“We will rebuild.”
This was a common theme for Xuan “Cyndi” Nguyen post-Katrina. Nguyen was born in Vietnam and moved to the U.S. when she was 5 years old. Her parents fled to this country with nothing more than “two hands” and a desire to rebuild their lives here. Like many Vietnamese immigrants, her family settled on the east side of New Orleans.
A self-described “rebel,” Nguyen said her parents were worried about her direction as a teenager, and sent her to a convent in Missouri City, Texas. After breaking a few convent rules, she was then sent back to New Orleans. She left again to attend high school in Monticello, Iowa, spent some time in Texas, and came home for good in 1998.
In 2001, Nguyen realized her community was disconnected from the rest of the city and the opportunities it offered. Knowing nothing about nonprofits, she co-founded Vietnamese Initiatives in Economic Training (VIET) to help break down economic barriers for Vietnamese families and connect them to resources. VIET became the first nonprofit organization in Louisiana to focus on the needs of non-English-speaking communities.
Nguyen was just putting up office walls for VIET’s new youth development center when Katrina hit. She, her husband, and their three oldest daughters left their home at midnight and fled to Iberville, Louisiana.
She didn’t recognize the magnitude of Katrina’s destruction until she looked at a TV while at a hardware store. She was horrified, realizing that she’d been so busy working on the nonprofit that she had forgotten to buy flood insurance for their home.
“I was crying and I told my mother, ‘We have nothing. We’ve lost everything,’” she said. “(My mother) looked at me and said, ‘When we came here from Vietnam, we didn’t even know the language. But we had two hands. We will rebuild.’”
Nguyen returned home about two months after the storm, and immediately continued the work of VIET by rebuilding the pieces of her community.
“I remember coming back to New Orleans and the entire city appeared dark and deserted,” Nguyen recalled. “But when I came into our community, there were a few people here and the lights were on. I like to say, ‘Our community turned the lights back on in New Orleans.’”
“Though we had some things running, it didn’t feel like home until VIET was back up, so we could continue our work. I knew it, my staff knew it, so in November, we all got back to work with the after-school program,” she said.
Her work in the community helped bring a hint of normalcy and routine back to the staff, children and families.
“I actually rebuilt VIET before my home. We were in a trailer for more than a year, because I was so focused on the community center. It had to happen for the community before I could focus on myself,” Nguyen said.
She contemplated leaving the community and tried to sell her house after rebuilding the community center. But her “For Sale” signs kept disappearing.
“I brought this up to someone at a community event. I’d put up a sign before I’d go to work, and when I would get home from work, it was gone. A person chimed in to say, ‘I took down one of those signs. You can’t go, the community needs you,’” Nguyen said. “It was at that point I realized I needed to stay.”
In 2013, Nguyen was selected as a W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) Community Leadership Network fellow for her work as a transformative change agent in her community. She credits the fellowship with re-energizing her work and said it gave her validation.
Today, VIET has a new home – larger than the last one – because the organization took over an old Catholic church and began transforming the 8-acre site into a vibrant community center. Now, VIET runs a summer camp, after-school programming and a playground and will soon have a fruit forest and a charter school on-site.
As a mother of six, including triplet sons, Nguyen envisions a bright future ahead for her family and community.
“Ten years from now, I hope the children in the program will be able to go as far as they can dream,” she said. “Every day I encourage them to be bold, take risks, love each other, check in with one another and never lose touch.”
“The devastation of Hurricane Katrina did not delay our activities. It made our community stronger.”