Hayley Votolato's first trip to Vietnam was drawing to a close.
She turned around for a final glimpse and there stood the children, tears coursing down their cheeks.
Six years have passed, but it is this sight that comes to mind when the Texas Christian University senior recalls her two-week visit to Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang.
After receiving an informational flier in the mail, Hayley had accompanied Robert Kalatschan, a Huntington Beach resident and co-founder of Giving It Back to Kids, to volunteer at Vietnamese orphanages.
Her parents had previously met Kalatschan and his wife, Dorothea, through common friends, a couple who, at their twins' birthday party each year, would ask attendees to donate to the nonprofit in lieu of gifts.
Harrowed by the living conditions she'd witnessed, Hayley, 21, who distributed bicycles, rice and wheelchairs and even observed heart surgery screenings, felt a growing desire to serve. She returned to Southeast Asia the following year, also spurring her brother, Hunter, to action.
"These children, not even 5 years old, were experiencing heart problems ... and were diagnosed with leaking heart valves," she said. "I remember the exact moment I put my hand upon a child's chest and felt the blood swooshing with each beat. Never have I ever experienced something like this before.
"It was difficult to comprehend how they weren't able to race to the emergency room and have heart surgery. I have always known my life was blessed, but at that moment, I knew I could never look at my life the same."
An unexpected mission
Children lie at the epicenter of this organization — not only in terms of its services, but also its creation.
In 2001, the Kalatschans, then parents to a Vietnamese-American boy, Tommy, were in Vietnam to adopt 11-month-old Kristina.
Accustomed to the comforts of Orange County, Robert remembers counting down until the flight home, praying that there would never be a need for him to return to the area.
His life panned out differently, though, taking him back to Vietnam 55 times since that initial reaction.
"I was haunted and I still remember mental images of the kids I'd met," Robert said. "I really felt that every kid deserves a chance. What they do with that is up to them, but they deserve an opportunity."
Back home, with Kristina, he turned to his wife and mumbled, "Honey, I think we are supposed to try and do something." Dorothea replied: "Yes, dear, I think we are."
And so, Giving It Back to Kids was born.
In its 12 years, the group, which began with only a name and $500 contributed by each founding board member, has provided food, shelter, dental braces, an education, 479 heart surgeries and more than 700 orthopedic procedures, among other aid, to boys and girls who have either lived in its facilities or been referred by local government officials, neighbors and other charities.
Robert now oversees the six homes in Vietnam that his group owns — two for college-aged youths and one for unwed mothers — and two others in Cambodia.
But the numbers that make him glow are the 48 students currently enrolled in a university and the 70,000-plus wheelchairs that have been distributed by Giving It Back to Kids.