Against The Grain was saddened to learn of the passing of a very special member of the ATG family Lyly Koenig Mendez. Lyly was an orphan brought to the United States through Operation Babylift and whose story is highlighted in ATG’s documentary feature, Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam.
A great supporter of ATG and the arts, Lyly grew up in Festus, MO, graduated from Crystal City High School in 1993 and earned degrees from the University of Missouri at St. Louis and the Miami International University of Art and Design. She worked in TV and film production, was a skilled graphic designer and fashion designer who also had her work featured in ATG’s 2010 Fashion for a Passion. In addition, she was a cheerleader for the St. Louis Rams in the 1990s as well as the San Diego Chargers from 2000-2001.
She died on January 20, 2015, near Houston, TX, at the age of 40, after an eight-year fight against breast cancer. Throughout, she never let the disease take her joy, humor, creativity, compassion, humanity and passion for family, friends and life. A shining example of what it means to “Go Against The Grain,” this memorial artistic scholarship was created in her name specifically to support talented emerging graphic/fashion design students like her and dedicated with love as a reminder of her unique spirit and legacy…to #LiveLikeLyly.
The Against The Grain family’s first members were not only its founders but also the adoptees featured in the award-winning documentary film Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam, directed and produced by our president and co-founder Tammy Nguyen Lee. The poignant film, a 5 year passion project that was completed and released in 2009, follows the personal journeys of the orphans who were were airlifted from war-torn Vietnam to the United States. It was this film that inspired the founding of Against The Grain and our support of poverty-stricken orphanages in Asia.
The ATG family was saddened to learn that DC is currently battling cancer. In an effort to return the love and support that he has shown for many years in sharing his powerful journey and raising awareness about adoption, Tammy and the ATG Board would like to donate 100% of all proceeds from sales of Operation Babylift DVDs during the entire month of February to help offset DC’s medical costs.
If you would like to show your support, please click here to purchase your own copy of Operation Babylift. As you reflect on the message of love throughout the month of February, we encourage you to share the love and spread the message of hope that is embodied in the film by also considering copies of Operation Babylift for family and friends. We thank you so much for your continued support of our mission and hope that through our programming and community outreach efforts, you are not only enlightened and educated about Asian American culture, arts and issues but also inspired to do your part, in any measure, to make life better for others. #beCAUSE.
Read more Against The Grain posts featuring DC Wolfe and Operation Babylift:
I was born between 1972-73 in Saigon, Vietnam. I spent the next 2-3 years in the Sancta Maria Orphanage at 279/5 Le Quang Dinh in the Binh Thanh District of Saigon. I was adopted and taken out of Vietnam as part of Operation Babylift about two weeks before the end of the war in April 1975. I ended up in Long Beach, California instead of San Antonio, Texas, where my parents were at the time, because I chewed off the identification bracelet on my arm. After three days of searching, my mother found me and brought me to Texas, where we lived for a year before relocating to Pittsburgh, PA for the next three years. In 1979, my family (mother, father, other adopted brother from Ca Tho Viet Nam) moved to Colorado, where I spent the rest of my childhood living in the mountains near Boulder for four years and just south of Denver for another eight. After graduating high school, I enrolled in a joint program between the University of San Francisco and the Academy of Art College to study Illustration. I graduated in 1995 and was luck enough to be hired by Dreamworks just 5 months later and have been with the company ever since. I am currently working my 5th picture as Head of Layout and will be relocating to Los Angeles in July in order to complete the film project.
When I was a Junior in 1993, I took a semester off to go study in Vietnamese language, history and culture at the University of Hanoi for a semester. This was my first time back to Vietnam since my adoption and has played a hugely important effect on the rest of my life. After I finished studying, my family came, and we found my orphanage where I met the man who owned and ran the orphanage and whom after I was named. (All children who arrived without a name share his last and middle name, in my case, Nguyen Van Cuong.) I became friends with the family and stay in touch with them to this day. Over the next twenty years of my life, I have traveled to Vietnam over 20 times and have lived there over a year and a half. I am married to a Vietnamese woman, who two separate friends of mine set me up with on blind dates on the very same day. We’ve been married since 2009 and are expecting our first child any minute now . . .
Nol Le Meyer
Saigon (HCMC), Viet Nam
San Francisco till July and then L.A.
50% Vietnamese 50% Caucasian (checked it out with 23 and Me to be sure)
What does it mean to you to “Go Against The Grain?:”
Hmmm, I guess for me, it would be pursuing art as a career. Rather than go for the safe or responsible career, my mother always supported both my and my brother’s (photography) artistic pursuits. Private art classes when there wasn’t enough at school, extra “homework” at home illustrating stories while I was in primary school, art shows and a joint University program for an Illustration degree. The support has always been there, so it’s never felt like a struggle or going against the grain, but becoming an artist is always a bit unconventional, especially for Asian Americans.
What made you decide to pursue your career path?
I’ve been drawing ever since I can remember, so it did not seem like I made a decision to pursue in art. I loved animated films and comic books all the way through high school, especially Anime and the film Akira in particular, but when I started college in 1991, I decided on Illustration as a major (there were only a handful of schools in the country at the time that offered an animation degree at that time). While I was at college, I thought I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator, but that is not something that pays you right out of school, so I started working various other jobs while sending out portfolios trying to find any place that would pay me to draw. I was working at Alcatraz handing out audio tours when I took the call on the island’s pay phone for my job interview at the one year-old studio, Dreamworks.
What have been some of the challenges you faced/lessons you learned as an Asian American in this field?
Can’t say that I’ve faced any challenges being Asian American in my field. Perhaps it’s because I’m half Caucasian and don’t really look Asian, but honestly my ethnicity has never manifested itself as a factor in my work.
What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment, and why?
Professionally, I feel like my biggest accomplishment has been being able to grow and evolve with the company I’ve spent my entire career at. Dreamworks started as a 2D hand drawn animation company and slowly transitioned to a fully 3D computer animation company over the first 8 or so years I was here. I am really proud to have worked on Dreamworks’ very first picture and 18 and a half years later still happy and excited to a part of the company as it evolves and constantly tries to make better movies that have an increasing global presence.
What’s up next?
Moving back to Los Angeles to head up the Layout Department on the first [Asian] Dreamworks Feature.
Every year during this week, I take a moment to reflect on my past. Life gets hectic with work, hobbies, friends and family. Thirty-eight years ago this week, I left the An Lac orphanage and South Vietnam on an airplane to begin my new life in America. This historic week would soon be call Operation Babylift. It would take 25 years before I would be reunited with other Vietnamese adoptees and begin to understand what happened so many years ago. After all the talk about politics and opinions, there was still over 3,000 children who were relocated around the world. Through the years, I’ve enjoyed connecting with Vietnamese adoptees around the world. I found comfort sharing familiar experiences and knowing that there was someone out there to talk to when I was in need of a shoulder or ear. Thanks to Facebook, we have groups and a mini address book of connections. After the reunion in Baltimore in 2000, I began writing and performing songs about my adoption experience. My life’s work led me to meeting Tammy Nguyen Lee and helping to produce her documentary film Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam. I will never forget our time together traveling, filming and screening our film. I learned so much more about my past and met so many wonderful people who share a common history. Today, I’m proud to be on the ATG Board for my 4th year servicing as Outreach Director. Weeks like this remind me of our ATG mission and my personal inspiration to give back to the Asian American community and continue to produce music and tell stories from my journey.
I wrote a special song for my Vietnamese adoptee brothers and sisters called Something to Save. You’re not alone. Our stories will be shared from generation to generation. Listen here: http://jaredrehberg.virb.com/music
OPERATION BABYLIFT: THE LOST CHILDREN OF VIETNAM tells the significant, yet untold story of the $2 million U.S. initiative that airlifted over 2,500 Vietnamese orphans out of a war-torn country from the impending threat of the Communist regime. These adoptees grew up facing unique challenges in America, including prejudice overshadowed by a controversial war and cultural identity crisis. Featuring compelling and insightful interviews of the volunteers, parents, and organizations directly involved, the documentary takes a contemporary look at Operation Babylift and its relevance to international adoption today.
By: Jacklyne Rodriguez, Pepperdine University Graduate Student
On Saturday, February 9th, Pepperdine University screened Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam. The screening was part of the School of Law’s annual conference on Law, Religion, and Ethics, which focused on intercountry adoption this year.
The audience, about forty, consisted of Pepperdine faculty, students, friends and various cast members from the film as well as conference attendees.
The documentary film featured volunteers, activists, and orphans who were brought to the United States as a result of the government sponsored “Operation Babylift,” which evacuated nearly 3000 orphans from war-torn Vietnam in April 1975.
The film highlighted activists’ memories of the overcrowded orphanages and featured stories of the adoptees who grew up in the U.S. enduring feelings of separation and experiences of racism.
After the film, a question and answer discussion commenced with updates from two of the orphans featured in the film. Bert Ballard, a communication professor at Pepperdine and adoptee, and Lyly Koenig Mendez, adoptee and small business owner, shared their reflections and personal stories.
Orphanage volunteer, Ross Meador, also joined the discussion and explained why he felt leaving the young orphans behind was never an option.
The film also focused on the Ballard family’s attempt to adopt a son from Vietnam. His wife, Sarah Ballard, also a Pepperdine communication instructor, was present and shared about the journey.
Although the film concluded without the audience having a definitive ending regarding the Ballard’s adoption, the audience met the Ballard’s adopted son who was adopted shortly after the film was released in 2010.
With active participation from audience members during the discussion, it was clear that the film and the journeys shared left a strong impact for all those in attendance.
The screening was also sponsored by Pepperdine University’s Center for Entertainment and Media, who also moderated the discussion.
Spotlight on Tammy Nguyen Lee (B.A. Film & Media Arts, ’00)
Wanting to positively impact the world, Nguyen Lee directs a nonprofit that promotes education, cultural awareness and Asian American artists.
by Mary Guthrie
Tammy Nguyen Lee’s life reads like a movie script: When she was just three months old, her mother took her out of war-torn Vietnam to a Hong Kong refugee camp, where they lived for over a year, then moved to the United States. She grew up in Garland, Texas, where she graduated near the top of her class and then accepted a scholarship to SMU. She won the title of Miss Asian American Texas at age 21. Majoring in Cinema (now Film & Media Arts) at SMU, she was a campus leader in the East Asian Student Association and the SMU Asian Council. After graduating in 2000, she earned her M.F.A. from UCLA, where she began work on an award-winning documentary, Operation Babylift. Motivated by the work she could do to positively impact the world, Nguyen Lee created the nonprofit organization Against The Grain, which promotes education, cultural awareness and Asian American artists. She is a television show consultant/producer and the energy behind an annual haute couture fashion show that raises money for orphanages in Asia. She met her husband, George Lee, a West Point graduate, while playing the role of his wife on a photo shoot. In 2010, SMU presented Nguyen Lee with the Emerging Leader Award, given to young alumni who show distinguished service and extraordinary achievement in a particular discipline, organization or cause. Shortly after receiving the award, she and George had their first child, a baby girl they named Gabriella.
MPRINT magazine visited with Tammy recently to catch up on the latest adventures in her life.
Tell us what you’ve been doing since received SMU’s 2010 Emerging Leader Award.
My life has been completely turned upside-down, from being someone who is incredibly organized and had life planned down to the second, to being a first-time parent learning to go with the flow.
One of the biggest lessons about becoming a parent was being able to adapt at a moments notice, because it’s never about you anymore, it’s about someone else. And that’s a good lesson for anyone. In life you should have a vision and a game plan, but be open to reading the winds of change and be able to adapt very quickly. The people who survive the best are the people who can learn to bend when the wind is strong. And the wind was really strong for me last year! [laughs]
Your mother was a big influence in your life. How has she mentored you?
She came to the U.S. [from Saigon, in 1978] in her early twenties, having to completely start over after the war. The family had everything taken away from us because of the Communist regime, and so the only way to have a better life was to leave. We came as boat people.
Coming here to the U.S., she had me [age three months], and then 7½ years later she had my sister. With two children, she worked two to three jobs, regained a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in record time, with honors. In Vietnam she was always at the top of her class, always doing extracurriculars.
She has a huge spirit of wanting more for her family. You see that a lot in first-generation refugees. She taught me that if you want something you have to work really hard for it, you have to be the best at it, you have to be prepared; you have to be willing to hear “no” and be willing to overcome it somehow. She’s always been an incredibly hard worker and overachiever and perfectionist, so I’ve learned a lot of good things from her and acquired a lot of quirks! [laughs]
After producing Operation Babylift, you were moved to create a nonprofit organization called Against The Grain Productions (ATG). What do you see in the future for ATG?
We’ll continue to create films and events to promote awareness and unity of the Asian American culture and identity.
We’re also expanding how much money we can give for scholarships. Last year we gave two $1,000 scholarships. One went to an SMU student, Meadows junior Monika Thao-Ngan Hoang (B.A. Creative Advertising, ‘13); she’s a wonderful girl. The grant helped her buy printing supplies and will help send her to the annual ONE Show ad conference in New York.
Tell us about ATG’s annual Fashion for a Passion event.
Fashion for a Passion is unconventional. The event raises funds for Asian orphanages, and we do it with designers, musicians, visual artists, singers, anyone who is involved in the arts. The spotlight is on the designers; many are from Dallas and Texas, but some are from New York and Los Angeles. In the past we had Ninh Nguyễn, now in New York, of NINH Collection, and Khanh Nguyễn of Nhã Khanh; Khanh just exploded after her first Fashion for a Passion show. Some of our designers are SMU grads, like Nikki Duong Koenig, owner of Cykochik Custom Handbags. Nikki started her collection when she was a student at SMU.
Operation Babylift was an impactful film that touched a lot of people. Looking ahead, are there other film projects you’d like to work on?
I’d love to get back into the hard issues, the issues people don’t want to talk about, like domestic violence. And children’s advocacy. As a mother you become more and more passionate about children and families and women’s issues. But it’s hard to find the time to pour into a film when raising a baby. There’s a lot I want to do. I want to find those people who have a voice but haven’t been heard.
There’s motherhood, family, Against The Grain…you also work as an independent television consultant?
Yes. Before my life as a mom, I was a full-time TV show development producer. I consulted on cable reality shows such as Girl Meets Gown (series for WE TV) and Ma’s Roadhouse (truTV). I continue to consult production companies who want to develop TV shows. I have the best of both worlds: I can stay home, set my hours, still be active doing what I’m good at, help pay the bills, and I still get to be around Gabby and ATG.
When you were a student at SMU, was there anyone who particularly inspired you or helped you on your career path?
There were always film professors who helped me grow as an artist. Professors like Rick Worland, Tom Bywaters and Kevin Heffernan always let me follow my muse and were supportive.
Raj Sethuraju was the Asian American student adviser. He was so pivotal. As Asian American students, leadership is not something that is instilled in us; we are taught to follow, not lead. He really inspired us to stand up and be heard and to come together as a group and represent.
What advice do you have for today’s SMU student?
I know that for me, I started out not being a typical SMU student. I didn’t rush Greek. I felt independent of the cultural fabric. I felt kind of like an outsider, watching to see where I fit in. I think the best way as a student, whether you feel like SMU is in your blood or you’re one of those students on the outside, is to dig in. That’s when I was able to find what I was good at, where I could give back.
While I was at SMU I was involved on campus. I was president of the East Asian Student Association and participated on Asian Council; I was Chair of the Program Council/Films Committee. That’s what plugged me into the mainstream SMU community.
A quotation I always live by is by Richard Bach, in his book Illusions. I read it when I was a senior in high school: “You’re never given a wish without also being given the power to make it come true. You may have to work for it, however.”
SMU MPrint is a magazine for alumni and friends of SMU Meadows School of the Arts. Read the original online article here.
By Chris Agee |firstname.lastname@example.org
The only permanent Vietnam Memorial Wall outside of Washington, D.C., located at the National Vietnam War Museum on U.S. Highway 180 just east of Mineral Wells, will be updated for the second time Saturday with the names of three Marines and three Army soldiers added.
“We’ve already had the panels changed to reflect the new names,” said Jim Vines, commander of AmVets Post 133 in Mineral Wells.
The names will be unveiled at the ceremony, which is open to the public at no cost and begins at 10:30 a.m.
Vines said museum officials are required to wait one year after names are added to the original wall before the same names can be added to the local wall, meaning the people honored at Saturday’s event have been displayed in the nation’s capital since 2010.
Five more names added to the original wall this year will be etched into the replica wall next year, Messinger said.
The local wall, approximately half the size of the original, was unveiled May 30, 2009, and originally contained 70 panels and 58,260 names.
Vines said in addition to the unveiling of the names, he is excited to welcome guests from Operation Babylift to the celebration.
According to NVWM Treasurer Jim Messinger, Operation Babylift was established near the end of the Vietnam War to rescue scores of children left orphaned after years of battle in the country.
In total, the operation resulted in about 4,000 children being flown to safety, primarily to America but also to Canada and various European countries. Messinger said all of the rescued children were assigned homes and adoptive parents before landing in their new location.
Unfortunately, Messinger said, the second plane leaving South Vietnam crashed, killing 130 of the 300 on board.
In addition to the negative press assigned to the operation following the crash, Messinger said controversy arose at the time concerning whether some children were taken against their parent’s wishes. In the long run, however, the operation has largely been viewed as a great success.
Three speakers from Operation Babylift will be the first to address the crowd Saturday, according to Messinger, and eight other speakers will take part in an afternoon exhibit at the museum’s visitor’s center.
The guest list includes, in addition to now-grown rescued orphans and family members of those lost in the rescue plane crash, many speakers who were instrumental in making the operation successful.
Air Force veterans responsible for flying the rescue missions, Tammy Nguyen Lee, the producer and director of a feature film about the operation, Olen Bautwell, a crash survivor, and his wife, Louise, a Clark Air Force Base Babylift coordinator are all scheduled to speak.
Additionally, Vietnam veteran and artist Doc Bernie Duff will unveil an Operation Babylift painting which he will donate to the museum and Thuy Smith, the international president of the Amerasian Foundation will be on hand to address the crowd, expected to number between 500 and 1,000 people.
Operation Babylift’s presentation will be moderated by Lana Noone, author of the book “Global Mom,” which recounts her family’s experience adopting multiple orphans through the operation.
Another big draw for the event is an appearance by Elvis Presley tribute artist Kraig Parker before he goes on to perform that night at a concert in the Mineral Wells High School auditorium.
Parker will sing “America the Beautiful,” Vines said, adding both Presley and Parker were very supportive of veterans.
Presley himself served in the military, stationed at Fort Hood before his deployment to Germany, and, fittingly, another event scheduled for Saturday is an aerial display featuring helicopters from the same military post.
The event will be catered by Meals on Wheels, Messinger said, and the menu will feature pigs in a blanket.
Appearances by Patriot Guard Riders and a parachute jump by former U.S. Army Golden Knight and double-amputee Dana Bowman, of Weatherford, are also planned for the event.
Two attractions scheduled for Saturday’s ceremony have been cancelled due to conflicting schedules, according to Messinger.
The Liberty Bell will not make an appearance due to a military funeral scheduled for the same day and the bagpiper scheduled to perform during the invocation will be unable to attend.
“A lot of people are interested in international adoptions and are intrigued by our story” and that led to this showing, Ballard said.
Ballard was just three weeks old when he and thousands of other Vietnamese orphans were airlifted during an American-led evacuation to protect the children from the impending threat of the Communist regime.
The orphans were adopted by families in the United States, Canada and Australia.
In their own voices, this movie tells the story of some of these Vietnamese adoptees growing up in America where they faced racism and being associated with an unpopular war.
Ballard is featured not only as a Vietnamese adoptee, but the film tells the story of the trials and tribulations he and his wife encountered as they tried to adopt a baby boy from Vietnam.
They were living in the United States when their plans to adopt fell through as the U.S. government ended its adoption program with Vietnam over allegations of baby selling, bribery and false documents.
In July 2008, the couple moved to Waterloo and started the adoption process again. Last May, they adopted Jayden, now 19 months, from an orphanage in Vietnam.
“Anyone involved in adoptions would be interested” in this film, Ballard said.
The documentary will screen at the Princess Twin at 46 King St. N. on Jan. 22 from 10:30 a.m. to noon.
Although admission is free, a ticket is required. The event is being held as a fundraiser for the Vietnam Education Society, a Canadian-based non-profit group that builds schools in Vietnam.
Tammy Nguyen Lee, a graduate of SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts, will receive the 2010 Southern Methodist University Emerging Leader Award on Thursday, October 21. SMU President R. Gerald Turner will present the award at the Distinguished Alumni Awards black-tie celebration at the Fairmont Hotel in Downtown Dallas.
Dr. Turner wrote, “The Emerging Leader Award recognizes an alumnus or alumna who has graduated within the last fifteen years and has distinguished himself or herself as an emerging leader in a particular discipline, organization, or cause that has brought distinction to the University.” Arlene Manthey, SMU Associate Director of Development for Student Affairs, said, “Tammy was a student leader who made a real impact on not only her peers but others, like me, who had a chance to work with her as a staff advisor.” Continued Manthey, “She has continued to be a bright and shining star using her talents that were honed as a student leader and has become a change agent through the film and entertainment industry. Tammy…is inspirational, visionary, courageous, focused, accomplished, and always willing to step up to the plate and make a difference.”
“This has been an incredible year, full of many personal and professional landmarks and milestones,” said Lee. “It is very validating to be honored by my mentors and peers in this way. What a wonderful gift, especially during a 10- year reunion. I am very humbled and appreciative of those who have helped me along the way.”
Lee was an active student leader and honors graduate from Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts in 2000, during which time she was leader with Program Council and East Asian Student Association, voted 1st runner-up Homecoming Queen and served as Miss Asian American Texas from 1999-2001. She has experience as an actress/model, with credits spanning across movies, television, commercials, industrials and national campaigns. After graduating from SMU, Lee received a Master of Fine Arts from the elite UCLA Producers Program in 2004. She has been the recipient of numerous scholarships, leadership and service awards, volunteered with various community organizations and served on the Board of Directors of Women in Film.Dallas. She is President and Founder of ATG Against The Grain Productions, a nonprofit organization that promotes Asian American cultural awareness through outreach programs and raises money for aid to orphanages in Asia. She currently is the Director of Development for Original Programming at AMS Pictures, one of the largest production companies in the southwest, where she oversees the development of a heavy slate of projects that she has successfully developed and sold to WE tv, HGTV and truTV (Girl Meets Gown, Ma’s Roadhouse).
Lee will also speak on a symposium panel for “The Art of Entrepreneurship” at 8 a.m. on Friday, October 22, hosted by the SMU Cinema-Television (CTV) division. Later that day, SMU CTV hosts a free encore community screening of Lee’s award-winning feature documentary Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam from 3-5 p.m. in the SMU Owens Arts Center in the Greer Garson Screening Room 3531. Lee’s directorial debut depicts the historic effort that airlifted over 2,500 orphans out of Vietnam during the last days of the Vietnam War and these adoptees’ complex journey to make peace with their controversial past. This year marks the 35th anniversary of Operation Babylift. A Q&A will follow with Lee and two local Babylift adoptees. Finally, Lee will serve as one of the Homecoming Parade dignitaries on Saturday, October 23 and will attend the Homecoming football game as a guest of President Turner.