Diversity Spotlight: Pao Thao

Friday, October 8, 2010

As the Hmong community’s New Year celebration approaches, Pao Thao, executive director of Hmong United Association of Rhode Island, is working hard to make sure that all goes well.

“This is the largest Hmong New Year celebration in New England,” he says. “We have vendors coming from as far away as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Florida.”

The event, to be held Saturday and Sunday at the Mickey Stevens Sports Complex in Warwick, will begin with the traditional ball-tossing event and will include a culture show, football games, music, dancing and food. A party will be held both nights at Sackett Street School in Providence.`

The New Year celebration is the biggest of three annual events that Thao must organize for the community.

Hmong United has had a farm program for the last 20 years in which 50 acres of land in Cranston are leased from DEM and divided into plots for families to farm. Thao oversees the program, arranges to have the land plowed and divided in time for the 40 or so families to begin planting.

Some sell their extra produce and “food is donated to families who do not have farm space.”

Every summer there is a picnic at Goddard Park in Warwick. Hmong United provides the food and drink and families organize games and entertainment.

Thao, 49, came to the United States in 1976. He had been living in Long Khai, a refugee camp in Thailand, for six months.

“I was alone there. My mother stayed in Laos. My two younger brothers and my sister had been killed. My older brother was in another camp. The day we left for Rhode Island, the bus my brother was on came to pick me up.”

With help from the International Institute of RI, they resettled in Providence.

In 2006, Thao came to Hmong United to help out in the office. There had been a rapid turnover of young directors. When Thao took the position, he planned to stay. “I’m older, mature,” he says. “I know the community well.”

While he continues programs already in place, he would also like to try something new. He says that he feels it is his mission to bring the elderly and young people together. “The older people are traditional. The kids are Americanized. They have to learn respect. I would like them to embrace their culture.”

So Thao will remain at Hmong United, continuing traditions, trying to introduce new ideas and being there to help.

“There are eight clans in the community,” says Thao . “Everybody knows everybody. If there are problems, they call Hmong United.”

The Hmong New Year celebration will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Mickey Stevens Sports Complex, 975 Sandy Lane, Warwick.

A party will be held both days from 5 to 11 p.m. at Sackett Street School, 159 Sackett St., Providence. Admission is $10.


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