While the chemical weapons and scorched earth policies of the Vietnam War may have been in America’s rear view, one in four Vietnamese children under the age of five still suffered from malnutrition. One in every six was underweight. Half of Vietnam’s 1.3 million disabled children didn’t have access to education. Only 6% of them completed high school. And nearly half of all households were run by people who hadn’t even completed primary school.
But beyond the lack of education, the poverty, the birth defects, and the emotional scars of those left in the fallout, Ben saw more than war victims and a lucrative new tobacco market. He found the Vietnamese people friendly and hospitable, and working hard to improve their lives despite epic hardships. Most importantly, he saw the vast potential
in the children, who— despite being just skin and bones— offered to shine shoes or sell anything they could get their hands on to make their lives better. If only they had the chance.
In 1998, returning to the U.S. for his official retirement party, Ben was anxious. His problem? He didn’t play golf. And caught between unfathomable freedom and the dread of inertia, he worried that he wouldn't have enough activities to keep him busy.
Taking no chances, no sooner than he blew out the candles on his cake, he decided to launch his own nonprofit organization
— Children of Vietnam
(CoV). That’s right. At 65-years old, while the rest of his peers were perfecting their chip shots, Ben Wilson set out on a mission to end poverty in Vietnam by investing in the educational needs of its children.
Shuffleboard and bingo would have to wait as well.
For the next ten years, Ben unleashed his energy on the world. Partnering with local communities, his grassroots charity began helping Vietnamese children achieve their fullest potential in every way possible. From education to nutrition to housing, Ben had all irons in the fire.
In 2008, while researching international children’s charities, I stumbled across the Children of Vietnam website, as well as several articles on their programs. I was intrigued by the work Ben was doing, and even more intrigued to discover another hyperactive, workaholic, Type A who didn’t know the meaning of the word relax. (We are so rare.) The fact that he was 75 years old with three decades on me was all the more mind-boggling. So I reached out in an email, curious to know more.
When Ben welcomed me to tag along on his upcoming trip to Vietnam, I considered it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch this guy in action, and revel in the presence of my new spiritual guru.
From the moment I met Ben at the Ho Chi Minh City airport— where he came zooming in on a motorbike— I knew I was in for a wild ride. But now, after experiencing the plethora of CoV programs in action, I’m not only awed. I’m overwhelmed.
In just five days we visited orphanages where CoV provided everything from new buildings and structural renovations to food and milk programs.
We attended ribbon-cutting ceremonies of new CoV-built kindergartens in rural areas.
We visited hospitals where CoV provided medical assistance and limb prostheses to disabled children suffering blindness, missing limbs, and struggling with the deforming effects of Agent Orange.
We announced to families living in tin-roofed shacks wrapped in plastic bag siding that CoV would be replacing these hovels with permanent houses.
We visited CoV after-school programs that gave street children a shot at education.
We awarded CoV scholarships and observed tutoring programs that helped impoverished high school kids get into college.
And we watched as four peasant families were told they wouldn't have to watch their kids die of heart complications because CoV had raised the money to pay for their surgeries. (Not a dry eye in the house during this event.)
But of the many programs that CoV spearheads, the most socially innovative is the bicycle program. In a region where school buses are scarce to non-existent, bicycles not only help rural kids make the miles-long trek to and from school faster (so they can spend more time helping support their family farms instead of dropping out), but they tap into a powerful force within their hearts and minds.
Psychologically speaking, how children feel about themselves plays out in everything they do, as well as the subconscious vision they have for their future. Every experience in their formative years— good or bad— contains magical moments able to shape their identity for a lifetime. Children not only need adults who believe in them and who give them opportunities to learn and grow— but finding their power within these opportunities allows children to thrive in ways far greater than the sum of the parts.
To the 19 boys and girls waiting in breathless anticipation at the bicycle-awards ceremony, these weren’t just toys lined up across the stage. They were literal and metaphorical vehicles to self-reliance. Symbols of the promise that CoV saw in them.
And Ben Wilson knew it. The psychological empowerment of a child gliding across the countryside on his brand-new bike— with his shiny bell, colorful backpack, and “Look out world, here I come” determination in his eyes— was enough to reset his trajectory.
Being watched in awe and admiration by farmers in the fields as she races off to school was enough to fortify a student’s belief in herself to change the world.
And with every push of the pedals, these kids emerge from the dark shadow of history into the light of a future where they believe anything is possible.
By the time the 19 students rolled out of the ceremony hall, sailing around the courtyard on their shiny new bikes, they indeed felt powerful. Important. Badass. They also felt the seriousness of what they were expected to deliver. And Ben— like anyone from his generation— knew they would.
Born in the Depression-era 1930s, Ben grew up in a world where nothing was taken for granted. At home, children were expected to work hard and contribute. They weren’t chauffeured to school in heated school buses with Wi-Fi (yes, they have that now). They trudged miles to school every day. In the snow. Up hill. Both ways. And they told the stories of their struggles like a soldier wore a badge of honor because their efforts made them feel invested. Being recognized for this made them feel powerful. Badass. And what made the Greatest Generation so great.
Against the paradox of modern America— where adults lament that young people have life too easy
yet don’t give them enough opportunities to earn their way— Ben Wilson is creating a generation of resolute and persevering leaders who have a firm hand in shaping their own destiny.
In 2018 alone, two decades after the start of CoV, hundreds more scholarships were awarded, tutors employed, and university careers launched. Bicycles, books, backpacks, desks, and school supplies were donated. Soccer fields were built. Clean water was brought to thousands of kindergarten classes. Disabled children received surgeries. Single mothers received microloans. Over 15,000 children received nutritional assistance and 30,000 guarded against parasitic infection.But best of all, the first generation of children empowered by CoV are now breaking the cycle of poverty for the next.
For Ben, after 20 years of “retirement," he decided it was time to stop slacking and up his game. In March 2019, at 85-years old, Ben led a group of cyclists on a three-day, 100-mile bicycling fundraiser
across Vietnam. His own grandchildren were on the riding team— trying to keep up with him as well.
It’s a good thing that Ben Wilson doesn't play golf.
See what Ben has planned for his 2019 fundraiser