Growing New Leaders - Women's Foundation California


The terror of the Cambodian Killing Fields lives on long past the end of the war. 40 years after they’ve left Cambodia, Khmer refugees still suffer the effects of the genocide. According to a 2005 study, 62 percent are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the pain does not stop with the elders. Lian Cheun, executive director of Khmer Girls In Action (KGA), explained that the research they conducted last year shows that trauma has been passed on to the next generation: 49 percent of Cambodian youth show signs of depression.

“The Khmer community is very silent and there’s still a lot of healing that needs to be done and there’s still a lot of pain that the community carries. Part of the healing is to train and develop young people to be more active and to play a role in the political process.”

Lian and KGA realized that they had to do something to heal their community and address the staggering depression statistics. They had to intervene with the Cambodian youth where they’re most likely to be found – at school.

As a result, KGA has taken on an impressive organizing campaign they call Youth at the CORE: Wellness Center Campaign. They researched and wrote a resolution that aims to create school-based health clinics in high schools and they decided to convince the Long Beach Unified School District to adopt it.

“We want to help close the health gap so that teachers can have a chance to close the academic gap,” Lian told us.

They know they’re in for a long haul and they’re prepared. The school board thinks that they know what’s best for young people, but we believe that young people know what’s best for them. That’s why they need to be integrated into the process,” said Lian.

Also, KGA knows that counseling and preventative services are first to go on the budget chopping block when California is going through budget battles. But they also know that schools that have wellness centers have been able to decrease their absentee rates. One school with a wellness clinic decreased its absentee rate by 20 percent, which ended up saving the school money.

“In Long Beach, on the West side, there’s one nurse for four schools, meaning that she spends one day a week in each school. If a student gets hurt on a Monday, she might not be able to see the nurse until Thursday. That’s not enough,” Lian told us. KGA is proposing the district create health centers in three high schools – the same three that combined account for 80% of teen pregnancies in Long Beach.

Most inspiring of all, this campaign is not just run by the small KGA staff—it is run by the teenage girls who have gone and are going through the KGA leadership program. Every year, 60 girls go through the program, and so far 500 have been trained in leadership, advocacy and public policy.

There is a KGA alumna behind this campaign strategy and outreach; there is a committee of Khmer high school students working on event planning and marketing; there is a group of high school seniors working on the resolution. And every single KGA girl is meeting with elected officials and lobbying them to support the resolution.

They have no intention of stopping until all young people have an opportunity to thrive.

NOTE: This story was part of our 2011-12 annual report. See the 2011-12 annual report.

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