Houston is home to the second-largest Vietnamese population in the United States. Jannette Diep is the Executive Director of the Houston branch of Boat People SOS. She and her team provide a wealth of services to the Vietnamese community, as well as other refugees and immigrants.
Most BPSOS clients are from underserved and low-income families, many of whom have just arrived in the United States. Their biggest challenge is a language barrier. “We get a lot of new immigrants who come to our office first when they come to this country. They know that we speak their language,” Jannette says. The BPSOS team provides legal and direct services, including literacy classes, senior services, civic engagement and domestic violence prevention.
Houston has weathered several major disasters in the last few years, the most recent of which was the winter storm in February that left residents without power or water for a week or more. “You can’t imagine how difficult it was to try to stay warm when the electricity went off,” Jannette says. “It triggered fear and uncertainty: what do we do? We’ve never had this happen before. Who do we call? Your phone is about to run out of battery and you don’t know how to charge it. You’re just so cold. And when it’s that cold, people panic–especially people with children or older adults. The city and state weren’t prepared for any of this; they didn’t have any way of getting information out about what to do or where to go. They had to come up with warming stations. But if you’re in a community with language barriers, you have no idea how to get that warming station or that it exists.”
The winter storm brought extreme stress and anxiety. “It was a struggle to just get through a whole week, and a lot of us didn’t know whether we would be able to get through the week,” Jannette said. “We were hoping and praying that we could get through it. We came from a warm country and had never been this cold before.”
Jannette and the BPSOS team did their best to reach out to their communities to make sure people were okay. But they weren’t. “A majority of people didn’t fare well,” Jannette says. “Pipes burst. Everything froze. Because pipes burst, it damaged homes badly. Some homes are so damaged that it looks like a hurricane blew through.”
People needed food. They needed water and other basic supplies. And they needed them quickly. So Jannette started reaching out to partners. They got corporate sponsorship to buy Asian food and make packages for families. And they were introduced to CWS by a mutual partner. We provided CWS Blankets, Hygiene Kits and Emergency Cleanup Buckets to match the 250 packages of food supplies that the BPSOS team was ready to distribute. They held a community event, and soon hundreds of families had the supplies in hand.
The event was a lot of work for the BPSOS team, who scrambled to organize it quickly. “It was well worth it, and we would do it all over again if we had to,” Jannette says. “We’re so grateful for all of our partners who pulled through. You all reached out to us and said, ‘What is it that we can do to help?’”
“Each supply and each kit is going to a family that has gone through a really traumatic experience. These children, these elders, single mothers, families who are trying to overcome a disaster: it’s tough enough,” Jannette reflects. “These supplies are going to families who need them, during a time that they are going through so much. Every little thing counts to them. When people picked up the blankets, they were hugging them. When they picked up the hygiene kits, they were so excited that there was a comb and towel in there. They lost these things when water went through their homes.”
“I can tell you that these families will hold onto those hygiene kits for a very long time. They will remember that. We told them that the supplies came from volunteers. People are thinking about you, we told them. You should never give up,” she says. “To a lot of people, a hygiene kit means nothing to them. To a vulnerable population, it means everything to them. They hold onto the fact that people are thinking about them.”
CWS also provided a grant of $4,500 to help families repair burst pipes. “With that grant, we were able to help more than 20 families with $200 grants to buy parts and pieces for their pipes,” Jannette says. “When funders come in to help, people can get back to their lives. They can have someone go in and fix the pipes for them. They can at least have running water. They may still have holes in their walls–some families had thousands of dollars in repairs–but they will have water.”
For our team, this is just the start of a partnership with BPSOS. We are proud to work with teams like Jannette’s who spend every day helping people access the resources they need to build safe, productive and dignified lives in their new communities. Thank you, CWS family, for standing with our neighbors in Houston!