Pahoua Yang, Vice President of Wilder Community Mental Health and Wellness, speaking at Wilder Center for Social Healing

Southeast Asian Community Members Heal Through Belonging at the Center for Social Healing

10/17/19 by Pahoua Yang

Every week, members of Cambodian, Karen, Hmong and Vietnamese communities gather at the Wilder Center for Social Healing in Saint Paul for support, fellowship, shared meals and healing. The Center combines Western mental health services with traditional healing practices in a friendly, therapeutic environment. In summer 2019, volunteers from Target completed a major remodel at the Center to help it become even more welcoming. Along with a beautifully refreshed interior, the volunteers built raised planter boxes for our members to garden.

Center for Social Healing Gardens are a Reminder of ­­­Grandpa

Seeing the gardens reminds me of my grandpa, who came to this country when I was a teenager. He was already older. He had lived through seeing his village, his gardens and his home destroyed in war. He had lost relatives, friends and his whole way of life. Growing up, my mom told us wonderful stories about her father. Grandpa was this mythical man who was so tall he could almost reach the sky. He would go hunting with his dogs and come back with a bounty that they would use to feed the entire village. He raised his siblings because he lost his parents as a young man.  As the war took more relatives, he also raised their children.

When grandpa was finally able to come to the U.S. to join the rest of his family, his whole world changed. The moment he stepped off that plane on a hot July day, he became a tiny, elderly Hmong man who couldn’t speak English, who didn’t understand the rules, and who just didn’t “get it.” 

Then he began to garden. He turned my uncle’s entire front, side and backyard into a garden, and because they lived just blocks from a homeless shelter, he not only fed us, but also the people from the shelter who would sometimes show up in the backyard to get fresh fruit and vegetables from him. Well into his seventies, my grandpa was going around the neighborhood in the summertime picking up trash and weeding. In wintertime, he’d shovel the sidewalks on his block.  He became a beloved and familiar figure in his neighborhood.

My parents were concerned he would hurt himself, and often, I’d get nominated to ask him to stop. When I asked Grandpa why he was gardening, picking up trash and shoveling, he said, “I’ve always done this in my lifetime. The homeless people –don’t see me as someone useless. They see me as someone helpful. My neighbors are so busy with work and their families. They’re glad and thankful I can shovel the sidewalks. I can still help, and this is what I know how to do.”

Grandpa reminded me of the most basic principles: We all want a place to belong. We all want to feel useful. All of us are more than our diagnoses, our hardships, and our pain. All of us are capable.

Center for Social Healing Supports and Promotes Belonging

This what the Center for Social Healing promotes. Here, members belong. Members are capable. Members are more than the pain and loss that initiated their relocation. We have grandmas and grandpas, uncles and aunties, sisters and brothers who bring with them great wisdom. Even though they need some help and support, just like we all do from time to time, here, they don’t lose that identity. In fact, they are encouraged to bring all of those parts here, where they also get to help each other. 

I have talked to so many members and staff throughout the years who have told me how much this Center means to them because of this approach, and I am so proud that we can continue to provide this space – both the physical and emotional space – to do this with our members and our communities. The program is not just about the people who use it. It’s about what they represent. The members who come here are the backbone of our families and communities. They are our matriarchs and patriarchs, our elders and our leaders.  They are the reason staff like me are able to be here and do what we do, and it is an incredible honor to be able to support them in return.

Photo: Pahoua Yang, vice president of Wilder Community Mental Health and Wellness, spoke about her grandpa at an open house for the remodeled Center for Social Healing.



Grandpa reminded me of the most basic principles: We all want a place to belong. We all want to feel useful. All of us are more than our diagnoses, our hardships, and our pain. All of us are capable.

Pahoua Yang, Vice President, Wilder Community Mental Health and Wellness