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Boun Lod, miracle survivor, finds success and support in her High Point community

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HIGH POINT — When she tells her story, she’s stoic, matter of fact. She looks straight into anyone’s eyes and shares the horror of what happened to her.

Years of therapy have helped her get to that point. But so have her supporters. She has an ocean of them.

Her given name is Vilayvanh Phanhvanh, or phonetically, Vi-LI-Whon PON Whon. But everyone calls her Boun Lod, as in Boon-LOUD. Or simply Boun for short. Ask her what her two-word name means in her native language from Laos, and Boun tells the story of a nurse.

“If your daughter survives,” the nurse told her parents, “please call her Boun Lod.”

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Boun Lod, or simply Boun for short, was severely burned when she was about two weeks old living in Laos. While recovering in a Laotian hospital, doctors amputated both her arms right at her elbow without her parents’ consent. “People come up to me and say they see hope in me, they see a light in me, and that makes me feel warm and welcome,” she says. “They don’t have to be kind, but they are.”

Those two words mean “Miracle Survivor.”

Boun is that.

She graduated last weekend from High Point Central, and in a few months, she’ll head west to Appalachian State University and major in either psychology or political science.

She wants to choose psychology or political science because she wants to help people because so many people have helped her. Dozens of people.

Moms.

Teachers.

An immigrant attorney.

Her teammates on High Point Central’s soccer team.

An 85-year-old retired paper salesman.

A 21-year-old nicknamed “Rei.”

And a portrait photographer whose talent and compassion helped her appreciate the beauty in her scars and her arms that end at her elbow. She calls them “drumsticks.”

As for her supporters, they’re as close to her as her own family. They all helped her survive.

“All the people I’ve met in school and in High Point,” Boun says, “they see me as a person, a normal human being. They’ve helped me become who I am today.”

‘Be strong, keep fighting’

The incident happened when Boun was 12 days old.

She was sleeping in her crib in her parents’ home in Laos. Her parents are Buddhists, and her mom had lit a candle above Boun’s crib as part of a traditional religious ritual, possibly Vesak, the most important day that Buddhists celebrate, a day that commemorates Buddha’s birth.

Boun’s mom went to check on Boun’s crying cousin, and she thought she had blown the candle out. She had not. The candle’s wax dripped onto the mosquito net above Boun’s crib. The net caught fire and fell onto Boun.

Boun’s grandmother, who was walking into the kitchen, saw black smoke billowing from the bedroom. She screamed for Boun’s mom. Boun’s mom came running. She pulled Boun’s bed sheet from the crib, picked her up, laid her on the concrete floor and extinguished the fire with her hands.

Boun’s mom severely burned her hands. But Boun was worse. Much worse. The flames from the net scalded her from her head down to her belly button.

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“All the people I’ve met in school and in High Point, they see me as a person, a normal human being. They’ve helped me become who I am today,” says Vilayvanh Phanhvanh, who goes by Boun.

Boun’s parents immediately took her to a nearby hospital. They hoped doctors could help. The doctors did not. They didn’t treat her burns. They amputated both her arms right at her elbow without her parents’ consent.

Boun’s parents were furious when they got to the hospital. Why, they asked? They never got an answer. The doctors then asked their permission to pull the oxygen mask from Boun’s face. Boun’s parents said yes.

Doctors told Boun’s parents they could take her home from the hospital because she only had a 3% chance to live. The interpretation? Boun might as well die at home.

But Boun got better.

She got better, thanks to a personal nurse her family brought in and medicine that helped her burned body heal. A Canadian couple later met Boun’s family, heard her story, and paid for Boun’s trip to Cincinnati so she could be treated at the Shriners Hospital for Children.

The couple kept in touch with Boun — they still do today — and Boun began flying back and forth to Ohio for treatment. She had countless surgeries; the hospital became her second home.

The care at the hospital helped. But the people in her homeland did not.

They’d see her outside, and they’d stare at her, point at her and hurl exclamations that cut deep. Boun still remembers what they said.

“You should kill yourself!”

“I still can’t believe you’re still alive!”

“You’re a monster!”

Her parents told her to ignore it. But Boun couldn’t. She became insecure, emotionally fragile. Her mom begged many schools to accept her. But Boun got rejected every time. School officials told her mom that a disabled child should not be in the same class as, what they called, “a normal kid.”

So, Boun didn’t go to school. She hardly left her house. By age 13, on yet another hospital stay in Ohio, she told her parents she didn’t want to go home. She wanted to stay in the United States.

At first, her parents said no. Finally, they gave in. When they did, Boun saw her mom cry for the first time.

“Be strong, keep fighting,” her mom told her. “Prove people at home that they’re wrong.”

Boun first stayed with a foster family in Ohio. She then moved to North Carolina to stay with her dad’s cousin and his wife. Her dad’s cousin worked in the insurance industry in High Point. That’s how she discovered High Point Central High — and Reilly Williams.

More than just soccer

Reilly was a senior, a veteran soccer player at High Point Central, when she watched about 40 girls try out for the team. She couldn’t take her eyes off one. It was the freshman with no arms, running up and down the field.

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Boun Lod was one of four freshmen who made the cut for High Point Central’s soccer team.

Reilly’s coach asked her and fellow senior Lauren Dulin what they thought of Boun. Reilly and Lauren were both team captains, and they talked about Boun’s work ethic, her love for soccer, and they felt she belonged on the team.

“I agree with you,” their coach responded.

Boun was one of four freshmen who made the cut. During a shooting drill, Reilly told Boun the good news.

“Congratulations, you made the team,” Reilly told her.

“What?!” Boun shot back.

“Yeah,” Reilly said. “You made it.”

Boun tackled Reilly to the ground because she was so excited. Their friendship began.

Reilly told her mom, Meredith Williams, about Boun. Meredith watched Boun play. But she really zeroed in on how Boun interacted with her daughter and the other players. Boun liked them, and they liked Boun. Around that time, Meredith heard about Boun’s dilemma.

She needed to get a permanent resident card, better known as a green card, to stay in the United States. If not, Boun would get deported back to Laos, a place of deep hurt.

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Reilly Williams, a rising senior at Appalachian State, first met Vilayvanh Phanhvanh on the soccer field at High Point Central. Williams was a senior; Phanhvanh, a freshman. They became best friends and have done much together. That includes having Williams place the graduation cap on Phanhvanh’s head during a ceremony last month at High Point Central, which is where this photo was taken.

But getting a green card is expensive, and Boun needed help. Enter the Williams family.

Nearly three years ago, Meredith talked to Reilly, her youngest daughter, the girl she calls “Rei” about fundraising options. Reilly then created a page on GoFundMe.com and began raising money to help cover Boun’s legal expenses.

Reilly wanted to raise $9,550. She raised nearly $12,000. In nine days.

Gerry Chapman, a well-known immigration attorney in Greensboro, was hired, and around that time, more people started hearing about Boun’s story. Her support network began to grow.

They all came for the same reason. They wanted to help. Ask them why, and their story gets richer, a bit biblical and reminds anyone there are no coincidences in life.

Take Jordan Washburn. He’s 85, a retired paper salesman who believes in Matthew 25:40: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

‘God’s work is in this’

Washburn sits on the board of Victory Junction, an acclaimed summer camp in Randleman. Victory Junction welcomes children ages 6 to 16 with chronic medical conditions and serious illnesses and helps them have fun and feel empowered in a safe, medically sound space.

Washburn got a call about getting Boun into Victory Junction. He got her in. But he had never met her.

Then, following that initial call, Washburn happened to be sitting in High Point’s Biscuit Factory around noon one summer day when four high school girls happened to drive up and come in to grab lunch. Three girls had arms; one didn’t.

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Jordan Washburn, a High Point native, met Vilayvanh Phanhvanh first through a phone call. Since then, he has helped her attend summer camp at Randolph County’s Victory Junction and has covered the costs for her prosthetic right arm.

Washburn figured that young girl with no arms had to be Boun. So, Washburn walked up to the group of girls and looked at Boun. He had a question.

“Did you just go to Victory Junction?”

Boun didn’t say a word. She simply stood up and wrapped her short arms around Washburn and hugged him.

Washburn keeps on his bedside table a sign that reads, “Whose Life Will Be Better Because I Woke Up Today.” He sees it every morning, and after that hug, he’d look at that sign and think of Boun every time.

Two weeks later, he contacted Anthony Saia, a prosthetist-orthotist in Winston-Salem.

He asked Saia to build a prosthetic arm for Boun. Saia did. The arm cost $15,000. Washburn paid for it himself.

“When I was 12 years old, I remember seeing my mom take food to families who were hungry, and that made an impression on me and the way God wants us to live,” says Washburn, a High Point native who spent 40 years working as sales representative for Morrissette Paper in Greensboro.

“Her favorite expression was from the Bible, ‘If you’ve done it to the least of these, you’ve done it to me,’” he says. “Every day of her life she lived that.”

Boun has yet to use the arm on a regular basis. Right now, Boun does everything with her feet, from writing and eating to washing her hair and navigating her iPhone.

As for Washburn, he’s still helping Boun. So is Meredith Williams. She owned Pepper Moon Catering for years, and Washburn talked to Meredith about forming a group that could help Boun. He even came up with the name: Boun’s Moms.

Meredith and four other moms make up the group — Sandy Davis, Melanie Eskew, Emily Fisher and Dr. Lee Nunn. All five know Boun through High Point Central. For the past three years, they’ve helped Boun with many things. They take Boun to see her therapist, her psychiatrist, or any place she needs to go. They also helped Boun apply to college.

They meet once a month in Washburn’s office on the second floor of First Bank in High Point. There, they talk about Boun’s every need.

“It’s a village on how this thing works,” Meredith says. “She’ll throw us curveballs because she is a teenager, a high school kid. In one breath, she sounds like a 12-year-old. The next breath, she sounds amazingly wise. Knowing what she’s been through, it’s astounding. I am in awe of her.”

Washburn and Boun’s Moms set up an education fund to help Boun with college. They knew she’d need it. They also knew she needed a green card. Boun finally received it last September. But the process was slow-going, especially because of the global pandemic.

One day, Meredith called Chapman to check on the progress, and he assured her everything would be fine. Right afterward, Washburn called Meredith. The education fund they set up for Boun had just received a five-figure amount from an anonymous donor.

The couple who gave the gift told Washburn they were friends of Chapman, and he had told them about Boun. When Meredith heard that from Washburn, she called Chapman. She wanted to know how that donation came to be.

The couple told Chapman they wanted to help one of his clients in some way, and they asked who he’d recommend. Chapman hadn’t thought about Boun in weeks. But that morning, with Meredith’s call fresh on his mind, Chapman told them about Boun.

Boun now likely has enough money in her education fund to cover most of the costs for college, Meredith says.

“I’m firm believer things happen for a reason,” Meredith says. “God’s work is in this.”

‘One scar doesn’t define your beauty’

Kelli Gowdy is a portrait photographer in High Point, and three years ago, she created a campaign she calls Kelli’s Krew.

High school seniors in High Point apply, and Gowdy picks a handful of students every year. They’re not necessarily the most popular students. They’re students who Gowdy believes could benefit from a series of portraits that could build their confidence.

This past year, one of those teenagers was Boun.

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Her given name is Vilayvanh Phanhvanh, or Vi-LI-Whon PON Whon. But everyone calls her Boun Lod, as in Boon-LOUD. Or simply Boun for short. She was severely burned when she was about two weeks old living in Laos. While recovering in a Laotian hospital, doctors amputated both her arms right at her elbow without her parents’ consent. She later moved to the United States and graduated last week from High Point Centra.

Like other parents, Gowdy knew of Boun through soccer at High Point Central. Gowdy’s daughter, Paige, plays at Southwest Guilford. Gowdy started taking photos of Boun at the end of her junior year.

At first, Gowdy could see through her lens Boun’s shyness. But after a series of sessions, Gowdy saw that shyness evaporate.

Check out Boun’s portraits on her or Gowdy’s Instagram page, and there she is. Boun in a white ASU shirt. Boun in a white knee-length dress. Boun in a light-blue skirt that reached mid-thigh. Boun in a black suit with Doc Marten boots that she wore to her senior prom.

“You could see confidence, you could see her smile, you could see the light in her eyes,” Gowdy says. “She saw it, too. She’s become more comfortable in her own skin.”

Boun once hid from cameras because she hated what she looked like, and she hated looking at herself in the mirror. What she heard for years in Laos scarred her deeply. Her work with Gowdy, though, changed all that.

“The main reason I wanted to do it was because I wanted to be an example for other people,” she says. “A lot of people my age are insecure because of one little pimple, one little scar, and they struggle feeling any kind of self-love.

“But I wanted to show them that even because of one pimple, one scar or one scratch, you’re still pretty,” she says. “One scar doesn’t define your beauty. We’re all like pieces of art. That’s how I see people. The scars you have inside and out are part of the canvas of you.”

‘Just being me’

A few weeks ago, Reilly Williams came back to her alma mater.

She’s a senior criminal justice major at ASU, and she returned to attend a school tradition known as the Capping Ceremony. It’s an event in which seniors ask someone special to place on their heads their graduation cap.

Boun asked Reilly.

Like Boun’s Moms, Reilly has been there for Boun. She’s taken Boun to Super G in Greensboro to grocery shop, to Biscuit Factory or Carolina Diner to eat, and to Boone to see the campus.

She also took Boun to the Blue Ridge Parkway to see its beauty. When Reilly did, she stopped at an overlook to show Boun the mountains and the landscape of green surrounding them. Boun didn’t say a word. She cried.

They are tight, Reilly and Boun. They’re best friends. Three years ago, when Reilly left for ASU, Boun wrote her a note and later transcribed it on an Instagram post. Boun ended her note this way:

“I was hanging on the edge of a cliff, and I wanted to give up because I was tired of holding on … then you came and pulled me up, brushed off the dust for me, and ever since then, you have always been there for me showing me there’s people who would like to know me for who I am and accept me.”

“I’ll never get rid of that,” Reilly says of the note.

A few weeks ago, on the morning of the Capping Ceremony, Reilly woke up at 5:30 a.m., jumped in her car and drove straight from Boone to Boun’s house and picked her up. When they got to High Point Central, Boun began talking to everybody as Reilly held their spot in line to get into the gym for the ceremony.

“You’re talking to everybody!” Reilly said, when Boun got in line with her.

“I feel like I have to say hello to everyone,’” Boun responded.

When Reilly tells that story, she laughs.

“That’s not the Boun I first met,” she says.

At the Capping Ceremony, Boun won an award. She was one of two seniors who received a Sports Courage Award. Applause washed over her when she walked from her seat to the stage.

A week before the Capping Ceremony, she received the High Point Student Leader Award.

At a ceremony at the String & Splinter Club in High Point, she was one of six students who received the award from the High Point Schools Partnership. Ten feet away sat Shelley Nixon-Green, the principal of High Point Central.

Boun told her story of how she ended up at High Point Central to the people present. As she did, Nixon-Green teared up.

“We got to watch her grow, and that’s the best thing about education,” she says. “They get to become who they want to become, and I can’t wait to see what happens with Boun.”

Boun loves her parents, misses her parents, and she appreciates what they did for her. Yet, she doesn’t see herself going back to Laos just yet to visit her extended family. She’s focusing on her future in Boone. She’ll live closer to Reilly and move closer to her goal.

She wants to major in political science because she’s become politically engaged after she saw the racism and hate crimes against Asians two years ago. She says she feels this burning need to speak up and push for human rights and equality for all.

Or she wants to major in psychology because she sees herself as a psychologist, a counselor, just someone in a professional field who will help people work through their own personal struggles. She knows how they feel because of her own struggle.

Whatever she decides to do, she knows she’ll become a motivational speaker. She feels she has something to say. Her hurt and her perseverance have given her insight into life that few have. She knows that.

“People come up to me and say they see hope in me, they see a light in me, and that makes me feel warm and welcome,” she says. “They don’t have to be kind, but they are.”

And that does what?

“I’m not afraid to tell people about what happened to me,” she says. “I can be myself. And just being me, I know that’s going to be enough.”

<&underline>Class of 2022: Guilford County Schools shares the stories of 10 recent graduates</&underline>

<&underline>On point: Greensboro grad’s focus earns him a spot at West Point</&underline>

Jeri Rowe, a former columnist at the News & Record, is the senior writer at High Point University. He interviewed 12 graduating seniors as part of the annual Senior Spotlight project for Guilford County Schools.

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