On Sunday, June 24, 1979, CBS’s “60 Minutes” aired a segment on the refugees of the Vietnam War known as the “Boat People.” Jennifer O’Leary Cathell (Providence), Edwards Wildman eMarketing, Design & Brand Manager, remembers watching the piece as a six-year-old with her mother and father in northeastern Connecticut. “We were captivated, horrified and heartbroken,” she says. “The segment ended with one refugee swimming out to correspondent Ed Bradley’s boat with a note in his hand and a cry for help.”
Jennifer’s parents called Catholic Charities the next morning and offered to adopt a Vietnamese child. They were told that individual children weren’t available for adoption, but entire families were in need of sponsors. Says Jennifer: “We weren’t wealthy, but we were fortunate, and my parents knew we had enough to be in a position to help.”
A few months later Catholic Charities informed Jennifer’s father that they had a Laotian family of nine arriving at Boston’s Logan airport the next day--with no place to go. Without hesitation, Jennifer’s father replied: “They do now.” As snow fell, the O’Learys picked the family up from the airport. “They were shoeless and had only the clothes on their backs,” recalls Jennifer. “We welcomed six children and three adults into our home that night, and all our lives were forever changed.”
There were few minorities in the O’Leary’s community. The school system wasn’t prepared; no one spoke the language and the nearest translator was over an hour away “Many people were happy to help, but unfortunately many more were frightened, and confused,” Jennifer says. “They didn’t understand the Southeast Asian culture, or the political situation the Laotian refugees were forced to run from. These nine people literally turned our small town upside down.”
The O’Learys suffered repercussions. “I would answer our home phone to hear adult men threatening me, my father and my family,” Jennifer recalls. Hate mail was not uncommon. Mr. O’Leary’s flower shop lost business, but he was not deterred. “My father was a stubborn man, and when he believed in something, there was no stopping him. He wasn’t going to back down, or send this family away.” Instead, the O’Learys came up with a system to help more refugees, while proving that the newcomers would be an asset to their small town.
Thong Phommachanh, the patriarch of the family, worked in the flower shop until he saved enough to get his own apartment. Within a year, he was supporting his own family and was ready to help another. It was then that Mr. O’Leary placed his second call to Catholic Charities. Remembers Jennifer: “Our second Laotian family arrived soon, and Thong was responsible for helping them adjust. When they were settled, we sponsored a third and the second family was responsible for seeing them adapt.” Over the course of the next ten years, the O’Learys would sponsor more than 500 Laotian refugees.
“Our quiet little town became more cultured, and residents eventually learned more about their new neighbors and began to embrace them,” says Jennifer. Employers were grateful for the reliability, efficiency and speed with which their new employees worked. The school system set up programs to help educate the children and bridge the cultural gap. “My Laotian brothers and sisters, who all called my parents ‘Mama and Papa,’ became integrated, productive American citizens.” In 1990, things came full circle when Jennifer’s parents were named “Citizens of the Year” by the town for their humanitarian efforts.
Jennifer’s parents passed away ten years ago and a scholarship was established in their name at Killingly High School in Danielson, CT, the same school at which they had met more than 40 years earlier. The scholarship is given to graduates of Southeast Asian heritage and serves as an example of how one person, one couple, one family, is capable of making a difference in the lives of hundreds. Tens of thousands of dollars have been given to these students over the last decade through this scholarship. Even in death the O’Learys are able to continue to nurture dreams.
Last year Jennifer presented the scholarship to Saylee Timothy Phongsamphanh. Saylee is Thong Phommachanh’s grandson, the first child of that family to be born on American soil. “His mother is a sister to me,” says Jennifer. “It was a bittersweet occasion to hand him the scholarship, one my parents would have been proud to see.” Timothy is currently attending Quinebaug Valley Community College in Danielson, CT and hopes to go on to attend Pennsylvania College of Technology after receiving his Associates Degree.
Jennifer concludes: “The O’Leary Legacy Scholarship helps to carry on my parents’ legacy, and gives me an opportunity to tell their story. I think it is significant to note that neither my brothers nor I were responsible for establishing the scholarship. It was established by long-standing members of our community who wanted to be sure no one forgot the positive impact my parents’ actions had on their lives, our community, and the lives of those who no longer refer to themselves as refugees, but proudly call themselves Americans.”