From a distance, it looked like just another family reunion.
There were tables of homemade food and matching T-shirts. People were catching up and remembering the past. This reunion, however, was anything but typical.
On Aug. 28, in the pavilion next to Betty Nell and Charlie Headricks’ house at Royal Oaks, the food was a mix of Asian and Southern staples.
The guests’ T-shirts read: “From the Mekong River to the Tennessee River, 1979-2010.” Their memories were of a journey from one river to another, and the almost 30 years of kinship that followed.
In 1979, the Headricks’ good friends, Lloyd and Patricia Smith, contacted World Vision about hosting a refugee family from the Cambodian war.
“My wife and I were watching (war coverage) on TV, and we came up with this idea. We had a house, an empty house, there on the farm. If we could fix that house up, we could maybe take care of one of the families. So she made the call to the agencies. In about six weeks, a family arrived.”
Eang Tang along with her parents and three brothers were assigned to the Smiths. According to Tang, they had been living at refugee camps throughout Thailand after fleeing Cambodia.
“Before we get to the United States, we had been shipped to different refugee camps. They try to put you back to your county. We stayed together because we’re not going back.”
Tang’s sister, Thek Uy, said they fled Cambodia because, “They killed a lot of people. We ran away from that.”
Betty Nell and Charlie’s son, Larry Headrick, who is currently assistant principal at Maryville Intermediate School, said the family was running from the Communist regime under dictator Pol Pot, who is often described as the ‘Hitler of Cambodia.”
Headrick said the 1984 film “The Killing Fields” describes what the family was escaping in the mid-1970s. “They basically tried to take over the country,” he said of the Khmer Rouge. “and they killed everybody that was educated or did anything that represented the Western World.”
Uy said the family ran on foot to Thailand. “We were in the jungle and had to go at night. The soldiers, they would be watching for you. We came to Thailand by night, and I carried my children there. In the jungle, my daughter was a baby. I had to keep her quiet.”
During the journey, Uy lost three children. She came to the United States in 1981 with her husband and two surviving sons; three years after her parents and siblings came to the U.S.
Uy had to stay behind at the refugee camp because she had a husband and children so they had to find their own sponsor.
The Smiths were determined to get the other family members to Tennessee and asked the Headricks to help. They knew each other from attending church together at Fairview United Methodist.
The Headricks sponsored the family after Smith told her, “They’ve got a sister over there, and we need to get them here.” She said. “So I talked to Butch, my sister, and our brother Bobby, and we said ‘yeah, let’s go for it.”
Larry said it took a while for his parents and the Smiths to get the family to Tennessee. He was 17 years old when they finally arrived. “They lived in a little house next to ours. It was where we kept fertilizer for the golf course. We spent about a month fixing it up, remodeling it for them to live there.”
Uy’s daughter, Kim Roth was born in Maryville two months after the family arrived. Kim Roth was primarily responsible for organizing the reunion in August.
Roth said she hopes to eventually record her family’s history in a book.
“There were members of our family who didn’t make it. It’s a testament to their strength. I keep thinking, we need to get this down on paper. I’ve been reading about the history and learning about how that applied to my family. It’s interesting and heartbreaking at the same time.”
She said her mother is just now sharing some of the stories. “It’s all still very painful for them. It will be a lifelong process. The reunion was a good step for them.”
The reunion officially began with Lloyd Smith tearfully addressing the crowd of about 75 people. “Over the years they’ve told us how much they appreciated us. What hasn’t been told is how much we appreciate them. You’ve prospered well. The Lord has blessed you and has blessed us by knowing you. It’s just more than what can be put into words,” Smith said.
Smith said he remembered getting an urgent phone call almost 30 years ago from World Vision that a family had arrived for them to host.
“We got ready real quick to go to Nashville to get them,” Smith said. “My oldest son was living in Kentucky about 40 miles north (of Nashville), so he was with them until we got there.”
Smith said when he greeted them at the airport; the family was tired and malnourished. Tang’s husband had to stay behind because of tuberculosis but joined the family six months later.
Tang said in 1979, she was not sure what to expect from a host family. While at the refugee camp, her family participated in interviews with several agencies in search of a host family. Tang said they listed several countries. “We just want to get out.”
Then she added, “We got lucky.”
Once they arrived to the U.S., she said the language barrier was difficult but the Smith’s were patient and generous. “We didn’t speak any English. They gave us a Cambodia to English dictionary. Mr. and Mrs. Smith bring clothes and food. They come help us out. They teach us everything from turn on hot water, cold water, turn on the stove.”
Smith said the children learned the language at a fast pace after getting settled in Tennessee. The older children completed high school in two years and most of the children from both families have college degrees.
Betty Nell said, “Seeing how they’ve turned out is just amazing.”
When Uy arrived to stay with the Headricks in 1981, Betty Nell said the family had many needs. “The little girl, Kim Sol, was really sick. It was about as bad as you can get without dying. You could see scars all over her body. Her stomach was swollen. I just don’t know how she made it. She’s a little miracle baby.”
Betty Nell’s daughter, Jan Herzbrun, worked at a pediatrician’s office and helped coordinate care. Betty Nell said, “They were so scared. That was a rough time.”
Not only did they have great physical needs but struggled emotionally. “They were scared that first night. They had come out of a horrible situation.”
Betty Nell credits her sister and brother as well as her church family at Fairview UMC for helping rally around the family.
After recovering, the family thrived in the tenant house at the Wallace Farm. Betty Nell said she bonded with Kim Son and sang to her often. She said one of her fondest memories was hearing the little girl learn English.
“Larry was playing football for Maryville High School. The boys would come in Fridays before the game, and we always fed them. Little Kim would always be around. Her first word was ‘football.’ Then from there, she just picked it up.”
The families moved to North and South Carolina in 1983 but they remained close to their host families. They have visited each other about two to three times a year since they left 17 years ago.
Kim Roth said some of her fondest childhood memories are of visiting the host families. “We visited mostly during the summers. I remember once we went and stayed for two weeks. I thought it was like camp.”
Her father passed away five years ago, and she said, “I would love for Papa Charlie (Headrick) to walk me down the aisle when I get married.” She said, “I always joke to my friends and my family back home that they are my second parents.”
Kim Roth graduated from the University of South Carolina in Aiken and is a marketing manager for Richard Petty Motor Sports.
She said her success is in large part because of the Headricks and the Smiths. “I think its really rare that you find a family like that. They genuinely wanted us to do well and because of them, we did. I’m not sure they grasp their importance in shaping our lives. We could never make them understand the significance they play in our lives.”
Betty Nell said the feelings are mutual. “I wish we could convey the feelings we have for each other. I can’t remember ever regretting any of this. It’s been a blessing.”