It’s a typical weeknight at Helping Link. There are volunteers in the office printing homework assignments for ESL students. People from multiple generations are talking and laughing around a small round table sharing chicken pho. An older Vietnamese woman waters flowers and cleans whiteboards after a class. She reminds Helping Link executive director Minh-Duc Nguyen to eat lunch.
Nguyen, often asked to be in two or three places at once, hustles between meetings and welcoming new classes throughout the day, and is the only full-time staff member. Helping Link runs on “volunteer sweat,” she said.
“Our volunteers turned a storage space into a home,” Nguyen said.
About to celebrate its 23rd year, Helping Link is a nonprofit organization in Little Saigon with the mission of assisting the Vietnamese-American community with English, computer, and citizenship classes. They also provide after-school tutoring, and help those with limited English skills connect with other community resources.
Helping Link provided services to more than 1,300 Vietnamese-Americans in 2015. On an average day, Nguyen said, at least five people will come by or call to ask for anything from help finding employment to support with mental health issues.
Helping Link began in 1993 with a small group of young professionals offering to help read documents and translate communication between parents and their children’s schools.
Nguyen, who came to the United States in her early teens, began the organization after returning to Vietnam to visit family and seeing how destitute people were. She hadn’t realized she had “a hundred times more than what people in Vietnam had.”
“I felt a lot of guilt because I got so much coming to America,” Nguyen said.
No longer content simply hanging out with friends and watching movies, she looked for a way to help.
She and that first small group of volunteers surveyed Rainier Valley, Beacon Hill, and those around MLK Way to find what the community’s needs were. The Rainier Beach library welcomed the group, and they began teaching English.
They had prepared for about 20 attendees that first session. More than 100 showed up. The fire department and police showed up, too, concerned about the crowd.
The group eventually added youth tutoring when the library asked for a way to keep the ESL students’ children occupied during the classes.
Fifteen years ago, Helping Link moved to its current location in the Asian Plaza after the Rainier Beach library closed for remodeling. The building that now houses a computer lab, main classroom, and office had been used as a storage space. Tables and other furnishings came from Boeing surplus.
Hoa Thuy Tran has been in the United States just over a year and began attending the ESL class at Helping Link last quarter.
Speaking through an interpreter, Tran said she likes the small classes and the location near where she lives. Her instructor created a comfortable and relaxed environment. The people of Helping Link are kind, happy, and dedicated, she said.
“The teachers are really understanding and willing to help,” Tran said.
At the end of every quarter, there’s a celebration with food and activities. Volunteers and students alike receive recognition for their hard work.
“When [students] get that piece of paper they’re so proud,” Nguyen said. “Some have never got a certificate in their life.”
Nguyen said it’s important to give people options and multiple opportunities to learn English.
ESL instructor Cassie Achzenick, who also assisted with the after-school program, said not many organizations serve very beginning students like Helping Link does. Getting their skills to the “ground level” will enable them to then take advantage of other programs in the area, she said.
“We do need to have these resources for people when they come to the U.S., so someplace they can go and meet people and gain the skills to be productive members of society,” Achzenick said.
Nguyen described how meaningful it was to see students’ lives changed. Children with no one at home who can read to them encounter a welcoming and encouraging environment at Helping Link’s youth tutoring sessions. One boy used to throw a tantrum when asked to read, she recalled, but a year and a half later he’s enjoying the Harry Potter books.
Nguyen said she’s “ever, forever grateful” for the volunteers who make it all possible, especially the ones who stay year after year. There are currently about 50, donating time for everything from washing the deck to maintaining the website to teaching seniors to use Facebook and iPads.
In the volunteer-run organization, Nguyen said, if you have ideas you can run with them.
Achzenick, who now has a Fulbright scholarship to teach English in Germany, said she appreciated the freedom. She was able to plan lessons, tailor them to the students, and find what works.
Volunteers come from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, and range in age from high-schoolers to retirees.
“Everyone counts, you don’t have to be rich, you don’t have to speak the language, you just have to care,” Nguyen said.
Helping Link is preparing for its annual fall gala, and needs volunteers for both the planning stage and the day of the event. They’re also filling other volunteer positions, including members of the board of directors. A list of current openings and the application can be found at http://www.helpinglink.org.