The end of 2016, marked billionaire philanthropist Mr. Chuck Feeney’s lifetime achievement goal of giving away all of his money before his death through Atlantic Philanthropies (AP), an organization he founded in 1982. A recent $7 million bequest to Cornell University has brought the total to just over $8 billion in grants, “to advance opportunity and promote equity and dignity around the world.” Mr. Feeney’s philosophy of ‘Giving while Living’ has been realized. While his generosity towards Ireland and Cornell University is well known, his relationship with the people of Vietnam has flown relatively under the radar.
Mr. Feeney’s philanthropic relationship with that country began with an article in the San Francisco Chronicle (1997) concerning the lack of funding for East Meets West Foundation (EMWF), an NGO working for the poor Vietnamese with headquarters in the central city of Da Nang. Included with the article was a picture of Mark Conroy, EMWF country director who was documenting a few of the foundation’s completed projects and expressing the necessity of project continuation and expansion. EMWF’s grants were running out with no cash left in the box to keep the operation running. During a recent trip to San Francisco to meet with Mr. Feeney, Mr. Conroy disclosed, “I was having to use my own savings, which were very limited, to keep busy on some small projects.”
Writer and humanitarian, Le Ly Hayslip, founded East Meets West Foundation in 1987. Ms. Hayslip grew up in Da Nang during the war with the Americans, which left her country in complete devastation. Mr. Conroy had been hired by Ms. Hayslip to run the EMWF Vietnam headquarters following his Peace Corp tour in Guatemala. Mr. Conroy was already acquainted with Ms. Hayslip, having met previously during past trips to Ho Chi Minh City. In May 1994, Mr. Conroy and then wife, Joanne Ives, began work in Da Nang.
|Chuck and Helga at the Village of Hope orphanage in Da Nang/|
Mr. Feeney had his office investigate EMWF. Intrigued by AP’s findings, he called the EMWF US office in Oakland, CA. After speaking with Director Mark Stewart, Mr. Feeney offered to send $100,000 to Da Nang headquarters to see what they could do with it.
“When it’s gone, get back to me and explain how it was spent,” said Mr. Feeney. EMWF used the money to build and renovate schools and fresh water systems in poor villages.
In early 1998, Bob Matousek, Mr. Feeney’s long-time friend and associate, visited EMWF headquarters in Da Nang. Alongside Mr. Conroy, Mr. Matousek spent a few days checking out various projects in the Vietnamese countryside and in Da Nang. A number of schools and compassion homes had been built. The Village of Hope orphanage, which housed 200 kids and was managed by EMWF, was being effectively maintained. Several other grass root projects in Quan Nam Province had also been completed by the foundation. In light of his trip, Mr. Matousek approved EMWF for a visit from Mr. Feeney.
Mr. Feeney’s first personal contact with EMWF in Vietnam was on Oct. 18 1998, in the original office on Tran Phu Street, Da Nang. This office was a thinly staffed, ‘nuts and bolts’ operation where the occasional snake or rat that passed through did not interfere. Mr. Conroy had no idea who Mr. Feeney was at the time and asked him why he was interested in a small organization like EMWF that worked primarily in Vietnam. Mr. Feeney answered that he didn’t like or trust large institutions. He chose to support the people of Vietnam, believing that the Vietnamese had been dealt a raw deal by the US government.
Vietnam also happened to be on Mr. Feeney’s route from San Francisco to Australia where he was funding medical research and education projects and trying to persuade wealthy Australians to follow suit. Ordinarily, Mr. Feeney focused on top down development in education and public health to help facilitate a country’s ability to take care of its own. In Ireland, this approach by Mr. Feeney had been operating successfully for years. In contrast, his support for EMWF was more from the bottom up due to their sufficiency with small financing. It appeared that both Chuck and Mark were ‘brick and mortar’ guys, similar to the Irish that to the extent of their capabilities, settled America to lend a helping hand to their people in need.
In those days, Da Nang General Hospital had next to nothing. Today, that facility has been completely rebuilt by EMWF with funding from AP and treats over 2,000 patients a day. Its capacity has grown from 800 to 1,250 beds. In addition, three more hospitals have been added to the health system in Da Nang: The Eye Hospital with 400 beds, the Woman and Children’s Hospital with 600 beds and the 500 bed Oncology Hospital.
Dr. Tran Ngoc Thanh, the hospital director of the last 14 years, recently remarked, “Da Nang General Hospital’s capacity today is a dream come true for the Vietnamese people. Without the input of AP and EMWF it would have taken 30 years to be where we are now. Mr. Chuck Feeney has been the savior of our people and we will never forget that, and we always make a point of expressing our gratitude in meetings with other officials. Da Nang General is one of the top hospitals in Viet Nam and its presence has stimulated more medical training out of Viet Nam. I hope Mr. Chuck’s health improves. May God bless him.”
Through EMWF and AP, Da Nang University has built two Learning Resource Centers (LRCs), the modern equivalent of a library that specializes in Internet connections with other worldwide educational facilities. The LRCs’ textbook supply must be available for thousands of students in a semester and currently serve 10,000 in the Da Nang system. The Da Nang University facilities massive success has led to the construction of LRC s at Universities in Hue, Can Tho and Thai Nguyen.
|The Conroys and the Feeneys, Hanoi, VN|
In 1999, EMWF began building two Da Nang University of Education dormitories financed by Mr. Feeney. In large, these dormitories are used by poor students and minorities from the distant, rural mountain regions. These students would otherwise be homeless while pursuing their education. Post graduation, they will return home to teach and help with the advancement their people.
Modern dining halls and The Da Nang University Sports center, another joint AP and EMWF project, was completed in 2004. Today, 800 students use this facility daily throughout the school year. Students can train in basketball, volleyball, tennis, table tennis, variations of football and aerobic exercise.
Mr. ‘Teddy’ Thiet, the Da Nang Sports Center director, traveled with Mr. Feeney to Australia to research building design for the facility’s construction. Mr. Thiet remembered Mr. Chuck Feeney, “as a man with a great heart, deserving of much respect; one who understands the position of the poor, a man who wouldn’t waste money on a tie for himself. I am very sad to hear that he is in ill health and hope it improves enough so that he can come back here for a visit sometime. I thank him from the bottom of my heart and extend those thanks also to the staff of EMWF.”
The University Games and biannual National Sports Championships are hosted by the Da Nang University Sports center with over 1,000 student participants. The Da Nang Sports Center’s reputation as a premier venue for athletic competition has inspired the development of more sporting event facilities in Vietnam.
Thai Nguyen is a rapidly developing city northwest of the Hanoi No Bai Airport with historical claims of Ho Chi Minh residing there during the French Indo-China War. On the city’s outskirts lies the largest Samsung plant in the world, encompassing at least 400 acres. EMWF projects at Thai Nguyen University (TNU), funded by Chuck Feeney and AP, include several dormitories, an LRC, site development and landscaping. After five years of work, these projects were completed (2007) and in 2013, the dormitory project won the most prestigious architecture award in Vietnam.
Ten years later, an on-site visit and meeting with Mark Conroy, TNU director, Dr. Nguyen Van Tao, and his board was set up to assess the present use and maintenance of projects completed there. Behind the board of directors, three flags were lined up beginning with the Vietnamese, followed by the US, and finally the French.
In addition to 11 dormitory buildings and required site work, landscaping for the sports facility was prepared for basketball, football, tennis, etc. The dorms, originally built for the medical school, had expanded their occupancy to the entire university population and now housed predominately poorer students from the countryside and ethnic minorities (50 %). 57 Laotian foreign exchange students lived in the dormitories and couldn’t attend TNU without them. At $6.00 USD per month, student rent is much cheaper than private housing and has enabled TNU to upgrade its standards elsewhere.
University enrollment has increased 20% since the completion of the dormitory project and TNU now offers 17 majors, including medicine, pharmacy, education, information technology, communication, foreign languages and most scientific disciplines. There are students enrolled here from Korea, Germany, The Philippines and China. TNU officials express deep gratitude to Chuck Feeney for his generosity toward their university.
In the central Vietnamese city of Hue, the EMFW Heart Program and Hue Hospital director Dr.Bui Duc Phu also peaked Mr. Feeney’s interests. Dr. Phu happens to be one of the best heart surgeons in the country. He and his team perform over 1,500 open-heart surgeries and 2,000 interventions or heart cauterizations a year.
Financed by Mr. Feeney, the EMFW Heart Program was able to provide the medical facilities with equipment to establish a pediatric open-heart surgery unit at Hue Hospital in 2006. These facilities have enabled postgraduate doctors to stay in Vietnam and work in their field by meeting the standards of their education. Upon Dr. Phu’s recent return from San Francisco, where he attended a brief meeting with Mr. Feeney, he also expressed heartfelt gratitude towards Chuck’s generosity to the Hue health care system.
|Children from the country who were helped by Chuck Feeney|
Mr. Feeney’s affiliation with Hue Hospital introduced him to Hue University and led to the construction of university dormitories, a food center and LRC, as well as pediatric and cardiovascular hospitals.
In total, the EMWF projects funded by AP and Chuck Feeney amount to $100 Million Dollars. Mr. Feeney and AP funding enabled EMWF to build 10 hospitals and 11 university building projects of varying magnitude, to repair damages from Typhoon Xang, and various other community infrastructure projects.
The present director of Atlantic Philanthropies, Mr. Chris Oechsli, along with Mr. Matousek and Mr. Feeney have made numerous trips to Vietnam to consult with Mark Conroy and EMWF personnel during the course of these projects. Chuck Feeney’s last visit to Vietnam was for the AP meeting held at the Hanoi Metropole Hotel in 2008.