A volunteer helps a student at Helping Link. • Courtesy Photo
A volunteer helps a student at Helping Link. • Courtesy Photo

Helping Link is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping Vietnamese-American immigrants transition successfully into society via social services and education programs, such as ESL for adults, after school care, homework tutoring, leadership programs, and more.

Minh Duc Phạm Nguyen, the founder and executive director of Helping Link, started the volunteer-based organization with a few friends after visiting her mom in Vietnam during the early 90s. She was able to see firsthand the awful living conditions and poverty people experienced during that time, living under the communist regime. “When I went back there, I felt so bad. I thought, ‘Okay, I have to do something.’” Nguyen said.

What started as a drop-in center in 1993, helping Vietnamese Americans read bills and fill out paperwork, evolved into an ESL program a year later. Nguyen and several friends met with students twice a week in the Rainier Beach Library conference room. The classes catered to Vietnamese immigrants from all backgrounds, including those granted citizenship through the Humanitarian Operation Program.

With the Vietnamese immigrant population skyrocketing, in response to the Humanitarian Operation Program, “from about 231,000 in 1980 to nearly 1.3 million in 2012, making it the sixth largest foreign-born population in the United States,” according to MigrationPolicy.org. Helping Link’s programs, students, and volunteers also grew. In 2001, the volunteer-based non-profit moved into their current location on Jackson Street in the Little Saigon neighborhood, where they incorporated bilingual computer classes, additional after school programs, and more ESL learning opportunities for Vietnamese Americans into their social service repertoire.

Understanding how overwhelming and scary starting over in a new country can be, and all the hoops Vietnamese Americans have to jump through to get here, Nguyen said she strives to create an inviting atmosphere at Helping Link that inspires confidence. She also embraces diversity through Helping Link’s friendly, eclectic mix of volunteers and a teaching style that’s focused on goal setting and completing student milestones, “so they feel like they can accomplish whatever it is they want to do.”

Helping Link volunteer staff. • Photo by Anna Carriveau
Helping Link volunteer staff. • Photo by Anna Carriveau

In addition to feeling intimidated living in a strange place, with new culture norms, laws, and ways of life, studies show people with language barriers tend to earn less, have limited access to health care, and are less likely to participate in politics or exercise their right to vote. With nearly 53 percent of Vietnamese Americans throughout the United States possessing limited English proficiency, according to an AmericanProgress.org study. Over 30,500 Vietnamese immigrants living in King County alone. Organizations like Helping Link, with free access to adult ESL classes, in exchange for volunteer hours, are critical for bidging social equality gaps in the API community, Nguyen said.

Helping Link’s ESL programs are designed to teach students basic english while also helping adults and elderly get in the workforce and excel once hired, instead of getting stuck in entry level positions. The ESL classes are broken up into 10 week quarters. They are two hours long, twice a week, and taught entirely by volunteers. Melissa Galarneau started teaching ESL at Helping Link in February and is amazed by her students’ enthusiasm and progress.

“They are so eager to learn and happy to be here.” Galarneau said. She mentioned one student in particular, who moved to Seattle from Vietnam in January, and had no prior English language skills. “She has gotten to the point now where she can ask basic questions and you can try to have a conversation with her and she understands most of it,” Galarneau said.

Helping Link ELL volunteer teacher Melissa Galarneau. • Photo by Anna Carriveau
Helping Link ESL volunteer teacher Melissa Galarneau. • Photo by Anna Carriveau

Beyond teaching English, the classes also give students a chance to meet people sharing similar struggles and a few students have found new job leads through classmates in the program.

Helping Link offers two levels of ESL classes, one for Vietnamese Americans with limited or no English speaking skills and a second level class for those who complete the first class or have little or moderate english abilities.

At the start of each quarter, students set goals for what they would like to accomplish during the 10-week quarter. Teachers then work with students toward those goals. They also help students create a bio, so by the end of the quarter, students can tell their story, who they are, where they live, and why they are here. Holidays are also celebrated throughout quarters granting students an opportunity to experience, enjoy, and better understand American traditions they might be unfamiliar with.

On Sunday, September 20, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., Helping Link is holding its 22nd Anniversary Gala at the Mercer Island Community and Event Center to raise funds for the continued growth and support of their many social services and education programs, which include ESL for adults, after school care, homework tutoring, leadership programs, and more.

Helping Link is located in Little Saigon. • Photo by Anna Carriveau
Helping Link is located in Little Saigon. • Photo by Anna Carriveau

“The gala is an opportunity for the community to partner with us to make a difference.” Said Nguyen. “We are going to feature Vietnamese cuisine and culture entertainment. It’s going to be a very fun night.”

In addition to dinner and entertainment, guests can partake in a cake dash and silent auction to help raise funds for the continued growth and support of Helping Link’s social services and education programs. Tickets can be purchased now through the day of the event on helpinglink.org. VIP tickets are also available; they include early entry and access to a cocktail reception from 5:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. The semi-formal event is Helping Link’s largest fundraiser of the year. All money raised will be used to ensure the organization can continue to serve Vietnamese Americans via ESL programs, social services, and other educational programs throughout 2016.

“The Power of Inspiration,” the theme of the anniversary gala, highlights the importance of motivation and opportunity, and how they are key elements of change and success. The theme also encourages community members to celebrate the thousands of Vietnamese Americans Helping Link has taught and inspired thus far and what possibilities lie in the future for Helping Link and Washington’s Vietnamese community.

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