By anyone’s standards, Nina Saisombut is a busy woman.
The 44-year-old Kent woman co-owns Thai Chili restaurant in Kent with her mom and her sister, working there most days. She is a dancer and trained musician, sharing her native Thai culture at local festivals. She also is a dental assistant, working out of the Seattle office of Dr. Steven Albright.
But there is more to Saisombut than just those things, and she is about to part this country to do it.
Every year Saisombut spends two weeks in an impoverished country, as part of a team giving free dental care. They’ll set up in a village – sometimes with no electricity, so they’ll have to bring a generator – and offer what for some is the first dental care of their lives.
“A lot of people need help,” Saisombut says Monday morning at her restaurant.”If you don’t go there, you can’t see.
“You can’t imagine.”
For the past two years, the businesswoman has been seeing poverty – and hope – through the program, which is offered by a non-profit organization called Hands of Love Ministry, out of Granite Falls. She is part of a 24-member team – a part of which will offer dental care, and the remainder offering medical care like minor surgeries, gynecological services and vaccinations.
The organization works out of Guatemala, in Central America, choosing a different village every four to five years in which to work. This year, Saisombut will be working in a remote village in the mountains called Raxuha. She will be out of the country from March 17-29, working with Dr. Albright, who also is part of the medical group.
While the people she works with are poor in material wealth, they are rich in warmth and gratitude, and it’s not too long before Saisombut is making friends in the villages where they volunteer each year.
“In the morning I am walking through the village, and they say, ‘Nina!’ Nina!’” Saisombut, said, smiling at the recollection of their trip last year, to the Guatemalan village of El Paraiso.
The colorful little tubes of toothpaste, handed out to the villagers after their checkups, are a big deal, too.
“They keep the toothpaste like a decoration,” Saisombut said, noting she has to work to make them open the things. “I’m like, ‘Use it!’”
Saisombut has come a long, long way from a girlhood in Thailand to a full life in the United States.
She had been employed by an American company in Thailand, and opted to leave the country in 1997 for opportunities in the United States. She was the first of her family to go – her parents and sister Nong followed after her, after she and her family saved up their money to bring everyone over. The family already had owned and operated a restaurant in Thailand, so it was a natural direction to follow stateside. But before her family came here, Nina opted to go to school to become a dental assistant.
Albright hired her, enabling Saisombut to save money for her family’s restaurant. In 2002, the family opened Thai Chili, and she went to work there too, as part owner. Today, she does a lot of everything, from waiting on customers to helping with food preparation and cleanup.
For the most part, Saisombut is pretty quiet about the irons she has in the proverbial fire.
“Not a lot of people know that I work two jobs,” she said.
She was inspired to begin volunteering for Hands of Love after seeing Albright volunteer each year, often with his family.
“He loves to do it for the communities,” Saisombut said. “He goes to many countries,” including Haiti, Romania and Thailand.
That kind of selflessness appeals to Saisombut, who for the past 10 years has been going overseas, mostly with Albright and his staff, and other times on her own, to help others who are struggling. In 2004 she mounted her own fundraising campaign and went to Thailand, where she personally handed out funds after the devastating tsunami that killed thousands. A lot of the people who received that money, she said, were fishermen whose nets and equipment had all been destroyed.
Given all that Saisombut already does, she really could just take the so-called “easy” way and work two jobs she loves. But that’s not for her, or her family, who have supported her and helped contribute.
“We have a happy life and we want to share,” she said.
It’s not hard to see what she gets in return, thanks to the many people she’s met, on the job, as a volunteer, and a passionate devotee of Thai culture.
“I don’t know what lonely is,” she said.