Cambodian Americans get culturally sensitive care, support at St. Mary

December 1, 2023

Revelers take part in the 15th annual Cambodia Town Parade in Long Beach, California, in April. The event's theme was "Stop hate with love," a call to end violence and bias against Asian people. Dignity Health — St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach serves members of the Cambodian community through its Families in Good Health program. Photo by Long Beach Post


A program that Southern California's Dignity Health — St. Mary Medical Center launched in the late 1980s to help new Cambodian arrivals access health care has evolved significantly over the ensuing four decades. It now helps thousands of first-generation immigrants and their descendants with a range of needs.

The first iteration of the Southeast Asian Project that St. Mary and its foundresses established focused on aiding refugees who had fled to the U.S. amid the Cambodian genocide that started in the late 1970s. Those immigrants got help understanding how to care for their health and how to navigate an unfamiliar health system. Over the years, St. Mary has evolved the program, which the hospital renamed Families in Good Health, to meet the emerging needs of the large Cambodian-American population in Long Beach.

Families in Good Health now includes free home visits and support for expectant and new parents, parenting workshops, community wellness programs, benefit enrollment help, oral health care access, vision help, teen mentorship and programming around California's Stop the Hate initiative. That initiative focuses on addressing a rise in anti-Asian hate.

Most of the services are grant-funded and free to clients. More than 8,000 people receive services from Families in Good Health annually.

Sr. Trahan

Sr. Celeste Trahan leads the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Houston, the congregation that founded St. Mary. "What was begun 35-plus years ago still continues today because people are still in need," she said. "Every generation has its own challenges. But whatever those challenges are, St. Mary, as a Catholic hospital, is about addressing the needs of those vulnerable people.

"That's who we're called to serve," she said.

'Lots of misunderstandings'
The United Cambodian Community, a partner of St. Mary, is a cultural and social support organization serving people of Cambodian descent in Long Beach. Its website says the mass immigration of 300,000 Cambodians to the U.S. began after the genocide that took place in the Southeast Asian country between 1975 and 1979. The Khmer Rouge communist regime killed over 2 million Cambodians during that time. Many of those who fled to the U.S. settled in Cambodia Town, which the United Cambodian Community says has the largest population of people of Cambodian descent outside of the Southeast Asian country.

Sr. Trahan said, "They came to Long Beach en masse, and their needs were great. There were lots of misunderstandings of health care. And many people (from that immigrant community) feared going to health care facilities" in part because they had been through much trauma and feared institutions like hospitals.

Rev. Kim

An outpouring of help
Rev. Stanley Kim is director of mission integration for St. Mary, which is part of CommonSpirit Health. He explained that when Long Beach-area leaders saw the plight of the Cambodian refugees — most of whom couldn't speak English, had no Western education, no job, few resources and few skills — they marshaled resources for an "outpouring of help." St. Mary was part of this response. The Sisters of Charity and St. Mary leadership developed navigation services so that these community members could get the care they needed in a culturally appropriate way and in the Khmer language that many of them spoke. The programming, initiated in 1987, originally was called Southeast Asian Project and was later renamed Families in Good Health.

As more community members became adept at using those navigation services and their circumstances improved, St. Mary broadened the program's purview to cover emerging needs. It began offering English language classes, other connections to education, and prenatal care and parenting services. These services now include Welcome Baby programming funded by First 5 Los Angeles, a home visitation and education service for expectant and new parents. It covers infant development, nutrition, breastfeeding, health insurance, home safety and postpartum care for moms.

Families in Good Health's Educated Men with Meaningful Messages, or EM3, hosts an annual Leadership Camping Retreat. This EM3 group is at the August retreat at YMCA Camp Oakes in Big Bear, California. Families in Good Health is offered by Dignity Health St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach, California.


Families in Good Health also offers a Healthy Families America home visitation program for older children in which a family support specialist visits them to address their social service needs.

Families in Good Health also has free parenting workshops, including on communicating, understanding feelings, disciplining children, handling stress and anger and building children's self-worth. Families also get access to dental and eye care and help accessing Medicaid, Medicare and other health insurance programs.

Over time, Families in Good Health has expanded its programming beyond Cambodian Americans to other vulnerable populations.

While Families in Good Health's staff of about four dozen provides many of these services at its offices on St. Mary's campus, they provide some in the community. For instance, they visit high-traffic areas of Cambodia Town and other communities where there is a concentration of vulnerable people or they make home visits. Many staff members are of Cambodian descent; some speak the Khmer language.

Understanding identity
Ladine Chan has been program manager of Families in Good Health since 2020.


His parents were Cambodians who survived the Khmer Rouge's atrocities, though their two daughters died of starvation. Chan was born in a Thailand refugee camp in 1980 before his family emigrated to Arizona in 1982 to live with a sponsor family. The Chans moved to Long Beach in 1983.

Chan said that like many children of Cambodian refugees, he struggled to understand his identity growing up. He said his parents were traumatized by what they experienced before they left Southeast Asia. They did not want to talk about those experiences and only wanted to focus on the present and future.

This left Chan feeling unmoored and disconnected from his family's past. "I didn't understand what it meant to be Cambodian," he said.

He said when he was in high school, he learned from friends about the EM3 program that the United Cambodian Community and Families in Good Health had started in 1996. EM3 is short for Educated Men with Meaningful Messages. EM3 offers health education, mentoring, career guidance, cultural activities, engagement, leadership training, outreach and advocacy to community members ages 14 to 19. EM3 is particularly designed for at-risk, multiethnic young men. There are year-round activities to choose from, including a camping retreat each summer.

Chan said participating in EM3 throughout high school helped him understand his and his family's history and how it shaped them. Chan gained so much from the program that after earning a bachelor's degree in sociology, he wanted to use his skills to benefit EM3. He became an intern and then a youth organizer with EM3 before becoming Families in Good Health's program manager.

Building bonds
Chan said through EM3 and the many other programs under the Families in Good Health umbrella, St. Mary is reaching out and doing the long, hard work it takes to gain trust within the Cambodian immigrant community and other vulnerable communities of greater Los Angeles.

He said St. Mary is constantly building relationships with churches, temples and other organizations in the immigrant communities in its service area. He said that has made it an integrated part of Cambodia Town and the surrounding area.

He said the programming that St. Mary has developed at Families in Good Health has helped Cambodian Americans get important skills and education, establish businesses, gain stability and then advocate for and build up their community. He noted that 90% of participants of EM3 graduate from high school and go on to higher education. Many EM3 participants have been empowered to speak out at community forums, such as on how to address gun violence, housing instability and education shortfalls.

"It's helping them to have a voice," Chan said.


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