Vietnamese social services of Minnesota moves to new building

Print

Vietnamese Social Services of Minnesota is heading for a new home – with more space for growing programs and the new communities its serves. VSS will move its staff and programs serving hundreds of people each year to 277 University Avenue in St. Paul. VSS will be moving out this week and will have an open house on December 28, from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m.

Yen Pham, executive director, VSS, said the organization mirrors the family unit, and that neither can be stable or supportive without a good home.

“That is our culture,” said Pham.

The legacy of VSS remains the same as when it was founded in 1987, when it donated $50,000 for the down payment of the Vietnam Center, under then director Mr. Chi Mong Lu, making it possible to move from the Griggs Building to the new site as a tenant in 2000.

Yen Pham took over when Lu retired in 2000. He said VSS has always maintained a conservative fiscal philosophy and a complex relationship existed with individuals serving as board members on both Vietnam Center and VSS. These members put up their own homes as collateral in order to get financing for the Vietnam Center – making every financial decision a concern of both organizations and all stakeholders involved.

“For the first nine years the board had members in both organizations and it was very hard for VSS to move out because the board wanted us here to pay the mortgage,” said Pham. “Now there is a new association and a new board in both organizations. Now we have the chance to move.”

The Vietnam Center board underwent a transition to new members earlier this year. VSS had been looking for a new building for five years but would stay if they had the entire building. An offer of $600,000 for the Vietnam Center was turned down and VSS had to move out when its lease was up in December with no month to month continuance negotiable.

“So the community may have the Vietnam center for a community center, belong to the Vietnam Center and not to VSS,” said Pham. “It is a nonprofit and so is VSS, and we have a different legal identity and organization.

“Many people are confused and don’t know that,” he added. “They think it is the same and it is actually not.”

Pham said it has been difficult to keep up with the doubling of the lease over time but that it helped knowing they have helped pay the mortgage down to $100,000 and thus take the risk off the backs of the board members who helped finance the building.

The dream of a new building stems from the growth of programs for Vietnamese and new refugee communities such as the Karen, Burmese and African communities. VSS could hire new staff but it was running out of space.

As of now VSS maintains 12 programs and projects that have expanded with the addition of Karen and African refugee communities. The staffers work at desks squeezed between file cabinets and boxes. ESL classes are separated only by dividers and students sit in nooks and crannies to study.

Pham said the agencies that represent the Hmong, Lao, Cambodian and Chinese communities all have nice buildings that offer a sense of permanence and home. He said VSS cannot rent or risk losing all their savings over time instead of building equity and developing the similar sense of home.

“We have no choice now and if we wait to do a capitol fundraising campaign before we buy it would take three years – and in the meantime there is no space to move to,” he said.

The new space would offer approximately 15,000 square feet to hold all of its programs. Pham said ideally with the elder day care and youth programs they would want more, but that this would do as a minimum.

VSS will rent about 5,000 square feet for small office tenants to pay down the mortgage and eventually incorporate the space for its own use. Until then they plan to borrow school and restaurant space for elderly activities.

The building purchase price was $1,162,500. VSS put up an initial $100,000, and University Bank made the loan after VSS secured another $200,000 on loan from the Minnesota Nonprofit Funding Assistance Agency.

They hope to get about $3,500 income from tenants to pay the mortgage for the next few years. They received $10,000 from Blue Cross & Blue Shield Foundation to go toward the $14,000 centralized phone system and wiring in the new building.

 

An ESL student at VSS finds a place to study surrounded by boxes.

Immediate plans include renovations for a reception area and fitting offices as classrooms. Long term plans include large classroom space, an elders day care activities center and a commercial kitchen.

VSS Health Program Manager Dung Pham, said the move will allow her several office staff to be located in one office again, where daily communications can occur without having to call or get up to go to another office. She said the new space would also allow for privacy in one-on-one consultation with helping people fill out the sensitive information required for health insurance and other support paperwork.

The Youth Program Manager, Bich Chu, has been with VSS all along, and was one of those founding members that put up his own home as collateral for the building in 1999. His office is packed with boxes and said it was a daily occurrence for offices to be either too hot or too cold to work.

VSS Board Chair Vy Van Pham, a retired social worker and union worker, said the new building is conveniently near the capitol area and even though the building area is nearly the same size overall – the new building allows for nearly double the space of what they were able to use in the Vietnam Center.

Dr. Yang Dao, a prominent founding leader of the Hmong American and Hmong French communities, and who also speaks fluent Vietnamese, recently retired and accepted a Board membership on VSS. He is also a retired educator and professor at the University of Minnesota.

He is close friends with many VSS Board members, including Vy Pham, who he has known since they worked together on the international alliance for an independent Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in Belgium in the mid 1970s. They share a common history of refugee advocacy, community building and education. He was invited to join the board about four months ago.

“I am very happy to be able to have the honor to serve on the Board of VSS,” said Dr. Yang Dao.

Yen Pham said that Dr. Yang Dao was instrumental in working with the existing Hmong businesses in the building, explaining the long term VSS vision that will require the support of leasing tenants for a few more years.

“I would like to work with Hmong community too, and Dr. Yang Dao speak Vietnamese very well,” said Yen Pham.

The newest and youngest VSS Board Member is Mr. Viet Tran, an Engineering Supervisor at Lake Region Medical. He lives in Chaska with his spouse and two children.

Tran learned of VSS through friends and became interested in its programs. He was recommended to the board and was asked to join last year.

At the time, he said the organization was not in a crisis mode to identify a building and move immediately. However, he said they were concerned about space and building upkeep and were looking for appropriate sites.

He said the board and Yen Pham did a good job and comparing various buildings, their lease and mortgage options

“This place fit the criteria pretty well,” he said.

Michael Wiebe, director of VSS Development and Communications, said the goal is to buy the building, do the improvements that allow the programs to function and grow, along with eventually creating a few new ones such as adult day care.

Yen Pham said they have already raised 75 percent of the projected 2011 budget already secured. VSS is starting a capitol campaign led by Mr. Michael Henley, of Hansen, Henley, Yoder & Lamb, a fundraising management consulting firm.

He said the campaign is working because they are able to show funding organizations a genuine need. He said VSS has outgrown its space and has shown it has greater potential to offer more efficient services with a bigger building.

Yen Pham said VSS is assisting the new Karen Organization of Minnesota with building up its organization but that the demand for services on the new and growing community will still require program casework support from VSS and other agencies.

Find out more about VSS online at www.vssmn.org.