By Lily Nguyen of the Daily Pilot and LA Times 

Elizabeth “Liz” Nguyen-Espinoza likes to keep busy. Her work days begin at 6 a.m. and end at midnight — sometimes 1 a.m., depending on what’s left on her agenda. She runs three businesses out of Huntington Beach during the work week. She helps coach her twin daughters, Sabrina and Izabella, in tennis.

Once a week, she’s been making her way to Laguna Beach to take classes and work on projects in the post-baccalaureate program at Laguna College of Art + Design.

And on June 15, she’ll present the inaugural gala for her nonprofit, the Rosa Thay Nguyen Children’s Foundation. The organization, which she named after her late mother, seeks to provide medical care for underprivileged children through maternal, pediatric and vision health programs. Nguyen-Espinoza is calling the gala “The Journey of Courage” to highlight the sacrifices of generations of women all over the world. Nguyen-Espinoza, who is studying painting and sculpture, said she intends to communicate the nonprofit’s mission through art. “Art is one way to convey certain compassion, a certain way to say things … as opposed to me to go and tell you about my foundation,” she said.

“I think when people can see and can hear, it’s much more appealing to all the senses than just talking about something.” She and her mother were refugees who fled Vietnam following the fall of Saigon in April 1975. Nguyen-Espinoza was 8 at the time. The nonprofit was founded shortly after her mother’s death last year and was inspired partly by her childhood, her mother’s efforts with orphans in Vietnam, and the birth of Nguyen-Espinoza’s children. Nguyen-Espinoza was raised in a convent for a time during the Vietnam War and thereafter lived in a convent in Milwaukee until she left to complete high school in New Orleans, where she attended Loyola University.

“I said to myself: ‘Gosh, my kids; if they have a cold, they have Tylenol. They have a fever, they have something we can measure.’ Just imagine … those kids that don’t even have the basic stuff just to get through a cold and how uncomfortable that is,” she said. “The biggest goal and mission of the foundation is to get to some of these kids in need, whether it’s [in the United States] or over there,” Nguyen-Espinoza said. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Remember Me” will be a record of people helped by the foundation. “It’s people that you encounter in your life and you may not ever see them again, but it’s a way for you to hold and tell a story about that person, that place,” she said.

Faculty members of the Laguna Beach art college, which Nguyen-Espinoza began attending after her retirement from working for the U.S. Treasury in 2016, serve as advisory board members for her nonprofit. She said she initially went to the school for its emphasis on representational art, but she liked that LCAD was “family-oriented” and that the faculty supported her emotionally when her mother died.

Betty Shelton, chairwoman of the college’s post-baccalaureate program for students working toward a second bachelor’s or entry degree, also is a member of the nonprofit’s advisory board. “I could not say no to her. … I believe in her,” Shelton said. “She is sincere and involved in wanting to help children. …“I knew her when her mother passed away and I saw the transformation from being just focused on becoming an artist to also wanting to give back like she knew her mother would have wanted her to.”

Anthony Aldave, a professor of ophthalmology at UCLA and director of vision impairment surgery for Nguyen-Espinoza’s nonprofit, said she is “a person of surprises.” His own nonprofit, Visionaries International, works to reduce corneal blindness around the world and is partnered with the Rosa Thay Nguyen Children’s Foundation. “I was surprised that somebody so young had left their career and chosen another path,” Aldave said, referring to Nguyen-Espinoza’s career with the Treasury. “Her path [is] now exploring her passions, interests and talents in creativity and arts and philanthropy.”  Without the support of organizations like the Rosa Thay Nguyen Children’s Foundation, Visionaries International would be unable to buy corneal tissues and equipment to perform surgeries in places like Vietnam, Aldave said.

Nguyen-Espinoza isn’t taking classes at LCAD this semester while she prepares the gala. She’s also planning a series of paintings called “Remember Me” for the nonprofit. “Remember Me” will be a record of people helped by the foundation. “It’s people that you encounter in your life and you may not ever see them again, but it’s a way for you to hold and tell a story about that person, that place,” she said.

She said her art focuses on reflecting positive emotions to show “another beauty in this part of life that we should treasure.” “It’s a matter of preference,” Nguyen-Espinoza said. “There’s no right or wrong on what you want to convey. But this is me.”


What: “The Journey of Courage” benefit auction and dinner for the Rosa Thay Nguyen Children’s Foundation

When: 5:30 p.m. June 15

Where: Hyatt Regency Resort & Spa, 21500 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach

Information and tickets: