Kind-hearted Vietnamese boy donates 12,000 face masks to the homeless in Washington

13-year-old Liem Kaplan is supporing the homeless people in Washington with thousands of face masks, hand sanitizer and food.
July 29, 2020 | 07:33
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13-year-old Liem Kaplan. Photo: Karen Kapla

In May, the teen created The GivingHope Project to collect and donate essential supplies to unhoused community members, many of whom felt forgotten and unprepared to follow safety recommendations during the coronavirus pandemic. “Liem always had an intense passion for helping others,” his mother Nancy Kaplan tells Yahoo Life. “People ask why he does it, and he says, ‘I enjoy it.’”

Liem was adopted from Vietnam as a baby and is the youngest of seven siblings, three of whom including him, have limb differences. “When Liem was little, he would say, ‘Can we go outside and help today?’” says Nancy. “We often drove to homeless encampments and made human connections with people. Serving others is not always about material things.”

Compassion comes easily to Liem — in elementary school, he mobilized his classmates to send bags of toys and letters to children whose schools were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy and he spearheaded a project to send gift bags to orphanages in Vietnam. Q13 Fox, the first news outlet to interview Liem, recently filmed the teen distributing goods on the street.

Because Nancy works as a home health and hospice worker at Kaiser Permenente, Liem really understands how face masks and physical distancing can mitigate the virus. In April, he started worrying about the local homeless population who live in tight quarters and can’t easily access soap and water. “He said, ‘I want to collect masks for people,’” says Nancy. “I said, ‘So what is your plan?’”

With his mom’s support, Liem began acquiring product-and-cash donations from individuals, businesses, the city and community groups to distribute to shelter programs and organizations that serve vulnerable populations.

To date, says Nancy, The GivingHope Project has distributed more than 12,000 masks, 2,000 lunches, 6,000 peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, 4,000 pairs of socks and 2,500 bottles of hand sanitizer. Some of those products are included in Liem’s weekly “hygiene kits,” plastic bags of lip balm, body wipes, toothbrushes, toothpaste and feminine hygiene products

The Kaplans are filing for a tax application to make The GivingHope Project its own non-profit, as it currently operates within Kids Without Borders, a volunteer non-governmental organization in Bellevue. “Liem’s story inspires kids to not give up,” founder and executive director Son Michael Pham tells Yahoo Life. “He is a real shining example of paying it forward.”

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Liem Kaplan of Sammamish, Washington makes weekly sandwiches for underserved communities. Photo: Nancy Kaplan

“Liem is very sweet,” Cori Walters, the executive director of the Issaquah Food and Clothing Bank, tells Yahoo Life of the child-sized masks that Liem donated to the organization this month. “It was thoughtful of him to come to us.” Celia Wu, the communications director for the city of Sammamish, also tells Yahoo Life that Liem recently picked up 50 cloth masks from a drive-though distribution event to give to elderly or unhoused people.

According to Nancy, donations are dropped off at her home or at designated sites throughout the city. “We have used cash donations from individuals to purchase socks, hand sanitizer and other items if we have gaps to fill,” she says. “We also replaced a women’s broken glasses and paid for a man to stay in a hotel while waiting for a shelter bed to open.”

It’s important to the family that donors have a connection to their causes so children that make sandwiches or write notes receive a photograph of Liem delivering the items. “It has to come full circle,” says Nancy.

Liem, who loves making art and playing with his three kittens, is modest. “If you see a problem, find a solution and do it,” he tells Yahoo Life.

“What I do isn’t that hard,” adds Liem. “You ask someone what they need [and] if you don’t have it, ask someone else to help you. Everyone can do that. You just have to care enough to stop and ask.”

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