Cherie Clark's Early Adoption Work


After Cherie was on the losing side of a third presidential campaign, the McGovern/Shriver side, she began to realize that there was little she could do to affect politics in America, or to save the people in Vietnam (at this point, America was beginning to pull out of the war, but Vietnamese were still dying). However, she was still enthusiastic about making a difference in the world, and so she began to focus on changing lives for the better on a smaller scale. Toward this end she decided to adopt a mixed-raced Vietnamese baby, as she had learned earlier that they were in greatest danger from the war.

Through an organization called OURS, which was helping Vietnamese Orphans, she learned of the organization Families for Children, which specialized in adoptions for Afro-American/Vietnamese babies, which were at the greatest risk of being abandoned. This was the organization that would eventually introduce her to Vietnam. She filled out the necessary paperwork, not sure which baby she would receive, but willing to take whatever one was chosen for her.

She ended up being registered for two babies, due to an understandable lack of organization within the understaffed Vietnamese branch of Families for Children. Having by this point developed an intense love for the children of Vietnam (which would become a permanent part of her), she decided to take both of them. One of her babies, Jennifer Loan, was given a "humanitarian parole visa" by the American Embassy in Saigon, and was able to leave Vietnam immediately without having to go through the bureaucracy ordinarily necessary to do so. This was not necessarily unrelated to the coinciding cease-fire agreement between North Vietnam and America.

It was while waiting for Jennifer at the airport that she met Cheryl and Mick Markson, who were then volunteers with FCVN. She and her husband Tom stayed in touch, and became more involved with FCVN, establishing contact with Carol Westlake, the wife of FCVN's president. It was through these connections that they decided to found their own chapter in Illinois. At this point, Cherie was becoming actively involved in trying to improve her world once more, this time as an FCVN volunteer.

At this point, Cherie's other adopted infant, Cam Van (whom she named Joanna) was being detained in Da Nang by the South Vietnamese government. Unlike her sister, she hadn't been granted humanitarian parole as well, so that things looked bleak for her adoption. She was extremely weak, and they did not think that she would survive to be adopted. Cherie was encouraged to adopt another child in her stead, and she did so, adopting a boy she later named Thanh. She later found out that Joanna's adoption was once more moving forward; now she had three babies.

Thanks to a stroke of luck, Cherie was contacted by a man named Steve Johnson, who lived and worked in Vietnam. He generously offered to do whatever he could to help them with their struggle to adopt their two remaining Vietnamese babies. Steve helped them understand more fully the adoption situation their kids were facing, and told them about what kind of problems the workers were having in Vietnam, so that they could send aid that more closely met the workers' needs. The way Steve helped Cherie the most was by bringing Thanh to the Saigon Allambie orphanage center run by Rosemary Taylor and Margaret Moses. At Allambie, conditions were better, and the Catholic sisters running the center were more concerned with getting their charges quickly adopted.

The biggest problem Thanh faced that prevented him from being adopted was his lack of a birth certificate, which was not ordinarily granted to infant orphans in the centers, since so many of them died. He finally was given one when the sisters registered him as a newborn, even though he was already a year old. However, he still faced additional bureaucracy, and so Cherie flew over to speed up the process for him and his sister. This was the beginning of her work in Vietnam.

Once in Vietnam, she immediately met Thanh and Joanna. She had expected them to be very glad to see her; unfortunately, Joanna was extremely wary of her, and Thanh ignored her. Both of them had finally found a stable environment within the center, and were loath to do anything that might make them leave it.

Because the centers in Saigon were quite under-staffed, Cherie, being a nurse, was asked to help out with them. She was ecstatic, and realized that this was a job she both could and wanted to do. However, she was apprehensive about starting out so suddenly, since she had not yet had adequate nursing experience. Nevertheless, she decided to do it.

At first, she was very nervous about doing the job, especially since there was nobody to turn to if she needed help (most of the staff were Vietnamese speaking), and since there were so many babies. She also had not yet been exposed to the death of a baby, and took the first one very hard. However, having no other choice, she blindly rushed into the job, and began to get the hang of it. Soon, she was quite confident in doing the job.

As she continued to work in Saigon's orphanages while waiting for Joanna and Thanh's paperwork to finish and trying to win over both kids, she began to develop an intense affinity for Vietnam. She felt she liked everything about it, a feeling that increased her desire to stay within the country. She also began to gain a broader perspective of the orphan situation in Vietnam, and to gain a work ethic for correcting such a situation. Soon, however, her children were ready to go to the States, the adoption work having been expedited by her presence, and she readied for the return trip.

And so Cherie returned to the United States. However, she felt entirely out of touch with middle-class, prosperous life here, and longed to return to Vietnam, where she was dearer because it was in greater peril, and because it was a place where she could actually make a concrete difference in others' lives. Her children were happy in America, and that made her glad; however, she could not shake her memories of the many dying Vietnamese children who would never have families. Thus, she and her husband Tom prepared to permanently move to Saigon, where Cherie could continue her work. This required unshakeable commitment, since Tom had to put his excellent, new job at IMB on hold and sell their house in order to fund the operation, and since all of them would effectively abandon Western life, at least for the time being (Cherie ended up detaching from the Western world for good.).

Coincidentally, FCVN was restructuring at the time, since its previous Vietnam representative, Rosemary Taylor, was leaving to found her own organization. Since the organization was undergoing major leadership changes, Cherie Clark, her husband Tom, and two of her friends and associates in the adoption circle, Cheryl Markson and Carol Westlake, were selected as the new Overseas Directors, Executive Director, and American Adoption Director, respectively. This would enable Cherie's adoption work in Vietnam to be as effective in the future as possible, as an American guardian association was an absolutely necessary protection against unforseen circumstances and overpopulated orphanages. Additionally, it would greatly expedite the location of potential adoptive parents and the processing of their applications.

Additional volunteers also joined the cause. Among them were Ross Meador, a 19 year old American, and Cherie's sister, Sue Clark. Le Thi Bach Thuy was an American-educated Vietnamese woman who had become FCVN's social worker in Vietnam, and Steve Johnson also began to take a very active role in the effort, although he remained separate from FCVN itself. After Cherie had completely prepared to made the transition, FCVN having raised the appropriate money for her family's plane tickets, Cherie left for Saigon as well. As she had feared, her children could not understand the reason for their leaving, and were devastated (in a temporary way as only 5-year-olds can be). American media covering the story could not understand Cherie, and she did not attempt to force her cause on them.

Although it was extremely strenous, living and working in Vietnam was a dream for Cherie. She felt that she was pursuing her call in life; no obstacle was too much work for her, since she regarded her "work" as pleasurable, or at least a very desirable pursuit. However, she was soon to discover how different were the conditions of the country to all she was familiar with. Her first impression was that the country was quite loud; she soon was also exposed to its poverty and its inadequate medical care. Regardless, she was enchanted with Saigonese culture and liveliness, and became more thrilled as she discovered its unique character.

Ready to begin organizing as many adoptions of mixed-race Vietnamese as she could, Cherie pulled together all her paperwork as best she could, and went to USAID to receive American permission for her work. It was here that she first experienced bureaucracy's power to hinder good work. USAID refused to permit adoptions arranged through FCVN, and it was only through talking to top-level Vietnamese officials that FCVN was ever allowed to carry out such adoptions.

And so Cherie organized FCVN's Saigon nursury. She hired two Vietnamese women, named Hong and Anh, who were already medically knowledgable and were to train additional staff members. The orphanage was established as a jump-point for already adoptive babies who had yet to travel to America. Hence, it was designed with a premium placed on preparing the children for their transition to America, complete with a courtyard for games, and basic English lessons.

Cherie's lifelong work in the child-saving business began enthusiastically and hopefully. Though she did not find the task easy, she found herself nonetheless capable. From there, she began to immerse herself in her work, focused on improving the quality of life for all Vietnamese.