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Non-profit Lao Family celebrates 35 years helping immigrants achieve self-sufficiency

on April 27, 2015

In 1980, refugees from Laos gathered in the living room of a modest three-bedroom Richmond apartment. Their daunting goal was to help their growing community find jobs and housing in America after fleeing the destruction wrought by the Vietnam War.

On Wednesday last week, Lao Family Community Development, Inc. celebrated its 35th anniversary at Maple Hall in the San Pablo Civic Center. Each year, the non-profit organization helps 15,000 people from more than 30 countries become self-sufficient. From its humble beginnings, the organization has grown to seven offices spread across Oakland, San Pablo and Sacramento, with annual budget exceeding $3 million.

As a job placement service devoted to connecting immigrants with employers, Lao Family provides what are called “wrap-around” services, serving as a one-stop shop to help with common issues new immigrants face. In addition to interview skills and vocational training, the organization provides services in money management, childcare, health insurance enrollment assistance, English as a Second Language (ESL) training and help with naturalization and citizenship.

Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia said the organization had “come a long way from the three-bedroom apartment that you started in,” and he praised the group’s growth.

“Organizations like Lao Family are really important to the work that we do in county government,” Gioia said. “It is so important to have comprehensive wrap-around services. You don’t meet the needs of families either in terms of financial or social or employment self-sufficiency unless you work all of them together. And so the integrated model that you have is so effective and why you’ve been able to exist and grow and thrive for 35 years.”

Several speakers testified to the effect Lao Family has had on their lives. Ka Baw, a Burmese American refugee, arrived in the U.S. with his family in 2008 after spending most of his life in refugee camps. Although he spoke no English upon arriving in Oakland, Ka Baw took part in social adjustment and adult ESL training at Lao Family. He built on this start with training in typing and computer skills, interviewing, writing a resume, and learning how to dress professionally and use public transportation. Within two months, he got a full-time job at a local food production company called Sugar Bowl.

In 2012, Ka Baw, his wife and two children enrolled in the Lao Family’s Individual Development Account (IDA) program, a recent initiative to help low-income residents get housing. After putting up $4,000 of his own savings, Ka Baw received matching financial support through Lao Family, the federal government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Wish Program at the Federal Home Loan Bank in San Francisco, and a down payment assistance program from the City of Oakland to purchase a house.

“I am the second one to find a house according to the Lao Family,” he told the crowd through an interpreter. “That’s why I would like to thank you so much, Lao Family, and I would like to thank all of you.”

Kathy Chao Rothberg, executive director of Lao Family, said examples such as his were testaments to the importance of teaching new immigrants how American society works. “It’s not just about the job, and the savings, it’s also about understanding the financial systems in America,” Rothberg said. “About how to develop credit, banking systems, how to use a credit card. Especially when you’re a refugee you don’t have any credit when you come to America. There are so many other things that go into becoming self sufficient.”


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