San Jose Vietnamese service center gets infusion of funding

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Santa Clara County has renewed its commitment to address the health care gap among its Vietnamese residents.

The Board of Supervisors last week unanimously voted to dole out nearly $1 million to hire more Vietnamese American Service Center workers and help a nonprofit implement a mental health program targeting Vietnamese seniors in East San Jose.

The majority of the money—$800,000—will go toward six new jobs and new supplies at the Vietnamese American Service Center. Roughly $160,000 will go to the International Children Assistance Network (ICAN), a Milpitas-based nonprofit providing family services, to start a project to fight stigma around mental health disorders among the Vietnamese community, create a space for seniors to heal from trauma caused by the Vietnam War and promote mental health programs in the county.

“We want to make sure we’re able to handle the number of clients we’re getting, and we’re getting a lot of excitement and a lot of interest in the services there,” said Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who led the efforts with state Sen. Dave Cortese to build the center. She noted the center has the most popular senior nutrition program in the county and serves 500 meals a day.

The 37,000-square-foot, three-story building at 2410 Senter Road in San Jose aims to serve as a one-stop shop in providing health and social services to more than 220,000 Vietnamese residents in the county. San Jose has the largest Vietnamese enclave of any U.S. city.

San Jose residents Thanh Nguyen, Tran Dao and Hanh Nguyen visited the Vietnamese American Service Center for the first time this week. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Panoply of services

The center opened its health clinic in April to provide services that include dental care, medical laboratories, mental health programs and primary care services. The county is working on opening the third floor, which would provide gathering spaces and conference rooms for different activities. The center serves upward of 1,000 people a day, county officials said.

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Tran Dao and Hanh Nguyen, a pair of siblings who have lived in San Jose for 30 years, visited the center for the first time this week after hearing about it from friends and family. They were impressed with the newly-built center and a number of existing services, including free lunches for seniors, exercise classes and free legal services offered by the Asian Law Alliance.

“I thought the programs focused on seniors, but they have services for all ages,” Nguyen told in Vietnamese, noting she’ll take advantage of the free legal services. “I don’t know about how good the service is yet, but this is a really good place for the community. It’s very convenient.”

Dao said the new funding to expand services at the center is welcome news.

“That shows that our government is listening to our needs,” she said.

Santa Clara County has not decided on the specifics of the new jobs, but officials have noted the funding will enhance services for behavioral health, social services, public health and ambulatory care needs for the Vietnamese American population. The Vietnamese population is most likely to live in poverty among all Asian groups in Santa Clara County, at 12%, according to the 2022 Silicon Valley Pain Index.

The funding comes as part of the county’s efforts to strengthen its safety net and address disparities in the region. More than 40% of the $11.5 billion budget approved last week went to support hospitals and clinics in the South Bay, documents show. County officials are also planning to continue funding its assisted outpatient treatment program, adding new health clinics in South County and adding an adolescent psychiatric facility and behavioral health services center at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.

Mental health programs needed 

When Santa Clara County conducted a community-based health survey of the Vietnamese community in 2011, the research—which inspired the services and programs at the center—showed mental health as one of the top three concerns for the population.

According to the assessment, nearly 1 in 10 Vietnamese residents in the county at the time felt they needed professional intervention due to problems with their mental health, but stigma—and sometimes, shame—prevented many from seeking help.

ICAN is launching a program, called the Healing Circle Pilot Project, to fight such stigma and myths around mental health among Vietnamese seniors. The project will host a number of support sessions to facilitate conversations on mental health and PTSD. The program will also introduce participants to prevention methods and services, with the goal of serving 620 people in its first year.

“The strategy is to make Vietnamese seniors feel safer and less stigmatized, and become familiar with mental health treatment providers so they will seek help,” ICAN Executive Director Quyen Vuong wrote in her proposal, noting the group has had success convincing Vietnamese residents to take the COVID-19 vaccine through similar methods. “Awareness alone will not move people to take desirable action, unless and until their fear and concerns are addressed through rounds of discussions in small/safe space settings.”

The program will also train workers at the center on how to conduct trauma-informed conversations.

My Thai, a San Jose resident since 1982, said the findings of the 10-year-old study still ring true today. Thai, a senior, said many Vietnamese residents would benefit significantly from mental health intervention and services, especially for seniors who have been isolated during the pandemic.

“My worry is people, especially those in my generation, will feel embarrassed to go,” Thai told in Vietnamese. “But I think having workers who can speak the language and understand our culture will be a big help.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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