Trapped by Success : Cambodian Day-Care Center in Long Beach Lacks Cambodians

Times Staff Writer

It was sharing time at the Long Beach day-care center run by United Cambodian Community Inc.

“Let’s talk about our weekend,” suggested teacher Diane Payton, surrounded by youngsters in a room containing a bird, rabbit, guinea pig and an aquarium filled with fish. “I stayed home this weekend.”

Sean Galloway, 4, had just one question: “Did you have any pizza?”

So it goes during a typical day at this child-care program operated in central Long Beach by California’s largest Cambodian service organization, a nonprofit agency aimed at aiding Southeast Asian refugees. The halls are filled with childlike paintings. The center’s young charges who are not in class romp happily in an asphalt-paved area out back.


Only One Cambodian

Ironically, only one child is Cambodian. Most of the 25 others are black or Latino, although there are a few Asians from countries other than Cambodia.

“That’s our problem,” said Payton, who directs the child-care program under the auspices of an organization founded 10 years ago by a group of Cambodian refugees primarily interested in helping their countrymen.

Since then the organization has expanded to offer a wide range of programs, including mental health referrals, job training and English-language instruction, serving an estimated 3,500 people annually out of seven offices in two counties.


But times have changed. Today, hemmed in by the restrictions of funding agencies and buffeted by changing demographics, less than half the agency’s clients are Cambodian.

Variety of Cultures

An office in Hollywood caters primarily to Armenian and Iranian immigrants. The organization’s Norwalk office serves mostly Latinos. And in Long Beach, where the agency is based, the child-care program has recently undergone a dramatic ethnic shift.

“We’ve discussed changing our name,” said Vora H. Kanthoul, United Cambodian Community’s associate executive director. “We’re not here to serve only Cambodians; we’re a multi-ethnic agency.”

Kanthoul attributes the Hollywood and Norwalk situations to changing demographics. A few years ago when those offices first opened, he said, the neighborhoods they served were largely Asian. But gradually the Asians moved out and other groups moved in. And because the services offered were funded by the federal and state governments and therefore open to anyone, the agency’s client list began to take on the complexion of the new neighborhoods.

Community Experience

Many agencies initially based in other ethnic communities have undergone similar transformations. The change at the Long Beach day-care program, however, has been accelerated by a peculiar congruence of circumstances.

When the program began in 1986, agency officials say, it was funded by a 1-year grant from the city. True to its sponsoring organization’s philosophy and purpose, the day-care center served a group of children made up of about 88% Southeast Asian refugees, including 63% from Cambodia.


Then the funding base changed. The social service grant expired. And, opting to get out of the child-care business altogether, the city decided to close four child-care centers run by its own Parks and Recreation Department under a separate state program.

Frantically scrambling for funds to continue, the Cambodians successfully sought one of the four state grants that the city had given up. But along with the $114,000-a-year grant came certain restrictions. First, the state said, the Cambodian-run center had to give priority to children already enrolled in the four centers that were closing. And second, the parents of children attending the center had to either be working full time or enrolled in formal job training programs.

The last restriction eliminated virtually all of the center’s Cambodian families, in which women traditionally stay at home. Part of the day-care center’s purpose, administrators say, was to help woo Cambodian mothers away from that cultural orientation and into the job market by showing them that their children could be well cared for.

“One of the best things we can do is ease them into it,” said Kathleen Hollingsworth, the agency’s director of planning. “Too many things are expected at the same time of a person in cultural shock. It’s like overload.”

Reaction to the loss of nearly all the child-care program’s Cambodian clients has been mixed. Payton decries the fact that Cambodian children may not be getting the kind of English-language exposure previously provided by the center, exposure that could give them a head start once they enter school. And Mary Soth, chairman of the Mayor’s Task Force on Child Care, sees the change as the loss of a potentially rich cultural experience for all the children involved.

“It’s regrettable,” she said. “One would think that the reason for the UCC center was to help support the entire family and be culturally very rich.” With the loss of the Cambodians, she said, both they and the non-Cambodian children have been deprived of that experience.

United Cambodian Community officials, for their part, are putting a positive face on the change. “It’s a success story,” Kanthoul said of the agency that has grown from a few friends with part-time use of a borrowed desk, to an organization with an annual budget of $2.4 million. “Not only do we serve our own people, but we serve everybody.”

Nonetheless, efforts are quietly being made to locate Cambodian families qualified to take advantage of the agency’s child-care services, which are provided on a sliding scale from nothing to $5.95 a day. A recent $7,500 grant from the Long Beach Medical Assn. Auxiliary, for instance, will allow the center to expand its facilities enough to add seven children to the roster. “We would like them to be Cambodian,” Hollingsworth said.