CARLSBAD — Grief can be debilitating, and nobody knows this more than Dr. Hai Le, who practices internal medicine at Scripps Coastal Medical Center in Vista and his wife, Loann.
They lost their 15-year-old son Ansel two years ago in an accident at their home in Carlsbad.
However, the two are finding a way to heal by honoring his memory through “A Bridge to School,” a charity program benefitting school children in their homeland of Vietnam.
The couple started the Ansel Foundation to raise funds to build bridges for poor villages in Vietnam.
During monsoon season, children get stuck at home because poorly constructed bridges collapse or wash away, leaving them without a route to school.
The two find solace in helping others with the bridges they build on the Mekong Delta.
The bridges are built under the umbrella of Compassionate Service Society, a larger charity based out of Orange County.
If there is a surplus of donations after the bridges are constructed, the Le’s use the money to construct much-needed wells in the village.
The couple chose the project because the dollars go farther in the country.
“We want to be able to use the limited money for a lot of people,” said Dr. Le.
The couple is from Vietnam but left in the late 1970’s, after the fall of Saigon.
Dr. Le spent time in Malaysia while waiting to come to America. It was there his inspiration to become a doctor solidified after witnessing the good two doctors did for Doctors Without Borders.
“They truly inspired me as a teenager,” said Dr. Le.
One doctor, who he called Dr. Martin, would work all day with the refugees on a hospital boat. Afterwards, he would boat to shore to clean up the beaches, to keep cholera from spreading.
“I was so amazed and shocked to see someone so different from us, come from a part of the world that is so comfortable, come to this remote island, Pulau Bidong, Malaysia and do far more than we could’ve asked him to do,” Dr. Le said about Dr. Martin.
About 43,000 refugees were housed on a square mile island, said Dr. Le.
“I look back now and it’s really lucky that we survived that,” he said.
He came to Long Beach as a teenager, which is where he met his wife six years later.
The two haven’t been back to Vietnam since, but hope to visit the bridges they’ve funded through the Ansel Foundation.
Their son dreamed of becoming a doctor, like his father, as his way to help people.
His parents described him as an extremely studious child who was an old soul.
Ansel volunteered his lunch hour to help tutor other students, which Dr. Le was completely unaware of until Ansel’s friends spoke at his funeral.
He was active in school, getting straight A’s, taking mostly AP classes and competing in speech and debate at Carlsbad High School.
Trophies from his time on the speech and debate team still dot his room, which his mother said, she still has a hard time passing.
He also was one of the youngest tutors at the Carlsbad City Library Learning Center, volunteering his free time after school to help students with math.
Organizers of the program were so impressed with his tutelage, they were willing to pay him for his work, which would’ve been his first paying job.
Loann said two years may seem like a long time since losing Ansel, but it’s still extremely difficult, as if it happened yesterday.
Loann also finds relief in reaching out to an online community. She said she never used Facebook but after Ansel’s passing, a friend suggested she start an online foundation.
Her page, Loving Wellness – Mind and Body, combines her knowledge as a dietician with inspirational and encouraging phrases. She started the page to honor Ansel and it now has close to 100,000 followers.
It has helped her connect with people as far away as the Netherlands and Brazil, who she believes she never would have met otherwise.
Ansel used to help her do anything online so she feels he would be proud of her efforts managing such a popular Facebook page.
The couple said it’s difficult for people to relate to their loss, so seeing words online from others who have experienced similar pain “is like a hug,” said Dr. Le.
The couple plans to continue the program in honor of their son, who would have been 17 in May.