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PETER BLAKEY, CLINICAL supervisor at the Monticello office of Crystal Run Village, interacts with an infant at an orphanage in Vietnam. Blakey and a group that included many Vietnam War veterans visited orphanages and hospitals in a goodwill tour. For many veterans it was an emotional trip back to where they were once considered the enemy.

Liberty's Blakey plays 'Patch Adams' on Vietnam trip

By Jeanne Sager
LIBERTY — February 22, 2008 — It was like a scene from the movie “Patch Adams.”
“Here was a bunch of aging Americans running out of what was to them a luxury bus with red noses and Beanie Babies in their hands,” Peter Blakey said with a laugh.
Technically, it was a mission trip.
And a tourist trip.
And a trip down memory lane for the war veterans who made up nearly 50 percent of that group of aging Americans who toured Vietnam in late October, suitcases filled with – among other gifts – hundreds of Beanie Babies.
Blakey had to find his own niche in the group.
Technically, he’s English, born in London.
A trip to America in the early ’70s to work as a camp counselor at Crystal Run Village’s Middletown campus changed the course of his life.
He later met wife Barbara while working at Crystal Run’s facilities in Fallsburg.
The two married in 1978 in Florida, but even as he was applying for his green card as the spouse of a citizen, Blakey had permission only to work at Crystal Run.
That brought the Blakeys back to Sullivan County, where they’ve been ever since, now residing in Liberty.
Today Blakey is clinical supervisor at the Monticello office of Crystal Run Village.
Barbara is an assistant superintendent at BOCES, and in her spare time has taken on the role of president of the Liberty Rotary Club.
Last spring, she was presiding over a meeting that played host to some Rotarians from Spring Valley.
Veterans of the Vietnam War, the men were behind a Rotarian effort that has helped build two schools so far near the Laotian border in Vietnam.
Schools To End Poverty (STEP) is helping fill in the gaps in an educational system that – unlike that in America – is not free to Vietnamese citizens.
“My wife came home absolutely amazed at what they were doing,” Peter recalled.
Her enthusiasm was contagious.
Barbara sent an e-mail to Howard Goldin, one of the chief organizers of the October trip.
Could a non-Rotarian, a non-veteran hitch a ride?
Goldin’s answer was unequivocally “yes.”
Peter Blakey paid his own way – this was after all, part vacation – but like the other members of the trip, he brought along a separate suitcase filled to bursting with necessities for some of Vietnam’s neediest residents.
“I had something like 3,000 vitamin pills,” he related, his pronunciation of “vitamin” as “vit” rather than “vite” a reminder of his British background.
He packed pencils, crayons and other “good stuff” which members of the Liberty Rotary helped him buy with their generous donations.
The organization itself gave a check to fund an upgrade in the wheelchairs the STEP group would be buying for 20 children at a medical school in Hue.
In late October, the group flew to Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital under the auspices of MilSpec Tours, a Flourtown, Pa. agency that focuses its trips on veterans.
The group had swelled to include veterans and their families from not just New York but Pennsylvania, California, Montana and Kansas.
Blakey found his Crystal Run background, his experience in counseling, helped him to simply listen to the stories of the veterans – folks who were reliving experiences that could hardly be put into words.
Among them were three helicopter pilots – two who had been shot down, the third who had served as their rescuer.
It was their first trip back to the land where they were once treated as the enemy.
“It was so emotional, to the point where it was cathartic for them,” Blakey explained.
Each of the veterans, their wives, and even the two teenagers on the trip, brought along the suitcase of supplies and took part in the humanitarian arm of the trip.
“They were giving back something, but they were also trying to work out in their minds what it was all about,” Blakey said of many of the vets.
“In the orphanages we went to, the hospitals and the schools, there was just this feeling that these people were really doing something amazing,” he continued.
Bouncing down dirt roads in their bus, the group members would advise their driver to stop when they saw groups of children.
That’s when they’d don their Patch Adams noses and run out, Beanie Babies and other goodies in hand.
Looking back, Blakey said he can imagine they were quite a sight. But the actions were those of such good will, his laughter is imbued with a fondness.
Although Vietnam is a communist country and one that was at one time an American adversary, there was never a feeling of animosity from the people Blakey met.
Instead, he related a warmth, telling stories of a small veteran memorial fire that was later tended by one of the workers from a nearby rubber plant.
Blakey was touched as much by the people of Vietnam as he was by his chance to play a part in the Vietnam veterans’ experiences.
Among the gifts from the Americans were bicycles for young girls – given to them to ensure they could ride to school, a safeguard against the all-too-common story of uneducated young Vietnamese women being sucked into the sex trade.
That’s another driving factor behind the STEP mission and its schools – providing education as a means to improving the quality of the children’s lives.
They’ve also focused on improving their health – bringing on the last trip 58 brain shunts for children with hydrocephalus (a condition that causes fluid to gather in the head and eventually compress the brain), providing the wheelchairs and purchasing a water filtration system for one village.
This isn’t the only way to get involved, to give something back, but Blakey said something about it struck him as just right.
“It’s just allowing yourself to be part of a group that’s doing something for someone else,” he explained. “It doesn’t have to be ‘do-gooder’ stuff… it can be doing what you do. If you’re a carpenter, go help build houses in New Orleans.
“It was just one of those things,” Blakey continued. “If you told me this time a year ago that I was going to Vietnam, I would have said you’re joking.”
Now he knows he’ll be going back … sometime.
It may well be sooner rather than later.
Goldin will be making a presentation to the Liberty Rotary again on April 22, and the event is being opened up to the public to spread the word about STEP’s good works.
For information, call Barbara Blakey at 292-3642.

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