THE NEEDIEST CASES FUND

Small businesses are kept afloat while keeping health care workers fed. And with training, opportunities for new ventures arise.


By Christopher Mele

For Tee Tran, the golden rule is not just an aspiration. It’s a way of life that he has tried to embody, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Tran, the owner of Monster Pho restaurants in Oakland and Emeryville, Calif., said his mother, Tina Le, instilled the rule in her children: Treat people how you want to be treated.

“You see somebody who needs help, you just do it,” he said. “It’s not, ‘What do I get out of it?’”

Donate now to the 109th annual campaign of The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. All proceeds go to 10 organizations providing assistance to those facing economic hardship. Make a tax-deductible donation through GoFundMe.

He credits Ms. Le with setting an example for working hard. In 1986, when he was not quite 3, his mother, his two older brothers and an aunt fled Vietnam. They spent two years in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines before gaining a sponsor in the United States.

After immigrating, Ms. Le at one point worked four jobs at once — babysitter, seamstress, caregiver and newspaper deliverer.

At 21, Mr. Tran studied auto mechanics, then joined a car dealership as a salesman, climbing the ranks to become a finance manager. At the peak of his career, he earned $200,000 a year but found the job unfulfilling.

He wanted to go into business for himself.

“When I told my mom I wanted to open a restaurant, she said, ‘Are you stupid? Are you crazy?’” he recalled with a laugh.

He found a site and set about getting financing, permits and equipment. It took $500,000 and extremely long days. For a time, he subsisted on 99-cent Jack in the Box hamburgers.

But when he opened his first Monster Pho in 2014, the restaurant found a loyal following, with business growing every year.

Then the pandemic struck, wiping out Mr. Tran’s profit margins.

In response to the coronavirus, World Central Kitchen, one of the 10 organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, asked Mr. Tran in March to supply 100 meals to shelters for homeless people and schools, as well as to health care workers and older adults, as part of its Restaurants for the People program.

His restaurants have since provided more than 20,000 meals through the program. World Central Kitchen paid $10 a meal, which has helped Mr. Tran keep his staff of 30 full- and part-time workers employed.

“Without their help, things would be a lot different,” Mr. Tran said of World Central Kitchen. “Without them, I would not be able to hire all my staff back. All my staff have jobs and they get to go home and feed their families.”

Mr. Tran, 36, has given back to the community by offering free Vietnamese coffee to emergency responders and health care workers. He has also set up a community garden and a wagon filled with fresh produce for people to take what they need. “We’re all in this together,” a sign says.

The idea for the wagon came after he saw a building manager headed to the supermarket for broth ingredients during the height of the lockdown.

The manager, Thomas Rawson, said he would try to take only what he needed from the wagon filled with fresh produce, but that Mr. Tran would encourage him to take “so much that I would carry a bag back to the building and put out an email for tenants to come by,” he said. “What restaurant does that?”

Mr. Tran continues to think of new ways to help the community, including giving customers 25 percent off their order in exchange for donations of new blankets.

“My mom always reminds us that if you have what you need, give back,” he said.

More than 9,000 miles away in Uganda, Juan Mary also adapted her work this year. Ms. Mary, 23, has plans to open her own fashion and design shop, thanks to training she received from the International Rescue Committee, another organization supported by The Fund.

Ms. Mary fled civil unrest in South Sudan with her brother and came to Uganda in 2016. She joined her mother in Kampala. Their minimal income came from roasting ground nuts, which can be used in making peanut butter or as snacks.

Ms. Mary enrolled in the Livelihood Resource Center, which is run by the International Rescue Committee and offers training in baking, tailoring and hairdressing. In her class of 50, Ms. Mary was a star student, she said through an interpreter. She said she excelled at the work and showed a keen interest during the nine months of training.

Graduates of the vocational training were commissioned to make masks in response to the pandemic. The Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, which is part of the U.S. State Department, paid for the material and machinery. The International Rescue Committee covered the labor costs with support from The Fund.

Each tailor, including Ms. Mary, earned the approximate equivalent of $246 for 900 masks.

During a video chat, she displayed some of her handiwork, including a dress with a red and yellow heart-shaped bodice that met a forest green fabric at the waist, and a skirt with diamond shapes of blue, orange and yellow.

Ms. Mary, who has a newborn girl, Poni, hopes to eventually be joined by her husband, a car mechanic who remained in South Sudan. In the meantime, she said, she is happy to be earning money and looks forward to opening her own business so she can help support her mother and brother, and train others in tailoring.

Donations to The Neediest Cases Fund may be made online or with a check.

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