Mai Kou Xiong Builds a Legacy of School-Based Mental Health Support for Hmong Students
When Mai Kou Xiong was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer last year, she reflected on what mattered most to her. For much of her career, Mai Kou has worked in elementary schools, helping youth embrace their Hmong identity, language and culture to help them succeed in school and life. “I want our students to be healthy mentally and emotionally,” Mai Kou says. “That is critical for their success as adults.”
Mai Kou was familiar with Wilder’s school-based mental health services from her work at Jackson Elementary in Saint Paul. Some of her students had been part of Hlub Zoo, a Wilder school-based mental health program for students of Asian descent, and Mai Kou had seen the impact of mental wellness on her students’ lives. She decided to continue helping Hmong youth by naming Wilder as a beneficiary of a life insurance policy.
Her gift will establish the Mai Kou Xiong Fund for the Benefit of Hmong Youth, an endowment that will support Hlub Zoo and Wilder’s work to support mental wellness among Hmong youth. “Just to see how this program has helped so many kids, I think this is the perfect place for me to leave that legacy with,” Mai Kou says.
Working with Hmong Elementary Students Is Mai Kou’s Calling
Mai Kou did not speak English when she moved to the United States with her family at eight years old. She started second grade at a school in the Santa Barbara area of California and attended classes for English language learners. Most of her classmates were white, and Mai Kou worked hard to fit in. She dyed her hair and felt embarrassed to bring Hmong food for lunch. “I was having an identity crisis,” she says.
After high school, Mai Kou married and had a son. She raised her family while working and earning a bachelor’s degree. She taught in elementary schools in California for several years. There, she helped develop an after-school Hmong literacy program, which led her to a career devoted to helping new generations of Hmong students to understand and embrace their culture – something her education had lacked. “They need to know who they are,” Mai Kou says. “They need to have a strong sense of identity."
In 2000, Mai Kou moved to the Twin Cities, where she was excited to teach in charter schools with a focus on Hmong language and culture. In 2011, Mai Kou joined Saint Paul Public Schools, where she worked closely with students who needed assistance with Hmong language instruction before moving into administrative roles.
In the Twin Cities, Mai Kou hosts a show on 3Hmongtv.net and has been deeply involved in her community. She even co-wrote or wrote three children’s books. Mary Her, a Wilder therapist in the Hlub Zoo mental health program, says Mai Kou has been influential in the schools and has helped build a network of people who support Hmong families. “She’s powerful,” Mary says. “She’s a dreamer who makes things happen. She has this passion to keep going.”
After Cancer Diagnosis, Mai Kou Considers Her Legacy with Planned Gift
Mai Kou continued her deep involvement with her career and her community until she was diagnosed with cancer in February 2018. After tests confirmed that the cancer had spread, she sought support from her friends and family, including her adult son and college-age daughter. She took a leave of absence from work, which initially left her feeling like she had nothing to do. Then she decided to slow down and savor life as she sought treatment for the disease.
Over the last year, Mai Kou has traveled in the United States. She confronted her fear of heights at the Grand Canyon. She watched the sunrise over the ocean in Florida. “It means so much more,” Mai Kou says. “Now you notice the colors. You notice the smell of the ocean. You notice the feeling of the sand.”
While Mai Kou’s work had previously defined her, she is now making space for others to step up. “There are so many people who also are passionate about the same issues I am passionate about,” she says.
Through the planned gift Mai Kou has created at Wilder, she will continue to create positive change for Hmong youth and the community. “Leaving a legacy is so important,” she says. “Whenever I’m no longer here, I want to be remembered for something.”