Tom Whelan wants street kids in Vietnam to taste the Bronx childhood he knew. Whelan wants the kids to learn and to succeed.
Whelan had no plans to help street kids when he headed to war in Vietnam; the St. Helena’s High School graduate kept records for the U.S. Army there in 1967 and 1968. His mind was on the Tet Offensive, not Tetanus shots.
Whelan had no plans to help street kids when he headed back to Vietnam for a three-day tour in 2002. The Pelham Bay resident and businessman had retired early.
“There I was, a single guy,” Whelan said. “I thought I’d see Asia again. I needed something to do.”
Whelan was in Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City, when he stumbled onto a street kid. Three days turned into a dream.
“I met a 10-year old,” Whelan said. “We got to talking. I found out that she hadn’t been to school in two years. She’d been working to help her family.”
The girl and her family had migrated from the Vietnamese countryside to the city. There aren’t many employment opportunities for farmers in Ho Chi Minh City; there are tourists, though. The girl sold flowers and trinkets.
Troubled by the situation, Whelan visited a Vietnamese school. He decided he’d sponsor the girl for $24 a month – 80 cents a day. Whelan isn’t a rich guy, he said. But the Vietnam vet figured he wouldn’t miss a few beers.
When Whelan returned to the Bronx, he told his sister and brothers about the kids in Vietnam. The siblings thought they’d start a mini-fund and dubbed it Burke House.
“Burke was my mother’s maiden name,” Whelan said. “She never had a lot of money but always gave a few dollars to the missions.”
Burke House has grown. Whelan visits Ho Chi Minh City at least once a year. He goes in November to host a Thanksgiving party for the street kids at a swanky hotel. The main focus of Burke House is a tutoring program administered by Vietnamese Catholic nuns.
The street kids attend three days a week; the nuns email Whelan attendance cards. When a kids’ grandmother is sick, Whelan tries to help. When the Pelham Bay resident is in Vietnam, he likes to whisk the street kids to a water park. The kids sleep on hard mats in one-room apartments.
On Saturday, September 12, there’ll be a Burke House fundraiser at St. Helena’s Church on Olmstead Avenue. Whelan has invited friends and family. He’s also invited a Vietnam-American immigrant family, neighbors of his in Pelham Bay.
Whelan plans to show slides of the street kids. There’ll be cocktails at 6 p.m. and a dinner dance at 7 p.m. Burke House earned its 501c3 non-profit status in 2008.
“We’re taking it to the next level,” Whelan said. “It’s for the kids.”