Charles Song can’t tell you his exact age. His mother did not have a clear idea of the date of his birth. He lived with his parents and siblings in Cambodia, a country at war. Their lives were a daily struggle to survive. Song guesses he was about 12 years old when one fateful day the Red Cross stepped in to save him and change his life forever.
That day, on his way home from school, Song was severely wounded in a bomb attack. Suffering from injuries to his hands and abdomen, he pulled his bloody shirt over his stomach and found a man on a bike willing to take him home and then to the nearest hospital. He languished, bleeding, for many hours, unaided in a hospital filled with equally desperate people. To get care, you needed to have money to pay for it, and his family had none.
In the middle of the night, his brother bribed an ambulance to take Charles to another hospital, run by the French. There, Charles Song remembers that a female doctor met the ambulance and started to help him immediately. She told him that she was with the International Red Cross. She explained to anyone who protested that Charles was literally within minutes of dying from his wounds and insisted on taking him into surgery. Charles’ brother was frantic, worrying about how they would pay for the surgery and the after-care his brother would need. The doctor told him not to worry. The Red Cross volunteered their services. There would be no charge and the Red Cross would take care of everything.
Charles survived. For most of his young life, he and his family knew nothing but war, hunger and deprivation, but he never forgot the kindness of the Red Cross.
In 1976, one of Song’s brothers, Heng Lucky Song, escaped Cambodia to live in Vietnam. He then fled Vietnam by boat and ended up in Malaysia. In 1979, he was finally able to get to the United States. Four years later, through the efforts of the International Red Cross and its Restoring Family Links program, Heng Lucky was able to locate the rest of his family in Cambodia. With assistance from his local church, he was able to act as a sponsor and bring Charles, his other four siblings and his parents to the U.S.
Flash forward to 2005 when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast. Nancy Kindelan, then CEO of the Red Cross Greater Long Beach Chapter, was the Director of Operations for the state of Mississippi during the storm. When she returned to Long Beach, she vowed to help prepare the area’s most vulnerable populations. She created the Preparedness Initiative and received grants to purchase 2,000 family disaster preparedness kits to contribute to those who needed them most, including the Cambodian community in the Long Beach area.
In order to successfully administer the program, Kindelan knew she would need the involvement of trusted leaders in underserved communities, which included residents of Cambodia Town. Chares Song was one of the community leaders recruited. He helped Kindelan introduce Project Initiative to their community and with translating the materials into Khmer. Song’s support was so impressive that the Greater Long BeachChapter invited him to join the board, and in 2006, he was elected unanimously.
Since then, Song has become a very active volunteer with the Red Cross. He currently works at a gas station in the Long Beach area, working the night shift so that during the day, he can be there for his wife, who is blind.
Song, who recently shared his story with 100 Red Cross volunteers at the first Red Cross World Day on May 8, as well as at the Los Angeles Region Board meeting held later in the month, said:
"To have your life spared by the Red Cross is God's gift. To have a chance to serve on the board of an organization that once saved your life is an honor. And to be able to help others is a blessing."
Photo: Greater Long Beach Chapter CEO Margaret Arbini-Madonna, Charles Song and Mike Ferrar