Noelle Nguyen is a longtime volunteer at Culmore Clinic in Falls Church. “I see their needs and I want to fulfill that need with what I feel in my heart, with love,” she says. “Love is the reason for everything.” (Toya Sarno Jordan/For The Washington Post)

Officially, Noelle Nguyen’s task is to interpret.

When she shows up at Culmore Clinic in Falls Church, where immigrants get free health-care services provided through the support of 16 local congregations — Christian, Muslim and Jewish together — she helps elderly Vietnamese people speak to their doctors.

And then, sometimes, she invites them to her home.

“They don’t have anyone. They ask me for my phone number. I have to give it to them,” she says. “And I go and help them and comfort them. My job is not just to translate. My job is also to help them with whatever they need.”

And, as she sees it, being able to offer that help is the privilege of a lifetime. A lifetime shaped by the promise — and deliverance — of American opportunity.

Noelle was a 13-year-old in Vietnam when she and three of her siblings were loaded onto a small ferry packed with refugees. Until the communists took over the nation three years earlier, Noelle’s dad had been a government accountant. After the 1975 takeover, he was sent to a reeducation camp and became a motorbike taxi driver. The family’s home was seized, and Noelle’s parents feared for the futures of their 11 children.

Until she was aboard the boat, disguised as a sugar-cane cargo ship, Noelle didn’t fully understand what was happening. Her parents hadn’t told her where she was headed, fearing that she might breathe word of their planned escape. Noelle didn’t even get to say goodbye to her mother.

The boat was headed toward Hong Kong, a journey that was expected to take four days. But the ship got turned around and was lost at sea for a month, without enough food or water for the 37 cramped, exposed passengers. Their bellies ached from hunger as their clothes disintegrated from the sun and salt air. At one point a storm ravaged the vessel.

“I remember looking up; it was like the wave was going to engulf us,” she says. “And then when we were on top of the wave; then we looked down and it was a dark, deep valley. It was so scary. Everyone was holding each other’s hand, and we were ready to die.”

That was the first time Noelle prayed. As a child, she’d slept in bed with her mother and listened as her mother talked about God. A missionary gave Noelle a Bible when she was a girl, and on the ship she recalled a story about God calming the sea. “Can you do it again?” she asked in the midst of the storm.


Nguyen prays at the St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, located next to Culmore Clinic. “You can’t say you love God and then walk around and see people who are hungry or need help and walk away. That’s not loving God,” she says. (Toya Sarno Jordan/For The Washington Post)

Slowly, the ocean grew quiet. And the refugees found their way to an island off China. Their legs faltered when they tried to stand on land. Their stomachs could digest only thin rice soup. But they were alive, and after 10 more days at sea, they made it to Hong Kong.

Noelle and her siblings lived in a refugee camp for a year, waiting for an American group to sponsor their passage to the United States. Finally they arrived in Chicago Heights, Ill., in the winter of 1978.

“I'd never seen snow before,” she says. “It was shocking.”

The last thing that Noelle’s father said to her and her siblings was, “Remember, finish college,” so her two older siblings enrolled at universities, while Noelle went to high school and her little brother attended junior high. The siblings were allowed to remain together, in a house a Catholic group helped them rent.

When Noelle’s oldest brother moved to California to escape the cold, his siblings went along. Noelle graduated with a finance degree from California State University at Long Beach, and then, after 10 years in the United States, the Nguyen siblings succeeded in bringing their parents over.

By then, a stroke had blinded her father. And her mother looked so old to Noelle. But the two women had something new in common: the fervency of their prayers.

After college, Noelle flew east to join a sibling in the Washington area. She landed a job in finance at Freddie Mac and began going to church every day at lunch, often asking God a question that’s become her refrain: “What do you want me to do?”

Through friends she met another Vietnamese immigrant who became her husband. When their second son was born with ear problems, she hesitantly left her job to stay home full time. But she did not stay home. Toddler in tow, Noelle began spending time at a retirement home. She volunteered to serve meals at a homeless shelter. She delivered food to the infirm and started teaching religious education classes.

“It was a long journey, missing my parents and having to live very poorly,” she says, tears welling up in her eyes. “But then we learned a lot. We learned to be among the poor. We learned to be one of them. And so we know how they are, and we have compassion.”

Today Noelle is 53, petite and reserved, with sparking eyes and warm hands. “I don't want to talk about myself,” she says.

And she usually doesn’t. No one, not even her husband, knows what she does during the day. She takes care of the people in her own home, and then she takes care of everyone else she possibly can. She tells the kids in her Catholic religious education classes that it’s not enough to just believe.

“You can’t say you love God and then walk around and see people who are hungry or need help and walk away. That’s not loving God,” she says.


Nguyen talks with Cindy Nothom, a volunteer registered nurse, and Patricia Ani-Adjei, a volunteer medical assistant at Culmore Clinic. (Toya Sarno Jordan/for The Washington Post)

When a friend told her about fourth-graders at a local school who couldn’t read, Noelle started meeting with the two boys every week at the library. When another friend told her they needed help at the Culmore Clinic, Noelle said they could call her anytime.

“When I came to America, American people shared with me. And I’ve become an American now, so I share with other people,” she explains. “And it’s a great feeling. It’s a joy. I cannot do big things. I do tiny, little things. But Mother Teresa says we can’t do great things. But we can do little things with great love.”

In a year, Noelle’s youngest son will leave for college. She has faith that both her boys have ingested the lesson of her life. Without mentioning it to his mom, her older son, a biochemistry major at the University of Virginia, started waking up at 6 a.m. every Monday to serve breakfast at a shelter. Then he got a tax certificate to file income taxes for the poor.

“He didn’t tell me until he get home. And I was so happy,” she says in a whisper. “I’m like, ‘My life has meaning.’ ”

When both sons are away, Noelle knows she’ll have time to do more. So again she’s asking God: “What do you want me to do? What next?”

Increasingly she feels called to work with mentally disabled children. But she will still show up for the elderly and poor.

Every year at the holidays, Noelle hosts a lunch for the people she’s helped throughout the year. Last December, while she was at the stove cooking, she overheard two old women talking.

One of the women said: “ ‘Isn’t it nice to have someone invite us to a Christmas party?’ I heard that,” Noelle recalls. “And I’m like, ‘Oh my God — I’m very happy to be that person.’ ”

This Life is an occasional series about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. If you know of someone we might want to write about, email ellen.mccarthy@washpost.com.