the point to my life?—there is going to have to be some changes here.
Did your business actually fail?
I wouldn’t say that it failed all on its own. There are people who can succeed, and then obviously there are those who are still thriving today in business; but to me it wasn’t the return for what I wanted to do with my life. It made me think, is this what I want to continue on with for my life, to pursue? And it wasn’t for me.
Do you feel that the recession and the drying up of your business was a blessing in disguise?
Yes. I absolutely agree with that. I believe that without a doubt.
My life is definitely different now. In reflection, it is better overall. The income isn’t there, but the purpose is. The results of what I do on a day-to-day basis, on a weekly and monthly basis—to make a difference—is something that I am proud of and that I can talk about. When I was completely in the business of selling homes, it was great to have more money, but nowadays… Now I sit down at the dinner table with my mother, I meet with friends, I sit down with you, for example, and I chat and I discuss the Toy Drive and what it does to help others—and that is something I am very proud to bring to the conversation. I didn’t get that reaction from being successful in real estate. It has really changed the way I look at life.
How has it changed you?
It is something that doesn’t escape your mind. You don’t forget it. Once you’ve given a toy to a child, and you’ve given from your heart and walk away with that emotional high, and the look on their parents’ faces… I’ve never experienced that in selling a house or doing a real estate deal.
Do you think that other people that have been hit hard by the recession, if they went out and found something like this where they could give of themselves and get a response, that it would help them in a spiritual way and would improve their outlook on the future?
Absolutely. I absolutely believe that. A toy drive is—it’s so special. And the fact that it’s so simple to do, yet the results of what a person receives by giving isn’t comparable to a lot of other things in life. It fills you and it makes your financial status seem trivial.
Your family is Buddhist. How has this shaped your worldview?
Buddhism advocates the relief of suffering. In a huge, huge way the Toy Drive really does that for kids. To alleviate the emotional stress that families are going through, to reduce human pain, is in line with my beliefs. That’s really what it’s all about.
Are there any similarities with being a bellman and running a toy drive?
Ultimately, service to others is the greatest reward in life.
Are there other ways in which those hurt by the recession can benefit from volunteering?
During times when work is not out there, volunteering is one of the best ways of moving forward. It keeps you fresh, it clears your mind, it heightens your creativity and it makes you productive so you feel good about yourself. That kind of person gets hired.
I’ve seen people who experience the recession complain and wallow in it, saying, why am I going through this? and they think that the world owes them something. Then there is another group of people, who say, well, I don’t have anything right now, but I am going to go out there and make a difference regardless, and I am going to see if I can help out my community. I am going to go out there and do something.
Even as volunteers, at some point or another they are eventually going to be gainfully employed again. But now they have something that they have worked on that they can be proud of, that they can share with a potential employer. Yes, I was helping on a great cause, even when I was perhaps being affected by the recession and work wasn’t so plentiful. But they are doing something productive nonetheless because that’s what work is all about—bringing value into your marketplace. By volunteering, you are still bringing value into your marketplace by helping others who can’t help themselves.
What is it about your mom’s influence that most drives you?
I know that she has never ever given up herself in life despite all the challenges that she has gone through, and there have been many, starting with a war-torn environment. If a woman is that strong and incredible and can keep going on even today, I can’t see myself not giving it my all.
Is there a type of person that is more likely to donate toys?
It’s across the board, but you are going to find people with very little means donating, and that means so much when you see it. I have seen families with kids who didn’t have much, and they gave the very gifts that they received for Christmas. They went ahead and turned around and donated their wrapped and unwrapped gifts right back to the Toy Drive. It’s magical.
Is there anyone that you would like to acknowledge that has helped you?
Of course, my mother, my family, and our biggest partner, our friends at Starbucks. They have helped so many kids on a grand scale. Also, our dear friend and chairman of our board, Greg Cox, and our board members as well.
What is your relationship with Starbucks?
Starbucks is an immense supporter of our cause to help others. By serving as collection points throughout the entire metro area, they are a huge proponent of collecting toys and supporting our mission.
How many Starbucks do you work with?
Every company-owned Starbucks store in the Portland Metro area—that’s about 150 locations. They will be participating in the Metro Toy Drive and collecting donations at all their stores. It goes into the outer region as well—Starbucks will be collecting as far as Medford, Eugene and parts of Washington—but in terms of a direct influence, it is the Portland Metro area.
Do you need more help—either volunteers or partners?
One of the greatest things that I hope our organization will be known for, in addition to helping children year-round, is creating a viable vehicle for children who want to help other children. One of the programs that we created is called “The Child Hero Program.” We are looking for partners, companies, who can help us with resources to make this program work, to give children in our community an opportunity to help out other children. We would love to teach the values of service and giving. If children can learn it at a very young age, then when they become adults they will be more compassionate, more oriented towards others, and more service minded. These are also the values of any for-profit business. It makes for better people.
Anything you want to say to the people out there that may be considering donating toys this year?
Yes, I do want to say that for everyone who is reading this, whether it is Metro Toy Drive or not, I would highly, highly encourage that you make a donation to support the cause of getting kids in need a toy this holiday season, no matter the organization you contribute to, as we are all of the same purpose.
Do you think your mom is proud of you?
I think so. I hope so. I hope she continues to become more proud as our organization continues to grow.