May Saengpraseuth, Lao American Organization of Elgin
After working with May Saengpraseuth for the past few years, AHC staff have come to the general consensus that May is an outstanding individual for two reasons – she has a natural propensity to talk to people therapeutically and she just enjoys helping people! As a full-time social worker with Chicago Public Schools, May brings a unique perspective to her work at the Lao American Organization in Elgin (LAOE). Despite a heavy workload at school, May continues to volunteer actively and helped build the first women’s health program for the Lao community
Laos was the battleground in the so-called Secret War fought in parallel with the Vietnam War. After nearly a decade of bombing by U.S. forces targeting North Vietnamese Army supply lines, it is still considered by many as the most-bombed country on earth. Many who fought against communist forces began arriving in the U.S. as refugees in the late 1970s and early 90s. The largest Laotian community in the Midwest primarily resides in the rural Fox Valley region of Illinois stretching from Kane County to the Wisconsin border.
May is a member of what’s called the 1.5 generation, the one in between. Born in Laos and living in a refugee camp in Thailand as an infant, May came to America as a child and she represents the bridge between the displaced generation still struggling to adapt, and the Americanized, second generation that knows no other home. Like many others of her generation, May struggled growing up as a teen with the schism between parents steeped in the traditions and culture of their homeland and children trying to fully assimilate in the ways of their new home.
An early marriage at age 20 followed by an unexpected divorce a few years later led May through a process of self-discovery, serious soul searching, and re-evaluation of what is important in life. “The road to happiness is always under construction,” says May, “and my lived experiences have taught me the importance of being able to help others who’re facing challenges in their lives, and to let them know that it is not the end of the world.”
May approached the Asian Health Coalition to help build a program to educate and increase mammography and pap smear screenings among Laotian immigrant and refugee woman. “Back in Laos, there is no annual doctor’s visit,” May said. “You don’t have money for that. Unless you’re dying, that’s the only time you’re going to the hospital. That mentality is brought here with a lot of first generation people.” With seed grant funding from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance (OCAPICA), the Silk Brocade Project was created back in the fall of 2011 and is the first health promotion program targeting Laotian women on breast and cervical health.
May is currently studying to get into medical school with the hopes of eventually setting up a clinic to serve the Laotian community in Illinois. As May says, “I owe something to the world. Growing up as a refugee,I didn’t have a lot of things of my own. Most things were gifts and the best I can do is to give back to my community.” AHC applauds the efforts of May as a true community catalyst !