Luc Janssens is an artist, professor of French language and literature, expert in multicultural education, pilot, and winemaker. He is also a philanthropist and a source of hope and compassionate care for impoverished people in the war-ravaged countryside of Laos. “What started as a personal interest in learning more about bilingual education years ago became a lifetime endeavor to help Laotians,” he explains.
Luc is as versatile in the ways he fulfills this goal as he is in the rest of his life. His organization, the Lao Rehabilitation Foundation, cares for disabled children, builds schools, dispensaries and hospitals, ships tons of medical equipment and supplies, builds clean water systems in remote villages, organizes plastic surgery missions, and delivers healthcare with volunteer medical staff in rural areas.
Born in Brussels, Belgium in 1944, Luc graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels with a Master of Fine Arts degree. At the age of 26, on a whim, he took a trip with his younger brother to attend a flight school in Merced, California. After what he describes as a short stint as a pilot for Air Zaire in Africa, Luc returned to the U.S. and earned a master’s degree in French Language and Literature from California State University, Stanislaus.
Luc continued his education, pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of San Francisco while teaching French at Merced Community College to support his endeavors. “As a French instructor in Merced, I was often asked to help Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia who were settling in California’s Central Valley,” Luc says. “I was able to assist them in navigating a new culture because the elders and community leaders spoke some French.”
Not one to do things halfway, Luc dove in, learning from the community about their needs and concerns. “Soon I got involved in helping with refugee resettlement issues, including preservation of Hmong language and culture,” he says. In doing so, Luc also found his PhD dissertation topic and produced a lengthy study on Hmong beliefs and values.
When, in 1989, he joined the faculty at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California, Luc met a student who specialized in the languages of Lao ethnic minorities. She read Luc’s dissertation and was astonished to find that he had never been to Laos. “She strongly encouraged me to go, and offered her assistance,” he says. With a group of scholars, they made the trip in 1994, and Luc was grateful for her companionship. He recalls, “She allowed me to see the country from a human rather than an academic perspective.”
On their visit to the National Rehabilitation Center, where victims of landmines left over from the Vietnam War era were treated, one four-year-old particularly touched Luc’s heart. “I will never forget his gaze. He had been hit in the back by shrapnel from an exploding land- mine, and he was paralyzed,” Luc says. “This is when I decided I had to help. I did the best I could with limited funds for a few years, then in 2002 I launched the Lao Rehabilitation Foundation.”
Since then, Luc and the foundation have helped more than 30,000 patients in some of the poorest villages in Laos. Pheng is one of those aided by Luc’s generosity. Severely burned and blinded by a lightning strike, Pheng suffered terribly without medical care until Luc intervened. Now, after many years and reconstructive surgeries, Pheng makes a living playing music at weddings in his area. “Pheng has taught me many things,” Luc says, “most of all courage, willpower, hope, and the value of life.”
Over the years, Luc has expanded the foundation’s mission to include projects addressing nutrition, clean water, sanitation, shelter, and education. His dream is to eradicate poverty in the places he works, hand in hand with the local Lao communities. “I am happiest in the trenches,closetothepeople,”hesays.“Ihope my attempts to build a better world will inspire others to follow.”