When their beloved mother, Sang Payne, passed away, her children wanted to honour her Khmer roots by fundraising for the Cambodian Children’s Fund, of which she was a big fan. As a tribute to Sang, CCF held a 100 Day Ceremony in her memory
Everyone who knew Sang Payne was immediately struck by her kindness, generosity and huge capacity to put others before herself.
Most of all, she never forgot her heritage. Despite spending most of her adult life in the U.S, Sang chose to dedicate her time helping refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam, the two countries that ran through her veins.
A Khmer Krom – an ethnic group of people of Khmer descent who live in South Vietnam – Sang was born in Rach Gia, Vietnam, and spoke several languages including Vietnamese and Khmer. She also lived in Cambodia for a time.
Throughout her life, Sang opened her home and heart to those in need of a safe space, advice or simply friendship. In the community of Wichita, Kansas, where she settled with her American husband, Doug, after being evacuated following the fall of South Vietnam in April 1975, she became the voice for fellow refugees.
“She was the person that refugees called when they needed help,” wrote Sang’s daughter Christina Valecillos.
“Her mastery of the English language enabled her to translate on behalf of Cambodian refugees whether it was in the courtroom or a hospital.”
With two children and a full-time job as a hospital radiology technologist, she still continued her advocacy work. She helped establish and ran the yearly Indochinese Festival in Wichita for several years, passing down traditional Khmer dances and music and organising shows with refugee children.
“We may be fighting each other overseas, but here we join hands, we unite,” Sang said in a television interview about her refugee work.
A special place in Sang’s heart was reserved for children and with her husband, who she met while he was working in Saigon for a U.S. aerospace company, helped raise, care for and welcome many children into their home.
The couple had also adopted their oldest son James (Jimmy) Danh Payne while living in Vietnam.
Sang would never see her parents again after escaping from Vietnam in 1975.
It was not until 1999, 25 years after leaving, that she finally returned to Vietnam to reconnect with her brothers and sisters, including Vinh Kim, who was living in Cambodia.
Sang, who volunteered with the Red Cross during the Vietnam War and would go to the edge of the battlefields to help assess the wounded, never stopped devoting herself to others.
According to her husband, Sang sent a large number of her family’s children through school in Vietnam. She also sent a young girl in Cambodia through Law School and supported monks in several Cambodian temples, as well as several orphanages in Vietnam, along with an initiative drilling freshwater wells in Cambodian villages.
“To the end she never asked for anything for herself but gave to help others,” Doug Payne wrote in an eulogy to his wife.
“She actually made a great difference in a lot of people’s lives and she will be missed immensely.”
Later in life, Sang suffered a spinal cord injury and never regained her ability to walk. It didn’t stop her tireless philanthropic efforts.
Facebook became her lifeline to the outside world.
“It was on Facebook that she discovered Cambodian Children’s Fund and became an avid supporter of the organization,” wrote her daughter Christina Valecillos.
“She would always talk about Scott and share and comment on his posts.”
Sang passed away at the age of 64 on 17 February, 2018, in her sleep at home in Houston, Texas.
Her family set up a fundraising drive in her memory, choosing CCF as the recipient.
In recognition, CCF arranged a 100 Day Ceremony on May 28 at the Divine Community in Phnom Penh with monks and children from the Rice Academy, one of CCF’s satellite schools. A traditional Cambodian ceremony, it honours the memory of those who have recently passed.
Sang’s youngest son, Bryant, travelled from Ho Chi Minh City where he lives, to attend with his wife and her family.
100 Day Ceremonies were also simultaneously held at two Buddhist temples in the U.S. The Saint Cloud, Florida, ceremony was attended by Doug, Christina and relatives while Sang’s best friends, Judie Anderson and Beverly McElrath, organised a ceremony in Houston, Texas.
“She (Sang) would have been so happy,” said her daughter Christina.
“She would have been surprised at the outpouring. A lot of the things she had done, she had done from the heart and not for the recognition.”
A total of $4,731 was raised for CCF by the family. This money will make a direct difference to the lives of children and their families living in some of the most impoverished communities in Cambodia, providing access to schools and healthcare.
“Sang strongly believed that an education could save lives and give children a brighter future,” wrote her daughter Christina.
“She was well aware that it was her education that provided her with opportunities to help others and to build a better life for her family.
“We’re certain that donations made in her honor will enable the children of CCF to learn, grown and in turn help their own families and communities.”
She told CCF that her mother would have been “so proud” of the fundraising effort.
“It is recognition of how she loved children and how proud she was to be Khmer.”
Sang and her husband would have celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary this year.
The family are trying to come to terms with losing the woman who was at the centre of all they did; a woman of strength, humility and grace, and an enormous heart who never stopped giving to others.
They take great comfort in knowing that her legacy will live on with all those that she helped over the years in the U.S., Vietnam and Cambodia.
“Life without her scares me,” wrote her husband Doug.
“But I see that almost all the kids she has touched have her sense of direction and moral compass, so I think that maybe her job was done.”
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