Giving Back

By Beacon Staff

We recognize Tien Pham Windauer, Anthony Hirsch, the Lakeside QRU and Jeff Carlson for giving back to the community this year and every year. Photos by Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon.

TIEN PHAM WINDAUER: Commitment to Community

COLUMBIA FALLS – When Tien Pham Windauer considers the good fortune that fills every corner of his life – four healthy children, a successful restaurant, a loving wife, an adoptive community brimming with support – he credits the success, all of it, to his father’s wooden fishing boat.

Never mind the 18-and-20-hour workdays and the bootstrap makings of a self-made man. Forget the language barrier he overcame as a teenager in a strange land, the impoverished village in which he grew up and the week he spent at sea, going without food in order to escape Communist-controlled Vietnam while drinking only scavenged rainwater.

“I’m so thankful every day,” Windauer said. “We are so privileged here.”

His unlikely journey to Columbia Falls, where Windauer owns Tien’s Place, a popular restaurant specializing in Asian cuisine, began on a black, moonless night in 1983. Under the cover of dark, Windauer and 49 other refugees, known as “boat people,” fled the war-torn country in his father’s wooden fishing boat, skippering the vessel down a machine-gun patrolled route on the Mekong River, a perilous escape choked with hundreds of dead bodies – a haunting reminder of the danger they faced. He was 13 years old.

Since then, every gift he’s given or received he credits to his father’s boat, the lifeline that transported him against near insurmountable odds to Columbia Falls and the American Dream.

When the Malaysian coast guard discovered Windauer’s boat, many of the passengers had fallen desperately ill, but miraculously they all survived. By the time they arrived at a hospital in Kuala Lumpur, Windauer was so weak that he needed intravenous therapy.

One widely-cited book estimates that 500,000 of the 2 million Vietnamese “boat people” died during the escape, but Windauer said escaping the oppressive Vietnamese government was worth the risk.

After the fall of Saigon, Windauer’s father, who fought during the war for the United States Army, was labeled a traitor by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The impoverished family was forced to live in a “re-education camp,” and the thought of so bleak a future was too much for Windauer to bear.

Once he had successfully escaped to Malaysia, Windauer was selected from among thousands of Vietnamese children as the adopted son of Bob and Judy Windauer, of Columbia Falls, in March 1984.

He threw himself at school and sports and worked in a variety of restaurants after high school before opening Tien’s Place in 2002.

Today, the restaurant is a fixture in Columbia Falls and beyond – he ships his tomato bisque soup to a customer in Washington, and once rolled 500 egg rolls for an Idaho man, so the customer could bring them home to his friends and family.

Tien’s Place is a hub of Columbia Falls, a community booster club where a state championship earns the entire team a free meal, whether they are competing in football, basketball, soccer or debate.

One year ago, Tien and his wife, Maureen, learned that Taylor Peterson, a 17-year-old high school student, volleyball standout and prospective restaurant employee, had become terminally ill with cancer. She was given a prognosis of only a few weeks to live, and her last wish was to travel to Hawaii with her best friend.

The Windauers sprang to action, galvanizing the community and rallying an army of volunteers to cook and serve 2,800 meals for a benefit to make her dream come true – “My rice cooker couldn’t keep up,” Tien recalls. Local firefighters lined up along U.S. Highway 2 and collected cash donations in their boots. Maureen organized an online auction. Thousands of people gathered in a tent outside of Tien’s Place throughout the day, huddled in the cold of December to buoy support for Peterson.

The community raised more than $70,000, but Peterson succumbed to jaw-bone cancer before she could embark on the trip.

The money raised was used to help the family cover funeral and medical expenses, and to establish a memorial scholarship fund in her name.

The experience moved Tien beyond description.

“It turned into something I never could have imagined,” he said. “The whole community pitched in. I couldn’t believe it.”

“If you are part of a community like this, if you adapt to it, you are part of the team,” he continued. “I couldn’t keep up with everything I do without the support of the community.”

At least once a year, Tien makes a point of visiting the Columbia Falls Middle School to share his story in hopes of underscoring the privileges the students enjoy. He cooks a buffet-style meal for the students, and then tells them his harrowing tale.

“My goal is to teach kids to understand how good life is here,” he said. “We are so privileged.”

He’s since reunited with his entire family, including his biological father, who sacrificed his livelihood so that Windauer could attempt the escape from Vietnam, and he, Maureen and the children have returned to visit.

“When I left 31 years ago I never thought I would go back. Now, we are one family. And this community is part of my family, too,” he said. “It’s like everything has come full circle.”

ANTHONY HIRSCH: Ringing in Support for Those in Need

While residents across Montana were fleeing indoors to escape the worst cold snap in a generation, Anthony Hirsch hurried to stand outside.

The 57-year-old Kalispell resident is among the legion of devoted servants who brave frigid temperatures and wintry weather to ring bells and gather donations in red kettles for the Salvation Army. Every holiday season, more than 850 residents spend a combined 3,400 hours ringing in front of 17 locations in the Flathead Valley.

For the past three years, Hirsch has bundled up with layers of coats and sweatshirts, as well as his lucky Santa hat, and jingled outside Smith’s grocery store near his home.

“Last year when it turned arctic I put on three pairs of socks,” he says.

He’s not exactly sure how many hours he’s spent ringing for the Salvation Army, but he regularly signs up for two-hour shifts, five days a week for at least three weeks. He began three years ago after the company he works for held a volunteer day with its employees.

“I was at a point in my life where I wanted to give something back,” he says. “What shocked me when I started doing it is how much fun it was. I didn’t think it would be unpleasant but it turned into one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Now I’m hooked. I love doing it.”

Last year the local squadron of ringers raised a combined $135,000 for the Salvation Army, which reinvested 100 percent of the funds into the community, according to local administrators. In 2012, the dollars and cents raised from ringing bells in front of grocery stores helped those in need by providing roughly 30,000 hot meals; 1,500 hot showers; 8,000 household items; and 800 Christmas gifts to children, according to the Salvation Army.

“They’re giving up their time really to help the Salvation Army raise funds for their community,” says Bob Blake, director of development at the local center. “But the true blessing comes back to the bell ringers. There are many, many stories of people who have been blessed by their service.”

The men and women wearing red aprons and jingling bells at stores across the U.S. have become a staple of the holiday season. Most are volunteers, while some who need extra income during the holidays are offered small stipends to ring.

The effort dates back to the late 1890s, when a Salvation Army chapter in San Francisco sought a new way to gather support for poor families in the community. The group drew from an old method started in Liverpool, England, where sailors would set up a large pot at the port’s landing and collect coins from passersby. The San Francisco Army set up a similar red pot near where the ferry boats landed and from there a tradition was founded, blossoming across the world.

The Salvation Army is one of the oldest and largest charitable organizations in the world. With thrift shops, service centers and other community outposts, the organization provides a wide array of assistance to those who need it most. This includes a strong emergency disaster services arm that is recognized by federal, state and local governments across the country as a sanctioned disaster relief and assistance organization.

It’s this type of support and service that keeps Anthony Hirsch outdoors during the frigid winter nights.

“They really help the truly needy; the people who are on hard luck,” he says. “Those aspects really keep me coming back.”

Even this year, after he injured his knee and required surgery, he hurried his recovery so that he would be able to join his fellow Salvation Army servants.

On Monday he returned to his section of cold concrete outside Smith’s, eagerly ringing in support with a smile.

“It’s a place where you see the best in people: Kindness, love, generosity, care for their fellow human,” he says. “Whatever I’ve given, I’ve gotten back tenfold in different ways.”

For more information about the Salvation Army, call 257-4357 or visit www1.usw.salvationarmy.org/usw/www_kalispell.nsf

LAKESIDE QRU: Answering the Call

LAKESIDE – Like nearly any concept, when we talk about extraordinary people, everyone has their own opinion of how to define them. One definition that most could agree on is the one that fits the fine folks who work at the Lakeside QRU: Volunteers who use their considerable skills to help those who need it most.

The Lakeside QRU, which stands for quick response unit, answers 911 emergency calls from Rollins to just south of Kalispell, and from Blacktail Mountain to near Bigfork. It’s a huge swath of coverage area for the unit, which is made up of around 20 volunteers.

Those volunteers include three paramedics, resulting in a relatively new level of service for the unit. Service director Mary Granger, who also works full-time as Flathead County’s EMS manager, said calls for the QRU have increased dramatically in the last year.

“This is the first year that we’ve actually reached over 300 calls,” Granger said, standing in the QRU’s new building last week.

With the jump to paramedic-level service and the move to actually transporting the patients, the Lakeside QRU volunteers take anywhere from two to four hours with each call.

Before they acquired an ambulance, the volunteers needed just about half an hour to respond and then hand off the patient to emergency services, Granger said. Now, a call on Blacktail Mountain takes about three hours of transport time, plus the extra time needed to complete the patient’s paperwork.

In earlier years, local employers were very generous with the time their employees, who were also QRU volunteers, needed to respond to emergency calls.

“Now, where it’s two, three hours, that’s half a (work) day,” Granger said. “It’s stretching their generosity.”

This has led to a drop in the number of volunteers offering their time, she said, but it just means the QRU has to get creative.

“We make it work, we always have,” Granger said.

The volume of calls has pushed the QRU to expand its services, and the new building, constructed about a year ago, has plenty of storage space for the unit’s supplies. The building also houses a large community room, capable of seating about 200 people, and often rented out for free for community events.

Still under construction are the workout room, which will receive donated fitness equipment in January, and the new crew’s quarters, which will contain two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a kitchen for emergency personnel to use.

Those using the completed rooms will likely be people who want to volunteer their time with the QRU but don’t live close enough, Granger said, such as people training in emergency medicine. They would volunteer their time to be on call and sleep at the facility, ready to go at a moment’s notice.

It would take about another $50,000 to finish out the crew quarters, Granger estimated.

The ultimate goal is to be able to hire on part-time then full-time staff, but Granger noted the call volume doesn’t support such endeavors at this point.

But the QRU is also excited about a new arrival making itself at home in the building’s bay: a brand new, $150,000 blue ambulance, nicknamed either “New Blue” or “Blue Betty,” depending on who you talk to.

The ambulance came courtesy of a Montana Department of Transportation grant that paid for 90 percent of it, with the QRU matching the final 10 percent of the cost. The paramedics got to design it to fit their needs, Granger said, and it is one of the only emergency vehicles in the valley that comes with a refrigerated space for special medications.

“We pretty much have everything,” paramedic Mary Lynn Smith said of the ambulance.

But regardless of monetary concerns, the volunteers of the Lakeside QRU will continue to be the first people those in distress in their area will see, bringing professional-level skills and a sense of calm in hectic situations.

“You get a call, and you go,” Granger said.

JEFF CARLSON: Finding a Sense of Community

When asked why he spends so much time volunteering or serving on various boards, including that of Northwest Montana’s only homeless shelter, Jeff Carlson simply says he was raised that way. When he was a kid in Colorado, his parents would often pack up the car and deliver Meals On Wheels to the elderly or lend a hand at the soup kitchen.

That’s just the way they are.

“I was raised that way, my parents always bestowed a sense of community. They come from a time… when we were all in this together,” he said. “I don’t ever remember fighting it. It was fun (to help).”

Carlson is a residential loan agent and moved to the Flathead Valley six years ago, to be closer to his parents who moved up here years earlier. Not long after arriving in the area, he joined the Samaritan House’s board of directors.

The Samaritan House was founded in 1991 as a homeless shelter and transitional housing facility. Every year, it hosts about 1,300 people at its various facilities in Kalispell and serves more than 30,000 meals annually. Executive Director Chris Krager says the six-year average homeless population in Flathead County is more than 800, but that number can change depending on the season.

The shelter has an annual budget of $500,000 and is entirely funded through grants and fundraisers. Carlson said Montana is one of only two states in the country that does not offer homeless funding, adding another challenge to the shelter’s already loaded plate.

But even with the odds stacked against the shelter, the Samaritan House has an impressive success rate. Eighty-six percent of people who stay at the shelter get the help they need and are able to get back on their feet, 15 percent better than the national average.

“There’s a huge need. I mean this is the only shelter in Northwest Montana,” Carlson said. “But you feel a passion for these people, to help them.”

The full board of directors meets once a month, but Carlson tries to put in additional time at the shelter. He said everyone has expended his or her fair share of elbow grease working on various maintenance projects at the house.

“There’s a whole gamut of things to do,” he said.

But his favorite duty is helping at the shelter around suppertime and getting to know some of the residents.

“I like to be here at meal time to get to know the people. You get to know their stories,” he said. “It reenergizes you.”

Carlson isn’t the only one in his family who understands what it’s like to have that “sense of community.” His wife, Cheri Dubeau Carlson, is the executive director of Dream Adaptive and his parents often put in hours volunteering around town.

“They say 10 percent of the people do 90 percent of the volunteering in a community and the Carlson family shows up everywhere,” Krager said.

But Carlson said there is another benefit to volunteering; it leads to piece of mind.

“Volunteering gives you a balanced view to your own problems when compared to others,” he said.

In the coming months a plan to address homelessness in the Flathead Valley will be released. The Samaritan House is one of the groups helping to produce it and Carlson said he hopes it will guide the non-profit into the future. But regardless of what the report says, he hopes more people roll up their sleeves and lend a helping hand.

“We can all do better. You can never have enough sense of community,” he said.