Sacramento agency that aided Hmong has folded

Saturday, February 20, 2010

One of the oldest Hmong service agencies in the nation, Sacramento Lao Family Community Inc., has folded because of financial mismanagement, county officials said.

Lao Family – a fixture on Franklin Boulevard since 1982, and one of 10 Lao Family offices in California originally opened by Hmong Vietnam-era general Vang Pao – lost its county funding in September.

The Sacramento Employment and Training Agency – which gave Lao Family $467,000 in federal funds in 2009 for job training, placement and English language classes – cut off the agency for misspending the money, said fiscal chief Roy Kim.

"They weren't paying their employees, were behind on their payroll taxes and were bouncing checks," Kim said. "Their auditors basically started the fiscal year 2008 audit and walked out saying there's insufficient records, so they had no audit report."

The center will reopen today as Sacramento Asian American Minority Inc., an all-volunteer grass-roots organization. SAAMI – which has three women on its board and a female executive director – represents a new generation of pan-Asian leadership, said President Steve Vang.

Vang said he and other volunteers have spent $30,000 of their own money renovating the old Lao Family headquarters at 5838 Franklin Boulevard.

Lao Family staff were helping about 250 Hmong, Russian and Ukrainian refugees learn English and find jobs, "but weren't getting paid on time," Kim said.

Along with the Franklin Boulevard location, Lao Family's north area office on Palm Avenue, which served almost exclusively refugees from the former Soviet Union, also closed, Kim said.

Lao Family was put on notice in August 2008 "and to date has failed to adequately respond to SETA's fiscal monitoring findings, concerns and recommendations," said County Refugee Services Manager Michelle O'Camb.

Longtime Lao Family Executive Director Kobi Vang could not be reached for comment. Vang – who used to own Sam Thong Meat Market on Franklin Boulevard – is "no longer here," said his step-grandson Matthew Saechao. The last time Vang was heard from was "two or three months ago," Saechao said.

Saeng Her, a 12-year Lao Family employee who has stayed on to help SAAMI, confirmed that Lao Family's leadership "couldn't provide information for auditors, so they shut down."

Over the years, Lao Family helped thousands of Hmong, Iu Mien, Lao and Russian refugees adjust to their new country, Her said. "We helped over 500 people a year with ESL (English as a second language) classes, job training, transportation, translation, paper work, family counseling and healthy marriage classes.

"Even though Lao family closed down, people are still asking for help," Her said. "We can't leave them alone."

At least 20 people a day drop in, said Kathy May Ly, SAAMI's executive director. "They need help making calls, filling out forms, reading their mail, dealing with mental health issues," Ly said. "I have elders that just come in to socialize."

Ly, who is not paid for her work, said the new agency needs about $100,000 a year to stay open.

Community leaders welcomed the new organization. "They have a mix of Hmong, Japanese and Vietnamese," said Hmong radio host T.T. Vang. "The new leaders are more educated and should be more professional."

Neng Vang, who's helped Hmong families battle gang violence and gambling addiction, said the new agency's leaders "are very well-intentioned young individuals who want to change how business was done in the past."

Neng Vang said many of the region's 30,000 Hmong remain isolated and mistrust the upcoming U.S. census. He said he hopes SAAMI will play a role in getting the Hmong counted.

Kim, SETA's fiscal officer, said he's met with the agency's new chief Ly, who has a background in finance and accounting. "We'll certainly take a look at them carefully," Kim said.


Sacramento Asian American Minority Inc. is at 5838 Franklin Blvd. in Sacramento. It's open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information: (916) 392-8010.


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