Jenna Lambertz traveled to the United States when she was almost 2 years old after being adopted by Jim and Cindy Lambertz of Carroll.
Jenna Lambertz traveled to the United States when she was almost 2 years old after being adopted by Jim and Cindy Lambertz of Carroll.

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series about a Carroll alumna’s journey to meet her birth family in Vietnam.

When Jenna Lambertz scribbled drawings of her family as a young girl, she’d use the peach crayon for her mom. Her dad. Her brother.

Then she’d reach for the brown crayon to draw herself.

“Growing up, I don’t know what age it was that it dawned on me that I was from somewhere else,” said Jenna, who was born an ocean away near the capital of Vietnam in 1994. “I’ve always known about it.”

She’s lived in Iowa since she was 2, though, after she was adopted by Jim and Cindy Lambertz of Carroll.

She grew up in Carroll, graduated from Carroll High School in 2012 and went on to Iowa State University in Ames to study landscape architecture.

She had no memories of Vietnam or her relatives there, felt no connection to the country.

But when an opportunity arose about a year ago for Jenna, now 22, to take an educational tour of Southeast Asia, the idea took root and wouldn’t subside.

She would travel through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos.

And Vietnam.

“I was so young when I left,” she said. “I had no recollection or emotional ties (to Vietnam). It was more about learning about the culture and seeing what my life could have been like.”

The questions started circling through her mind.

What was it like, this place where she had come from?

What would her life have been like there?

What about her other family, her other mom?

———

Jenna was born in Vietnam in 1994 with the name Thi Lan Nguyen.

Her birth parents weren’t married. Her mother already had one young daughter. There wasn’t much extra money.

Raising another child seemed impossible.

When Jenna was 5 months old, her birth mother put her up for adoption.

At the same time, in Carroll, Jim and Cindy Lambertz were in the midst of a years-long struggle to adopt a child — a journey they’d embarked on even before Jenna was born.

They had one son, Jason. When Jason was 2, Jim fell from a ladder and broke his neck. He’s now confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. Having more kids wasn’t in the picture.

Almost a decade after the accident, the couple started talking about adoption.

They were still young — in their mid-30s at the time. And a daughter would be fun, they thought.

But the process was long — years-long — and they hit one dead-end after another as opportunities continued to fall through, both within the United States and internationally.

Maybe it wasn’t meant to be.

Then, one day in church, Cindy listened to a message about perseverance.

“I said, ‘Well, let’s try one more time,’” she recalled recently.

Each setback had been a little more heartbreaking than the last.

But they tried one more time.

June 2, 1996, was the first day they held Jenna in their arms.

She was almost 2 years old, malnourished, tiny.

“People said, ‘What a cute boy you have!’ to my mom,” Jenna said with a laugh.

Her head had been shaved before she left Vietnam.

“She came bald,” Cindy said. “She was still cute.”

Her brother, Jason, was 13 years older. He and his friends played with Jenna, recorded video as she took her first steps through toddlerhood.

Not that those steps happened right away.

“She didn’t have to walk, that’s for sure,” Jim recalled.

Everyone wanted to carry her. Cindy recalled a tiny Jenna sitting on Jim’s feet as he traversed the house in his wheelchair.

“She loved sweet corn,” Cindy recalled.

“She loved everything,” Jim said.

They kept part of her Vietnamese name, Lan, which means “orchid.”

So she’s Jenna Lan Lambertz.

Jenna Lan Lambertz has spent just about all her life in Carroll and Ames.

She’s an Iowan.

But her Vietnamese roots remained.

She decided to go on the trip.

———

Jenna didn’t travel to Southeast Asia with the intention of finding her birth family.

But once she was there, during the students’ first stop in Thailand, Jenna wondered whether she could visit her orphanage.

She contacted her parents back in Iowa, who sent her copies of her adoption paperwork, and Jenna passed on the information to one of the trip’s guides, Kevin, who took the information and, using his connections in Vietnam, began digging.

It took him 24 hours. He had found the orphanage.

And he had found her birth family.

“They had no idea I was American,” Jenna said. “They had no idea I was in Iowa.

“They had no idea I was alive.”

They wanted to see her.

Her mind raced.

She could visit the house where she was born.

She could see where she’d come from.

She could meet her birth mom.

With little warning, she was planning an impromptu trip to meet the people who had been there when she was born.

Her family.

Would she and her birth mother look alike?

What would they talk about?

Would her mom accept her?

She had just a few days to prepare.

A few days to process two decades of separation.

A few days to figure out what to say to her mom.

Then, a blow:

Jenna wasn’t going to meet her birth mother after all.

She had died five years earlier.

Read part two of this series here.