In summer 2006, UC Irvine undergraduate Andy An Hoang traveled to Vietnam to better understand the country he’d last seen at age 6. He spent most of his visit working at an orphanage near Saigon and caring for children with cerebral palsy.

“The children were in little cribs, 40 to a room, with only two caregivers,” he says. “I’d feed them and organize playtimes – anything to make them smile.”

When he returned to the states, Hoang had a purpose – and a plan for permanently improving the orphans’ lives. The Garden Grove resident founded a nonprofit, Life Beyond Circumstances International, to help disabled and disadvantaged children in Vietnam. The organization now works with Thanh Tam, a Vietnamese orphanage for the neurologically impaired, to create simple, sustainable programs to enhance the orphans’ development.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of circumstances and people’s ability to transcend them,” Hoang says. “I want to help these kids live a life in spite of their abject circumstances.”

His program earned him a $10,000 award from the Donald A. Strauss Public Service Scholarship Foundation, which was established as a memorial to the late Don Strauss of Newport Beach and grants 14 scholarships annually to California college juniors for their public service projects.

Most of the children at Thanh Tam have cerebral palsy or hydrocephalus, an accumulation of fluid on the brain that can cause mental disability. They’re abandoned by their families because of the stigma associated with their conditions.

“People see disability as a consequence of fate or familial karma,” Hoang says.

Life Beyond Circumstances tries to erase the stigma by encouraging local students and volunteers to play with the orphans – which helps foster physical and neurological development.

The group worked with Orange County nutritionists and dieticians to set up a nutrition program at the orphanage and is working with occupational and physical therapists to develop a curriculum for increasing the children’s simple motor development.

“The sustainability of our proposed program relies on the support and leadership of my colleagues. UCI undergraduates serve as directors, officers and volunteers of our nonprofit,” Hoang says. “We’re young, passionate and idealistic, and we have a true desire to make a difference.”

A neurobiology and comparative literature double major and Campuswide Honors Program student, Hoang plans to pursue a degree in medicine and doctorate in global health so he can dedicate his life to international medicine.

“Visiting the orphanages has given me motivation to study, as well as a tangible idea of the kind of life I’d liked to lead.”

Now a senior, he plans to continue Life Beyond Circumstances long after graduation, expanding the program beyond Vietnam. The Strauss Foundation and his family have helped support the venture financially.

“I see this as a long-term commitment,” he says. “I want to improve the lives of others whose circumstances are so dire.”