Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series on “20-somethings” in Milwaukee.
Mychoua Vang wanted Hmong youth in Washington Park to have a safe place to meet after school, but that proved easier said than done.
Too many of them had no way to get to the Hmong American Friendship Association, where Vang, 29, is a youth coordinator. Last year, two students were robbed while walking to the association’s headquarters, 3824 W. Vliet St., Vang said.
Vang created a Facebook group and gave out her personal phone number so that the youth, ages 6 to 18, could call her to get a ride. For 90 minutes on Fridays, she uses an agency van to collect them, starting at Rufus King High School, 1801 W. Olive St., then driving to homes near 76th Street and Mill Road. The van holds eight passengers, so she often has to make multiple trips.
“It would be helpful if I had a huge van that would be able to pick everyone up at the same time,” she said.
Many of the youth Vang serves would be the first in their families to graduate from high school. As they get help with their homework, learn to play instruments and discuss how to spot an abusive relationship, Vang aims to challenge, motivate and inspire.
“I definitely want to … test their potential and give them the opportunity to see what they’re good at,” she said.
Vang started as an intern at the Hmong association in 2012, tutoring and helping high school students get jobs. She began working full time there two years ago.
Lo Neng Kiatoukaysy, the association’s executive director, praised Vang for having great energy and the right mentality for a nonprofit aiming to help youth and combat domestic violence.
“It’s not just work for her; it’s a passion,” Kiatoukaysy said. “She’s a very passionate person.”
A.C. Siong, a receptionist for the association, agreed. “She’s everything and does everything and never complains,” Siong said.
Lue Lor, 16, a sophomore at Riverside University High School, began attending the youth activities in March, hoping to help improve his neighborhood and learn more about Hmong tradition. The ethnic group hails from the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam and Laos.
“Mychoua is always there for me when I have any questions,” Lor said. “She is nice and helpful and she is always there to remind me to be calm when I get too excited.”
Vang was born in Des Moines, Iowa, but her parents were born and raised in Laos until forced to flee in 1986 because of civil war. She was 2 when the family, including Vang and her five sisters and two brothers, moved to Fresno, California. After they relocated to Milwaukee when she was 6, Vang graduated from South Milwaukee High School in 2005, and from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a degree in sociology in 2013.
“At first I wanted to go into research, but realized it could be boring and it wouldn’t really challenge me as much,” she said. “So when I got this job, I began to work with the youth and realized how much I like youth programming.”
As for her future, Vang said, “I know for right now this is really great.” She hopes to earn a graduate degree to become a school social worker, which would enable her to do case management and counseling, and organize health workshops for youth.
Until that time comes, Vang plans to stay at the Hmong association and work to improve the Washington Park neighborhood, especially for youth facing the realities of urban life.
“We need a safe place for all of them to go after school,” she said. “We need positive programs that [don’t] look at them as nothing but problem makers.”