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Focus on Laotians

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By Todd Cohen

WADEVILLE, N.C. — A Montgomery County nonprofit created to help Hmong and Lao residents of the central and southern Piedmont plug into their communities and the economy is gearing up to begin providing services.

With an $8,000 National Forestry Service grant to Environmental Impact, an Aberdeen nonprofit that helped with its planning, the Hmong & Lao Assistance Association has developed a community-development strategy and a master plan for developing a cultural heritage park in Wadeville.

Now, the group is developing a budget and looking for funding, says Cathie Hodges, a former French teacher at West Montgomery High School who advises the association.

North Carolina is home to an estimated 14,000 Hmong and 25,000 Lao, including 400 from each group in Montgomery County, she says.

The Hmong, a mountain people who fled Laos 30 years ago after the communist Pathet Lao took over the government, settled mainly in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California.

While most Hmong in the United States live in those states, she says, North Carolina is home to the fourth-largest Hmong community, with two-thirds living between Morganton, Statesville and Charlotte, and the others in the central and southern Piedmont.

North Carolina’s Lao, a people from the lowlands of Laos, are concentrated in the central and southern Piedmont.

The transition to the United States has been difficult for both groups, Hodges says.

The Hmong began arriving in Montgomery County in late 1987 after Geu Vang, a former Laotian army colonel then living in Minnesota, met with the late Branson McRae, who was looking for workers for the McRae Shoe Factory in Wadeville.

McRae, who was president and CEO of McRae Industries in Mount Gilead and owned property in Wadeville across Highway 109 from West Montgomery High School, offered each Laotian family a lease-to-own contract for two acres plus a mobile home, says Hodges.

Twenty-eight families now live on the site, known as Samthong Village.

Formed in 1991, the association never provided services because Vang, a McRae Industries employee who assists its Laotian workers, acted as a one-person resource-and-referral agency for the community, Hodges says.

Vang plans to retire from McRae at the end of the year, leaving the community no resource for basic needs ranging from language interpreters to access to health care and financial services, Hodges says.

The association wants to hire a director; develop local leaders and promote civic activity; assist with the repair and replacement of mobile homes in Samthong Village; help the community learn to plan; provide education about American culture while preserving and promoting Hmong and Lao cultural heritage; and provide job-skills training and technical assistance.

A master plan to develop 100 acres in and near Samthong Village as a community cultural heritage park calls for developing a community center, a replica of a Laotian village, a playground and a community garden and fishing pond.

And plans to promote cultural heritage include developing gardening opportunities and a museum and outdoor amphitheater.

“The whole strategic plan,” Hodges says, “is for community development and developing ways for teaching and training the Laotian-American community to be independent.”

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