Some Well-Qualified Help for Amerasians : Immigrants: VISTA gives social worker three staff members who can truly relate to the 2,500 mixed-race households in county.


It has been tough for a social service administrator, working practically by herself, to help Orange County's 2,500 Amerasians and their family members adjust to life in the United States practically by herself.

But Mary Nguyen--Amerasian Services coordinator at St. Anselm's Immigrant and Refugee Community Center in Garden Grove since 1990--is finally getting some assistance.

In the past month, three full-time, Amerasian staffers were assigned to the center by the domestic version of the Peace Corps, the federally funded Volunteers in Service to America program, or VISTA.

"This is very special. These are Amerasians now turning around to help America with other Amerasians," said Nguyen, who is white. She learned to speak Vietnamese from the 30 Vietnamese foster children she has raised with her Vietnamese husband.

All three recruits once were clients at the center, and later were working there part time when Nguyen in 1991 persuaded VISTA of the center's need for Amerasian counselors. VISTA permitted her to select the three--Hoan Pham, 26, Joseph Lam, 23, and Nathan Duong, 22--who then joined VISTA and were assigned to the center. They will use their experience to assist the newcomers.

VISTA pays them a small salary, $668 a month, said Barbara Boehringer, deputy state director for ACTION, a federal umbrella group of domestic volunteer programs. Each also will receive $95 monthly in a savings account. They can collect this money when their one-year VISTA service is over.

The agreement between VISTA and Amerasian Services will last three years, with the center choosing other counselors annually. The contract will then be up for review.

The staffing relief comes at a crucial time for St. Anselm's, a refugee service agency created in 1976 to serve immigrants coming from all over the globe. Tight government budgets could mean reduced refugee funding next year, said Marianne Blank, St. Anselm's executive director.

This year St. Anselm's, which runs six refugee programs, has allocated $228,000 for Amerasian Services, with 30% coming from the county and 15% from federal grants, Nguyen said.

Amerasian Services at the center began in 1990, two years after Amerasians and their family members were allowed to emigrate from Southeast Asia under U.S. regulations.

About 17,700 came last year and settled throughout the nation, according to officials. The 2,500 registered with Nguyen's office represent about two thirds of those actually living in Orange County.

VISTA "gives us some leeway on our budget," Blank said. "It's a wonderful program. These three young people will be great role models here."

Citing their own acculturation to America, the three expressed confidence this week that they will be able to make a difference in the acclimation of the Amerasian refugees to life here. Lam has been here for three years, while the other two arrived a little more than a year ago.

"When working with Amerasians, you must have patience," Lam said in Vietnamese. "We Amerasians are very hot-tempered. I don't know if that resulted from being a child of two bloodstreams or if it was because Amerasians were not treated very well (in Vietnam) after the war."

Most were not allowed to go to school and lived outside of society, Pham said. They were outcasts in what should have been their homeland, she said.

"Amerasians are bright and I'm sure if they're given the chance for education they will succeed like other people," she said.

The work of these new VISTA members represents what VISTA has evolved into, said Don Stewart, an ACTION spokesman.

When the program was born in 1964 under the federal Economic Opportunity Act, volunteers were more involved in individual services, such as a VISTA architect designing a building that would serve the poor, Stewart said.

Gradually, their work adjusted as community needs changed, and members now do general outreach to the needy, such as refugees and the homeless, in rural and urban areas, he added. "VISTA has come a long way since those first 20 volunteers."

The three VISTA workers at the center are the only ones assigned to Orange County, though there are about 200 in the state and nearly 3,100 in the nation, officials said.

Unlike the social service agencies to which VISTA workers are assigned, the federal government does not plan to reduce funding for the volunteer program.

"As growing community needs begin showing themselves, it was apparent that VISTA volunteers have a bigger role to play," Stewart said in explaining why the program has survived.

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