Margie Vong will never forget Christmas Day 1979, the night she landed in America.
Vong was just 4 years old when she and 21 family members, who all escaped in boats from her communist-controlled homeland Vietnam, flew from an island in the Pacific Ocean into freedom at Los Angeles International Airport.
A family member already here had promised to meet them and help them begin their lives in America. But as hours went by at LAX, Vong and her family faced the shocking realization that the cousin wasn’t coming after all.
Faced with imminent disaster, they were approached by a group of Buddhist monks passing through the airport and were taken into their monastery for the next three weeks. That’s a lot for a child to process and endure. But what Vong remembers most of all were the presents she received from the monks because of the holiday.
Today, nearly 40 years later, the Pasadena resident loves sharing that same joy and surprise with special-needs children each Christmas season.
For the past four years, Vong and her husband, Patrick Caudle, have organized a toy drive among their customer base at the two locations of Pasadena Strength and Conditioning Gym. This year’s drive paid off on Dec. 13, when the couple led a group of their trainers and school staff in passing out more than 300 toys to the students at Tobinworld school for autistic and special-needs youth in Glendale.
“I go to different places to share, but every school I’ve been to are special-needs schools,” says Vong. “I guess it was because I was from a very low-income family, so I feel that with special-needs kids it’s a double whammy, and I can help even more than with regular schools.
“Tobinworld said we were the first people to reach out to them in their 40 years,” Vong continues. “This toy drive was more touching than anything else because no one had reached out to them. The other toy drives, people always reached out to us.”
Vong and Caudle organized the drive by placing collection boxes at both of their gyms, which are private-rental facilities in which personal trainers rent space to train their clients in a system similar to salons renting chairs to hairstylists. They then used their social media skills to encourage plenty of donations before interviewing prospective schools about the size and economic demographics of their student body in order to settle on a final location.
Tobinworld is a nonprofit school for grades K-12 established in 1977, which provides specialized behavioral education and treatment to children and young adults who have been classified as severely emotionally disturbed, autistic or developmentally disabled. The agency is one of California’s oldest and most comprehensive schools of its kind and the only one focusing on behavioral sciences. It serves nearly 300 students from 24 school districts in Southern California.
“This was the first time we ever had a toy drive, so this was a big surprise,” says Tobinworld Principal Chris Lougheed. “The kids were sure excited, from little baby toys to shirts and backpacks. The elementary kids were super excited, but the middle school guys didn’t believe it beforehand, then when they walked in the library their eyes got big and they got to pick whatever present they wanted. They looked at me incredulously.”
That same type of joy filled the four-year-old Vong as well, as she only realized “the toys made me so happy and I knew someday, that’s how I’d have to give back.” She recalls a childhood of dire poverty in the Lincoln Heights area, surrounded by gang members until she moved to West Covina at 22.
“We had nothing whatsoever. I remember we didn’t have toilet paper, and my mom worked in a sewing factory and collected pieces of fabric or pieces of newspaper as our toilet paper,” recalls Vong. “I still remember all this, I ask to this day why did we do the move to where we had nothing at all. My mom had 10 of us cramped in one big room.”
Yet Vong was determined to succeed in her new country, with her and her siblings having to do their homework without parental help because their mom and dad did not speak English. She also worked in a sweatshop while growing up, and remembers “every time the police would show up for an inspection, we’d be hiding in bags. That was the only income I was able to get while growing up.”
Eventually, she attended Glendale Community College while working up to five jobs on the side. She would attend classes from 8 a.m. to noon before driving to a job as a file clerk from 1 to 5 p.m. before heading off to a night shift in a Target store. She was also a frequent babysitter, and while she was exhausted, she credits her hustle with enabling her to move out of her dangerous childhood surroundings.
That same entrepreneurial spirit has driven the success of her gyms. She and Caudle met while working in a corporate environment 18 years ago and risked all their money to open their business four years ago, even after losing their house in 2010 “when the balloon popped” on the housing market, says Vong.
“We put everything into the gyms, hoping it would work,” she explains. “Pasadena made it very hard to open. Almost gave up, but he was determined and did everything himself, cut costs and then I presented him with this toy drive and I said I really want to do it so he said ‘OK, let’s do it.’”
“Because she’s had such a rough early life, so many sisters, I won’t say she’s frugal but she’s very strict in how she handles everything across the board,” says Caudle. “She’s great with numbers, manages our books to the penny, and is very detailed in all her actions. I’m super laid back, free spirited, and we gel together because her strengths are my weaknesses and vice versa. She can see the negative components and still dive into things. We balance each other out, and that makes both the gyms and toy drives like this successful.”