By Amy Phan
Northwest Asian Weekly
When asked what makes the summer youth program at the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA) so special, 7-year-old Oanh Duong spouts a list of reasons without hesitation.
“I like it because we have a lot of fun doing all these types of art. I get to play and talk with my friends, and we are always having a lot of fun with each other,” she said.
The program, currently in its fourth year, operates like any other educational summer day camp — teaching students how to prepare for the SAT/ACT, leadership, applied science, and gardening at the local P-Patch with field trips. In addition, there are outside activities and snack time.
Children walk in an orderly fashion along the crimson halls of the second story of the Learning building in the New Holly complex, where VFA is located. Teachers remind their students to “be quiet” and “walk” on Mondays through Fridays from 1–5 p.m.
Excitement radiates from each child as he or she tries hard to follow his or her teacher’s instructions. With only a six-week time frame — from early July to mid August — to exchange stories and camp gossip, priorities are constantly in flux.
“Children treat each other like brothers and sisters. It is really neat to see the relationships and kinship that are formed here,” VFA After School Coordinator Kaly Pham said.
Though the original limit was 75 students, VFA expanded the limit to 90 students. However, Pham has had to turn down interested parents and students.
In order to qualify, “students must be eligible for free or reduced lunch, and [it] costs $50 per month,” Pham said.
A mixture of English and Vietnamese can be heard throughout the classrooms, which reflects the organization’s renewed bicultural mission that was established four years ago.
VFA is a nonprofit organization focused on “[empowering] the Vietnamese community to succeed while bridging, preserving, and promoting cultural heritage.”
In 1975, the organization was initially established to help Vietnamese refugees and immigrants adjust to life in the United States after the Vietnam War. Back then, VFA focused on offering ESL courses, employment services, and citizenship classes.
However, VFA has transformed to become more oriented towards youth and their education instead of its former target of helping the older generation adjust to the American culture.
That doesn’t mean that the hopes and dreams of VFA have changed.
“Even youth who are born here can experience and have confusion about who they are,” wrote Executive Director Vu Le on the VFA website.
“If we do a good job at the VFA, our youth and parents will feel a little less lost,” Le added.
While Le solely managed two classes and tutored, James Lovell joined as the second full-time employee at the VFA.
“[When I joined VFA], it was stagnate. VFA wasn’t known to be an organization that was able to change lives,” said Lovell, who currently serves as the director of youth education services.
Having volunteered at various Vietnamese organizations, Lovell found it easy to work for VFA.
“There’s this perception in Seattle that Vietnamese kids do well in school, like many of their Asian counterparts, but actual data showed that they had failing grades and it was a false positive,” said Lovell.
VFA has extended to eight full-time staff members and offer yearlong services for the community such as parenting classes, Saturday tutoring, and a mentoring program that connects youth to young Vietnamese adults.
“We really want to show these kids that we are interested in all aspects of their lives, not just the academic part,” said Lovell. “We have to fight to show that we care.”
With more than 80 percent of the enrollees coming from low-income families, he said, it’s important to make sure to remain a consistent figure in the child’s life.
He continued, “We really want to serve and help Vietnamese families.”
Though Pham has only been at the VFA for a few months, she is already planning for the next VFA program.
“I’m excited about future projects at VFA. I have an open mind and expect to learn many things,” she said. ♦
To learn more about the VFA, visit vfaseattle.org or call 206-760-1573.
Amy Phan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
News clip by Amy Phan/SBTN-Seattle and Nguoi Viet Tay Bac