Every Tuesday morning for the past three years, 69-year-old Tien Nguyen makes her way to an old Archdiocese building in Village De L’est. Not to pray, but to work out.
Nguyen participates in the senior wellness program hosted by the Vietnamese Initiative in Economic Training organization. The program is held on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and offers exercise sessions and discussions on various topics, such as Medicaid and financial literacy. According to Lang Le, the executive director of VIET, about 30 seniors between the ages of 55 and 85 show up weekly.
But the senior wellness program is more than a health and wellness class. Le said it allows staff and social workers to provide seniors services while approaching culturally sensitive issues not usually discussed in Vietnamese families, like domestic violence. The program also offers a rare opportunity to find companionship and access valuable resources in a new country. For many, the senior wellness program has been a lifeline for the New Orleans East Vietnamese senior community.
“It gives them an opportunity to meet with other seniors, and not just to exercise but also to have a safe space,” Le said. “It gives them joy to get out of the house.”
Nguyen left her three adult children in Vietnam, the eldest in the 50s, to join her sisters in search of a better life in America. She moved to Slidell in 2015 with her husband. The couple has been living in New Orleans East for six years.
Nguyen said she found joy and her community at the senior wellness program.
“There is nowhere like home … and there are many things that I miss, like my children and the life I left behind,” said Nguyen, 69, who works at the local Vietnamese bakery Dong Phuong. “But thanks to this, I get to go out and talk to people. I am much happier now.”
The New Orleans-Metairie metropolitan area is home to more than 17,000 Vietnamese residents, according to a 2021 U.S. Census estimate. Many of the local residents live in Village De L’est, Le said. There were more than 330 households with at least one member aged 60 years or older out of the 955 Vietnamese families in the neighborhood, the 2010 Census reported.
Within the community, Village De L’est is known colloquially as Versailles, named after the now-demolished apartment complex that housed the first wave of Vietnamese refugees in 1975. The apartment complex was demolished in 2016. Among those living there was former New Orleans Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen, whose family fled the war when she was 5.
She co-founded Vietnamese Initiative in Economic Training in 2001 as an afterschool program to help immigrant kids with homework in an 800-square-foot building on Chef Menteur Highway. According to Cyndi Nguyen, the nonprofit organization quickly grew and adapted to the people’s needs and demands. Today, its goal is to help people access resources and overcome barriers of living in the United States.
“We created VIET because we felt we needed a foundation that could help address issues that our community face,” she said. “I found that it is so critical for non-English-speaking communities to have that arm because if not, they would not be able to tap into resources and information available to them.”
Along with her team, Cyndi Nguyen rented out an unused building owned by the Archdiocese on Granville Street and restored it after it was heavily damaged in Hurricane Katrina. It has since been the headquarters for the nonprofit.
She had moved back to New Orleans in 1998 to be closer to them after leaving to pursue her bachelor’s degree in social work at Loras College in Iowa and master’s in organizational management at the University of Phoenix. During this time, she also befriended her grandparents’ elderly friends. These seniors chose to live alone after their partners passed away to not burden their children, many of whom lived in a different state.
She came up with the idea for VIET’s senior exercise program in 2010 in honor of her grandparents, who passed away in 2005.
“When we first started, they came out and they argued all the time … and thank God for my social work degree because it really helped with my patience and my skills that I bring to the table,” Cyndi Nguyen said. “And so it started with that, just kind of like a get-together. Then we learned that we were saving lives with our senior program.”
The former city councilwoman explained that depression is a significant concern among senior citizens in the Vietnamese community, particularly those who have experienced the loss of a partner. Due to the language barrier, she said many elderly Vietnamese residents felt lonely and isolated.
“Many of them were not taking care of themselves because they didn’t have [any] motivation,” Cyndi Nguyen said, adding that some even developed health issues due to diet changes upon moving to America. “We always are engaged with the people we serve to make sure that what we’re doing is helping them and not hurting them.”
Sieng Le and Chuc Huynh have sought out the services at VIET since moving to New Orleans.
The couple moved to Boston six years ago to be near their eldest daughter before relocating to New Orleans. They now live on Carol Sue Avenue on the West Bank. Every now and then, they would make the 30-minute drive to VIET for social interaction and assistance with paperwork.
Sieng Le, 66, was a researcher at the Southern Institute of Water Resources Research in Vietnam before moving to America. Her husband, 68, was a water resources engineering professor at Ho Chi Minh University of Natural Resources and Environment. Since settling in New Orleans, they have taken on jobs to avoid being a financial burden to their three daughters, Sieng Le said.
“Our kids send us money, but we still want to work — maybe until we can’t anymore,” said Huynh, who mows lawns, which he said had taken a toll on his health. Huynh said he had lost over 12 pounds since taking this job.
Sieng Le retired last year as a caregiver with A Hand to Hold, which provides at-home care for seniors.
Dressed in formal clothes, the pair stood out from others, who opted for casual workout outfits, like bright-colored t-shirts and leggings. While Sieng Le enjoyed the senior welfare program and the opportunity to talk to others, she said she was more interested in VIET’s other services, like tax consultation, citizenship application and preparation assistance.
Sieng Le said she and her husband were occupied with other responsibilities and did not have the time to participate in these activities yet. “But I hope by the time we do, there are more centers with programs like this near us,” she said, “because it takes a lot of time for us to get here.”
The nonprofit is still trying to bounce back from the pandemic. Lang Le said she had to scale back some expenses to ensure the survival of VIET. Before COVID, a registered nurse would come to the morning exercises. Now, they have to resort to watching YouTube workout tutorials over old Vietnamese songs.
On Tuesday (July 18), VIET teamed up with Tulane University to promote its “All of Us” program. The project aims to recruit 1 million people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to improve individual medical care through data collection. Participants will receive health data like ancestry, traits and health-related DNA to share with their healthcare providers.
“People who are from different minority communities are not represented in most studies … especially that they’re from the New Orleans area, and New Orleans is very diverse,” said Dr. Wesal Abualkhair, a clinical research coordinator at Tulane’s School of Medicine.
Abualkhair said centers like VIET are helpful in reaching underrepresented communities, building trust, organizing events and translating important information.
“Having community centers just like this one is vital, because they know every single person who is here today,” Abualkhair said. “They understand what the community needs, how this community should be served and what can we do to make it better for them.”
While no longer actively involved with VIET, Cyndi Nguyen said she is proud of all the work Lang Le and her team have put into the organization and the importance of their dedication to the community.
“It’s really done out of the heart of all the staff,” she said.
Note: Tien Nguyen, Sieng Le and Chuc Huynh spoke to Verite in Vietnamese. Reporter Minh Ha translated their interviews for publication.
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