“I blame Walt Disney. It’s all his fault,” Steve Parker, the founder of FOCHUS says when asked how it all began.
“We (Steve & Susanne Parker) came to Charlotte in 2010 to work with refugees through a ministry called Apartment Life. We moved into a low-income apartment community on Charlotte’s east side, which at the time was ground zero for refugee resettlement in the city. There were five apartments housing Montagnard (pronounced mon TUHN yahrd) refugee families from Vietnam. There were eight kids in those families between grades K-5, and they discovered our Disney movie collection and iPads. Because of that, they started hanging out in our apartment, watching our movies and playing with our technology. And we gradually just fell in love with these kids. So we began to think, ‘What can we do to help them get off to a good start in this country?’”
In 2013, the Parkers came across a report detailing the value of summer learning programs in closing acheivment gaps and helping kids to excel in school. So they began planning a summer enrichment program for Montagnard kids in their neighborhood. But how could they convince the kids to give up a big chunk of their summer break?
“None of these kids had ever been to Carowinds. So we came up with a bribe. If the kids participated in the enrichment program, then we’d take them to Carowinds at the end of the summer. They took the bait! But what we found was that, after a couple weeks, they would have been there whether we were going to Carowinds or not. Everything in the program was designed with them in mind. They had found a place where they fit in,” Steve explained.
Thus, FOCHUS began in 2013. FOCHUS, by the way, stands for “Friends of the Central Highlands in the US." The organization was a Seed 20 contender in 2013, receiving the Digital Impact award that provided $10,000 worth of in-kind services to spur their efforts to continue fostering relationships through tutoring and mentoring Montagnard youth in West Charlotte.
I asked Steve about the Montagnard children, “Why them?”
“They occupied an in-between space,” he explained to me. Their families had come from Vietnam. Their parents were still very much a part of that culture, and like most first-generation immigrants, they were not really assimilating into American society. The kids were beginning to assimilate because they were in public school. But they really didn’t fit in either place. When they went home, that wasn’t really their world anymore. But they didn’t truly fit in at school either. So FOCHUS became the place where they belonged. There was no bullying. They could ask questions about things they didn’t understand and no one would laugh at them. In a lot of ways, we created a world for them. And they loved it.”
Because the summer program was so successful, the Parkers followed up that fall with an afterschool program. For the next five years, educational support services were provided to Montagnard youth on a year-round basis. FOCHUS also developed a partnership with Brookstone School to provide a quality Christian private school education at no cost for the families they worked with. Today, nineteen students attend Brookstone.
Starting this year, FOCHUS has rolled their afterschool and summer enrichment programs into those held at Brookstone. Now the Parkers are looking at other ways they can help the Montagnard community.
“Many of the students we serve will go on to four-year universities and will do fine. But for some, college may not be the best way forward,” Steve said. “Traditionally, immigrants often find entrepreneurship is a path that leads to success in this country. However, because the Montagnards come from a tribal background, the entrepreneurial spirit has not been a part of their world. We are exploring ways that we can graft that into their cultural DNA, if you will.”
Steve is also working on getting FOCHUS certified with the Department of Justice to provide low-cost immigration legal services. “For several years,” Steve said, “we have prepared taxes for Montagnard families at a reduced cost. We will soon be certified by the Department of Justice to help them apply for citizenship, renew their green cards, and bring family members into the country. This will be done for a fee that is much less than what they usually pay through an attorney or private companies. This will also allow us to make more connections within the Montagnard community and develop other programs that can help them flourish in their new world.”
The Parkers and FOCHUS volunteers have befriended a people group who were allies to soldiers during the Vietnam War. Steve said, “The Special Forces troops who fought with the Montagnards said they had never found a people like this anywhere in the world. They were very impressed with their loyalty, courage, and fierceness on the battlefield. Many American soldiers owe their lives to a Montagnard who jumped in front of a bullet or threw their body on a hand grenade. Our nation owes these people a debt of gratitude. This is one of the things that drives our work.”
As the Parkers expand their vision to provide more services to the community, they are hopeful they can create a space that will serve multiple purposes. “We foresee the development of an entrepreneurial incubator, gallery space for art and cultural displays, counseling services, all sorts of different resources to allow the Montagnards to achieve their potential and, hopefully, serve as an example for other refugee and immigrant groups as to what is possible in this country.
FOCHUS is looking for volunteers to befriend and mentor Montagnard students and families. “These people love to meet Americans and share their lives,” Steve said. They also need help in understanding how to navigate bureaucracies and make sense of the things they receive in the mail. On another front, we are looking for people who would be interested in volunteering when our legal services office is up and running this fall. We are also particularly interested in hearing from business people who might be interested in the development of the entrepreneurial incubator.”We know you’re all about SHARing your time and resources, so to learn more, check out FOCHUS’ profile.