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Wilder’s Center for Social Healing treats refugees’ trauma with culturally focused care

The center was designed to be a comfortable — and comforting — home base for members of the many Southeast Asian refugee communities who have resettled in St. Paul.

Members of the Center for Social Healing are actively engaged in culturally familiar and recovery-focused activities, like planting vegetable gardens at Wilder Forest near Marine on St. Croix.
Photo by Hlee Lee

The Center for Social Healing sits on a hilly, wooded lot on a quiet street in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood. Because today is a Monday, it’s the day when members of the Karen refugee community gather at the center to get help filling out paperwork, to cook, to go on outings around the Twin Cities, and, most important, to just sit together and talk. 

The center, with its circle of mismatched chairs and sofas and large commercial kitchen, has occupied this bright, airy building on the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation’s Lafond Avenue campus since February 2013. Before that, the program shared space in the building next door.

The result of an emerging priority at Wilder to provide culturally responsive services, the center was designed to be a comfortable — and comforting — home base for members of the many Southeast Asian refugee communities who have resettled in St. Paul. It’s a community center of sorts, one that also provides a unique, culturally centered form of mental health care for its users, mainly people who have resettled in Minnesota after fleeing from their war-torn home countries. 

The need for programs like the center emerged in an organic manner. 

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“Wilder used to be at the Bigelow Building [on University Avenue],” recalled Paul Sinclair, Southeast Asian adult program supervisor. Before the Center for Social Healing was established, Sinclair said, “we had these little support groups there. We would just gather people and sit in a circle. You could smell the Asian food coming down the hall from our little kitchen. It really felt like home for folks.”

Then, in 2008, the Wilder Foundation opened Wilder Center, a large, modern building at the corner of University and Lexington Avenues in St. Paul. Not long after the move, a case manager knocked on Sinclair’s door. She told him that the Hmong women in her depression group were feeling ill at ease in the new building.

“She said,” Sinclair recounted, “ ‘They don’t feel comfortable here.’ They felt like the spirits did not follow them from the old building to the new building. They felt depressed and lonely and they just didn’t feel like they belonged here.” The case manager told Sinclair that the women in the group wanted him to perform a spirit calling, to help them feel more comfortable in the new space.

Sinclair, though he’d never done anything like this, agreed to give it a try. “The next week the women met and I came in and I did some blessings and I called the spirit in my own way,” he said. “We passed around some eggs, which are a sign of newness and fertility in the Hmong culture, and their faces got really bright and their affect changed.” 

A spirit calling is one way to make people feel at home, Sinclair thought, but he wondered if there was more he could do to create a comfortable, healing space for Southeast Asian refugees. From this experience, the Center for Social Healing was born.

Home sweet home

As the members of the women’s depression group explained, sometimes it is important to make a space your own. The Center for Social Healing, now settled in its building near Wilder’s Child Development Center on the Foundation’s Lafond campus, is culturally specific and welcoming, a meeting point where refugees gather and work together toward healing from trauma. Each Southeast Asian cultural group served by Wilder — Cambodian, Hmong, Karen and Vietnamese —is assigned its own room at the center, and each has its own meeting day.

The weekly meetings are a bright spot for many members of the local Karen community, said case manager and group facilitator George Thaw Moo.

“Before this group, there was no program in the community where Karen people could come and meet and socialize,” he said. “Now, they can come here on Mondays and feel comfortable. In some ways, it’s like being back home again.”

Thaw Moo is Karen. He came to the United States in 2010 as a refugee from Thailand. He and other case managers all speak the Karen languages, which is appealing for group members, who often feel isolated because of their inability to communicate in English.

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“Not speaking the language is a big thing,” Thaw Moo said. “This is a support group, but we don’t structure it like traditional therapy. It is free-flowing. Members come here to enjoy themselves, to support others. We are also here to help them if they need to do paperwork, bills and things like that.”  The weekly meetings aren’t labeled as group therapy, more of a fun community gathering with food and friends. But, Thaw Moo added, “Being here helps many of them emotionally.”

Ah Hsi is a member of the Karen group. She has been in the United States for six years. Most weeks, she attends the Karen group meetings. Thaw Moo interpreted while she spoke. “It has been very difficult being here, especially due to the language barrier,” she said. “It has been helpful to come here and share my stories with others. Other members and the facilitators help us talk about some of the things that we have been holding inside.”

Billability is key these days

Sinclair said that the Center for Social Healing is supported by Ramsey County and the Wilder Foundation. Though the programs have been popular with group members, the center’s future depends on finding additional funding partners. Many of the programs the center provides — like group meals, gardening clubs and field trips — aren’t easily billable to insurance providers, Sinclair explained, and in today’s health care environment, billability is key. 

“Because the center is so unique, it doesn’t always fall under traditional funding systems,” Sinclair said. “The future success of the program depends on finding new funding partners and opportunities.”

Sinclair and his colleagues are busy introducing potential partners to the program and the people it serves. “Land O’ Lakes was here last week as part of the United Way tour,” he said. “They talked to our members and heard stories of recovery that they had never heard before.”

Thaw Moo said he has faith in the center’s healing power. In his career with the program, he’s seen members work through serious trauma, thanks to the real-life connections they’ve made with others. “It works,” he said. “The relationships help.”

Sometimes emotional trauma reveals itself as physical trauma. Certain members of the Hmong group, for instance, complain of body aches and chronic fatigue.

“They’ll say, ‘My body hurts. I can’t do housework,’” Sinclair said. “But when gardening time comes, you should see them work. They’re picking up the harvest, they’re hoeing and digging. They’re happy because they’re in familiar environments. But when they are isolated in their home, they’re stressed and sad. There’s a real connection with mind and body.”

Center member Ah Hsi agrees. She’s come to the center to meet with other Karen group members, something she does nearly every week.

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Thaw Moo translated as she spoke: “Sometimes I feel suffocated inside. But now I have a facilitator here who speaks my own language and other people I can talk to. It helps me feel much better.”