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Where EAST meets the Northwest

ROAD TO REDEMPTION. 7,500 Miles to Redemption follows the journey of Tinh Mahoney and inmates from the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) in a unique collaboration to help build schools in Vietnam. Pictured are (clockwise from top left) children attending the first school built by the Village School Foundation; So Kosal, the fundraising organizer and president of the Asian Pacific Family Club when the film was shot; and a group of inmates looking at childrenís "thank you" drawings. (Photos courtesy of the Village School Foundation)

From The Asian Reporter, V18, #12 (March 18, 2008), page 16 & 20.

An Oregon musician helps inmates find some hope and purpose

7,500 Miles to Redemption

Directed by Emiko Omori

Produced by Emiko Omori and Tinh Mahoney

By Toni Tabora-Roberts

At a comfortable, small screening room tucked away in the Hotel Deluxe, a small crowd got to witness a moving story of inspiration, redemption, and kindness. It seems a shame that so few people had the opportunity to experience it, so I share it here in hopes it may inspire you.

7,500 Miles to Redemption is a half-hour documentary about Vietnamese-born, Salem-based acoustic guitarist Tinh Mahoney and his unique connection to a group of prisoners at Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP), a maximum-security prison. Tinh is also producer of the film, which was directed by award-winning filmmaker Emiko Omori.

The beginning of a unique collaboration

The story begins with an unexpected collect phone call Tinh received from OSP. The caller was Sam Sophanthavang, an inmate at OSP. He read about Tinh in The Asian Reporter and was hoping to bring Tinh for a visit with the prisonís Asian Pacific Family Club, to provide some cultural education and a small connection to the outside world.

Tinh agreed to visit with Sam, who was then president of the club, to discuss the possibility. Tinh was frank with Sam, expressing that he was skeptical about helping them out. "Youíve had every opportunity to better your life, yet you made the wrong choices. Why should I support you?" Tinh left thinking that was probably the end of it.

Soon after that visit, the men from the Asian Pacific Family Club presented Tinh with a long list of reasons why he should work with them. Moved by their thoughtfulness and persistence, Tinh couldnít resist any longer. He began working with Sam and the new club president So Kosal about doing a workshop.

Prisoners turned philanthropists

This is where the story gets even more interesting. In the course of their discussions, Tinh mentioned his pet project, the Village School Foundation (VSF), to the guys. When he learned his friendís school in Vietnam was in danger of closing down, Tinh was inspired and founded VSF. The mission of the foundation is to raise money to help build schools in poor, rural areas in Vietnam, providing educational opportunities for underprivileged families.

The men of the Asian Pacific Family Club were so moved by the mission of VSF that they decided they werenít just going to bring Tinh in for a cultural concert, they were going to work with Tinh to raise money for the school. And their goal was to raise money within the prison from their fellow inmates. It was an astounding vision, given that each prisoner makes $20, maybe $40 per month through limited work opportunities.

The film follows the journey of Tinh and the inmates as they navigate the bureaucracy of the prison system to make the fundraiser happen. In addition to Sam and So, we meet Dwaine Little, a lifer who becomes extremely dedicated to the cause of VSF. All the planning culminates in a special event held in the prison. It features cultural music, presentations, and even belly dancers (cleverly and dangerously snuck in past authorities). The Asian Pacific Family Club proudly presents a check to Tinh as their donation to the VSF.

Months pass and the inmates havenít heard anything about the school or where their money went. Sam and So start receiving questions about whether or not it was all legit.

Finally, Tinh returns to OSP, which is remarkable to begin with. (As one inmate noted, "No one ever comes back.") Tinh triumphantly shares with the men photos, videos, and "thank you" drawings from the school that their money helped build. All the prisoners are extremely proud, and some even become emotional.

So proudly boasts, "Now I have something good to share with my son."

Dwaine expresses that itís never too late to do something and hopes folks take notice. "Weíre in here trying to do something positive."

The inmates continue to raise money for VSF. With those donations and others, VSF has built four schools so far. Tinh hopes to start a similar program at another prison.

Surprise guest at the screening

Tinh attended the Hotel deLuxe screening, which was followed with an extensive Q & A session. At the end, Tinh announced the surprise appearance at the screening of Sam Sophanthavang, one of the central and most endearing men featured in the film.

Sam had just been released from OSP a week earlier and was quickly trying to adjust to life on the outside after 15 years in prison. This included getting to know his brother who was just five years olds when Sam first went away, learning how to use cell phones, and getting started in his work with VSF.

Sam is also currently dealing with the fact that even though heís a free man, on paper he is actually deported as a result of the Patriot Act. Though Sam came here as a refugee when he was just a child and has only known the U.S. as his home, because of his immigration status and his prison record, he is officially deported back to Cambodia. However, since Cambodia does not currently accept deportees, he is not in immediate danger of being shipped out. But heís required to check in regularly and knows that eventually it will happen.

Despite all heís experienced and all thatís to come, Sam is extremely positive and dedicated to continuing his work with VSF. "Itís changed me completely," Sam declared. "Itís not a project. Itís a way of life."

To learn more about VSF, visit <www.vsfoundation.com>.

DVDs of the film are available through <www.7500miles.com>.