Thai native repays adopted home with donations for hospital

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 6, 2003

Viruth “Lek” Phongam, associate director of Region III of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, raised more than $1,200 for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.(Melanie Duncan Thortis The Vicksburg Post)

JACKSON A Thailand native was looking for a way to pay his respects for getting to live the American Dream and he did.

Viruth “Lek” Phongam, who now lives in Petal, raised more than $1,200 to go to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

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And here’s why.

Phongam, 50, was born and reared in a country that provides public education only until the fourth grade. His parents wanted their son to have a better education, so they arranged for him to live with and work for monks in a Buddhist Temple in Thailand, who would, in turn, pay for six more years of his education.

After graduating from the 10th grade (the equivalent of junior high by American standards), Phongam went to work for the National Police Academy and, after two years, was admitted into the Thailand Central Intelligence Department.

That’s when, at age 23, he came to the United States.

“Two families adopted me, and they helped send me through college,” Phongam said in the broken English he taught himself.

In 1979, Phongam received an associate of arts degree in prelaw from Copiah-Lincoln Junior College (now a community college) and went on to get his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Southern Mississippi.

For 22 years, he’s worked at the Mississippi Department of Corrections and has held nearly every position in the Community Corrections Division. He’s now the associate director of Region III, which includes Claiborne, Copiah, Jefferson, Jefferson Davis, Lamar, Lawrence, Marion and Pearl River counties.

Phongam has an American wife something he’s proud to tell and two children.

It’s clear when visiting with Phongam and his co-workers he’s well-liked. They talk about what a hard worker he is, while he cracks jokes about his English.

“We’re real proud of him,” said Lora Cole, deputy commissioner for the Community Corrections division of the MDOC. “We’re proud of how he represents the department and himself.”

In September, Phongam was given the Criminal Justice Award at the Mississippi Association of Professionals annual conference. The award is given to an MAPC member who made significant contributions to the field of criminal justice.

But Phongam was also making significant contributions elsewhere.

He was looking for a way to show his gratitude for the life he’s had in America and decided to try to raise $500 for the children’s hospital founded by entertainer Danny Thomas and opened in Memphis in 1962. St. Jude researches cures and treats children’s diseases, primarily cancer.

After calling and e-mailing a few co-workers and friends, the donations came pouring in.

“I was raised in a temple, and I know what underprivileged is like,” he said. “I wanted to pay back the society that has been helping me.”

He’s never visited St. Jude’s, but he hopes to soon.