Kindergarteners stream out of their classrooms, jump on the playground, and burst into joyful play. Sue Warner-Bean, an instructor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering since 2006, beams.
Fifty years ago, this land in central Vietnam was one of the most heavily bombed areas of the Vietnam War. For every square meter of land in Quang Tri province, 600 pounds of bombs, mines, grenades, and other munitions were deployed. An estimated 10% to 30% didn’t explode and remain volatile, threatening local families and children.
Beyond the classroom, Warner-Bean serves as a board member for PeaceTrees Vietnam, a non-governmental organization dedicated to removing unexploded ordinance and supporting community-led development in former Vietnamese war zones. Warner-Bean’s life is inextricably tied to the Vietnam War.
In March of 1966, her older brother, Corporal David Warner, enlisted in the Marines. Two years later, he was killed in the Battle of Hue, just shy of his twenty-second birthday. Decades later, his sister, Warner-Bean, contacted some of the men he served with to learn more about him and ways to honor his memory. She met his former commanding officer, retired Col. Chuck Meadows, who at the time served as executive director of PeaceTrees Vietnam.
Subsequently, she began raising money to build a kindergarten in Vietnam in her brother’s name. In 2007, The David Warner Kindergarten opened, a result of Warner-Bean’s fundraising prowess, commitment and partnership with PeaceTrees.
Similar to The David Warner Kindergarten, the USC Peace Kindergarten opened May 18, 2023, the latest of over 20 kindergartens supported by PeaceTrees. Since 1995, the organization has helped clear over 4,712 acres of land, planting over 44,000 trees and removing over 136,814 pieces of unexploded ordnance.
After raising $44,000 for the project, mostly from USC Aviation Safety team members — many of whom are veterans — construction on the new school began, Warner-Bean said. The local district government in Vietnam contributed another $15,000 to the project.
This kindergarten will serve the village of Cup (pronounced Coop), home to the Van Kieu ethnic minority. The Van Kieu people speak a Katuic language, so they are at a disadvantage when they enter grade school where the primary language is Vietnamese. At the USC Peace Kindergarten, Van Kieu kindergarteners will learn Vietnamese, facilitating their transition to primary education.
The USC Peace Kindergarten will provide daily nutritious meals to the young students, who might otherwise not have enough to eat. Most families in the region live below the national poverty line of $150 USD per year. Malnutrition is prevalent
The idea for the USC Peace Kindergarten was born in sorrow. One of the men who Warner-Bean met when researching her brother’s death was Jim Lewis, the Marine who had replaced him in Vietnam. A beautiful friendship blossomed.
Warner-Bean said, “I lost one brother, but gained another.”
The two traveled together to Vietnam, where Lewis sponsored several projects through PeaceTrees. When Lewis died in 2021, Warner-Bean felt the loss keenly.
In a conversation with Anthony, the USC Aviation Safety and Security Program director, she mentioned Lewis’ death, who died just after raising money for another kindergarten in Vietnam.
Intrigued, Anthony asked how much a kindergarten cost. When Warner-Bean told him, he felt confident that the USC Aviation Safety program could raise the money. In early August 2022, Anthony and Warner–Bean reached their target – less than three months after they had begun.
“For me, the kindergarten represents grass-roots peacemaking. I love that it will make a better future possible for children and a community that are still impacted by the consequences of a war that ended nearly 50 years ago,” Warner-Bean said. “I’m moved by the generosity of Tom [Anthony] and other project donors who have come together to help reverse the legacy of that war.”
Why lead a fundraising campaign to support a former enemy of the United States? “Because it’s the right thing to do,” Anthony said.
Added Warner-Bean: “No kid or farmer should be at risk from the remnants of a war that happened before they were even born. It’s ultimately about reconciliation. Peacemaking starts with the people.”
Published on November 9th, 2022
Last updated on June 16th, 2023