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Helping Vietnamese Youths Find Hope

As she sings “The Little Drummer Boy,” Nina Bui’s soft, soprano voice can be heard throughout a stark corridor lined with detention rooms at Juvenile Hall.

Four Vietnamese youths, some with faces beaming, join in with her. Some face sentences of more than 10 years in the California Youth Authority, and Bui’s visits have become the happiest times of the week.

As a volunteer counselor for the Catholic Detention Ministry and an immigrant herself, Bui relates to their clash of cultures and uses her Catholic faith to make them feel they have not been forgotten.

“I really want them to feel there’s hope for them,” said Bui, 32, of Anaheim. “I tell them it’s not a dead end for them. Everyone can make a mistake. Once you realize the mistake and revise (your behavior), that’s what counts.”

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Bui started her visits about a year ago, shortly after the Catholic Detention Ministry stepped up its efforts to involve more members of the Vietnamese-American community in Juvenile Hall counseling.

Vietnamese teen-agers make up about 10% of the population at the detention center, where they have been placed for committing crimes ranging from burglary to armed assault.

“She tries to cool me down,” said a 17-year-old who faces an 11-year sentence. “Eleven years is a long time. I thought I messed up my future, but she taught me how to cope.”

Unlike their American-born counterparts, Vietnamese youths can have a tougher time getting on the right track when they are released. They must overcome their parents’ anger and rejection. Some youths simply go back to their old friends--sometimes gang members--and end up becoming repeat offenders.

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“They will go home and their parents will say, ‘Get out of my house,’ or ‘You’re a bad boy and a bad kid. I don’t want to see you again,’ ” Bui said. “That’s very dangerous. They just go to their friends, and they cannot distinguish between their good friends and their bad friends.”

When she first meets a teen-ager in the facility, Bui, a computer test specialist, draws on her own experiences.

She came to the United States from Vietnam in 1975, when she was 16. She made her way through a private Catholic high school and Cypress College by cleaning tables and sweeping floors, anything to pay her tuition.

She tells the youths in the facility to do “anything to make your own living; you have to be proud. . . . I tell them, ‘You can’t be ashamed. We’re starting from scratch.’ ”

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Bui, a mother of two, also reads from the Bible, noting stories of people who overcame incredible odds. Four years ago, Bui almost died when she suffered a severe stomach ulcer. She attributed her recovery to her renewed faith.

“It was a miracle,” she said. “I felt that I was given my life back by God.”

Although it is difficult to gauge progress with the youths, Bui points to a letter she received from a boy transferred from Juvenile Hall to the California Youth Authority, where teen-agers are taken for extended detention.

“He hardly prayed to God before. He said that now he has faith,” Bui said. “That made me really happy.”

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Nina Bui, 32

Occupation: Computer test specialist

Organization: Catholic Detention Ministry

Address: 422 W. Almond St., Orange, Calif. 92666. (714) 633-6527.

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