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,
“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
What was it like, this place where she
had come from?
What would her life have been like
What about her other family, her other
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
Raising another child seemed
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
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,
“People said, ‘What a cute boy you
have!’ to my mom,” Jenna said with a laugh.
Her head had been shaved before she
“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
“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
“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
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
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
Would she and her birth mother look
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
A few days to figure out what to say to
Then, a blow:
Jenna wasn’t going to meet her birth
mother after all.
She had died five
Read part two of this series here.