At just 16 years old, while most girls her age were out roaming shopping malls or hanging out in parks, Penny, an eleventh grader at Saigon South International School, was choosing to spend her weekends working on a charity project aimed at helping the blind regain their sight.
Penny, whose real name is Pham Thien Tam, has spent the last few years waking up at 4:30 am each weekend morning to prepare for a long day with her mother and friends helping other at the Nguyen Trai Eye Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City.
The group’s project, named “See Again”, is aimed at raising funds for optic surgery expenses at the hospital so that needy patients are able to undergo the procedure free of charge.
The dream of light
Penny was first inspired to start See Again after volunteering at a cost-free optic surgery event held by the Ho Chi Minh City’s association for the poor.
Almost immediately, the then ninth-grader knew she wanted to follow suit.
“When they [the needy] removed their bandages and began to weep with joy as they saw daylight again, I was so happy!” Penny recalled.
Social charity and volunteering is somewhat of a tradition in Penny’s family, and the young girl had no problem handing over her pocket money in order to make even a small contribution to those in need.
But after a year of donating small amount, Penny knew she needed to think bigger and decided to expand her charity.
An average cataract removal surgery costs roughly VND10-30 million (US$426.83-1280.5), but thanks to a group of doctors who volunteer to operate on needy patients free of charge, the price quells down to VND700,000 (US$29.88).
Though the price drop is considerable, it still remains out of reach for many.
After calculating the amount of money she had saved and adding it to the cash her relatives were willing to donate, Penny declared she would do her best to help cover the cost of 500 operations in 2018.
Her father, Pham Duc Trung Kien, who himself has spent the last 20 years helping blind students attend college, convinced his daughter to double her goal to 1,000.
Determined, Penny began writing letters of appeal in both English and Vietnamese to everyone she knew, hoping at least a few would donate to her project.
During the fundraising process, The Vietnam Foundation helped connect Penny to a philanthropist who promised to double Penny’s fund, no matter how much she raised.
Finally, after earning enough money to fund her project, Penny turned to her peers at school to help direct and maintain the project.
Every Sunday, the team gathers at Penny’s house to discuss their next moves and craft the handmade items they sell as part of their fundraising efforts. The project has since gone viral at her school.
And their hard work has paid off.
Their humble starting goal of sponsoring 500 cataract surgeries was smashed when they exceeded their expectations and funded a whopping 2,2000 operations in 2018.
Hoping to keep up the momentum, the students at See Again have now set their sights on sponsoring 3,000 surgeries in 2019.
Pham Thi Nam, 76, from the southern province of Long An, still recalls visiting Ho Chi Minh City in 2016 to have her left eye operated on with funding from the See Again project.
“Vibrant life came back to me so quickly after the surgery,” she said.
“Had I not received treatment that day, I would have been blind for good.”
Catriona Moran, the head teacher at Saigon South International School, remarked that she is proud of Penny and her friends for their social service.
“I was there when they were drafting plans and preparing to launch the project,” Moran said.
“I was really impressed at their positive outcome, as they not only deliver the sight back to the needy, but also shower society with love and care.”
Despite her group’s success, Penny underlined that the current issue she’s dealing with is how to maintain the project in the future.
“Soon I will study abroad and my friends will graduate. Now, more than ever, we need to find aspiring underclassmen who are willing to take on the role,” she added.
Penny also revealed that after graduation she hopes to work towards becoming an ophthalmologist, a dream Penny has had since long before starting the See Again project.
Ever since Penny first found out that her father was suffering from an untreatable disease that will rob him of his eyesight and, the young student has been in a race to help as many people as she can who have been robbed of their sight.
To Penny, everything she’s done and everything she hopes to do is a way of ‘paying it forward’ and helping those in need.
And she feels as if she was born to do it. Even her name, Penny, is in honor of a woman in Colorado who spent her lifetime helping countless people in need, including her father.