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Kajsiab Program presser

Peng Her, CEO of The Hmong Institute, with community leader Mai Zong Vue at his side, addresses the crowd at a press conference Tuesday calling for emergency funds for the Kajsiab Program. 

In August, Journey Mental Health Center announced it was closing the Kajsiab House, a unique therapy program for Madison’s Hmong community, as well as a mental health and community center for the local Cambodian population. Journey cited financial reasons for the move, and the loss was widely mourned as “devastating.”

But members of Madison’s Southeast Asian communities aren’t ready to give up. At a Tuesday press conference, they asked for $150,000 from the community to keep the programs going until the end of the year. This is necessary to keep the clients of the programs alive, many of whom struggle with PTSD and some of whom have expressed suicidal thoughts since the news of the programs' closure, they said.

“We always hear the saying that it takes a village to raise a child, but in this case it’s going to take a village to save our elders,” said Peng Her, CEO of the Hmong Institute.

There will also be a community forum on Thursday, Sept. 6, at the Urban League of Greater Madison at 6 p.m., 2222 S. Park St., to develop a strategy to keep the program going in 2019, possibly seeking a contract from Dane County. 

Lynn Brady, president and CEO of Journey, said in an interview Tuesday that she was not aware of the fundraising effort and pointed out the program is currently running a deficit of $500,000.

“I’m not quite certain what that means, where that money would go, who would oversee it, how services would be provided,” she said.

In August, Journey Mental Health Center announced it was closing Kajsiab House on Sept. 28 due to a funding problem, after a loss of a transportation contract that was a source of revenue.

Critics have said it is irresponsible to close a program abruptly without planning for the transition of the clients’ care, though Brady said Journey is working to transition clients and restructure the Kajsiab and Cambodian programs. Since the news, clients have expressed suicidal thoughts, and two clients, stressed about the closing of the house, have been hospitalized after forgetting to eat, drink and take their medication.

Critics, including Journey Staff and community members, also said they should have been more involved in the conversation around closing Kajsiab.

“No more about us, without us. Decisions made about the Hmong community, the Cambodian community, the Latino community, the African-American community, let them come to the table also and be part of that solution,” Her said on Tuesday.

A GoFundMe campaign has been set up to raise the $150,000 necessary to keep the program open until the end of the year, covering expenses like rent at the current facility, “minimal” staff and transportation, in order to provide the “most critical” services like medication prescription, psychiatrist counseling and service and PTSD therapy.

Looking ahead to 2019, Nancy Vue-Tran, the director of grants and development at Freedom Inc., said at the press conference that Kajsiab House was considering potentially moving to its own 501(c)3 nonprofit status. The programs may seek funds from the county to continue services in 2019. 

Lynn Green, Dane County Human Services director, said in an interview last week that there are currently no county dollars in the program, but Kajsiab could start could start lobbying for funds in the 2019 budget. 

Her also challenged elected officials to prioritize mental health and culturally competent services. At the press conference, state Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, said she was “utterly shocked” to hear the news of the closing of Kajsiab House.

“There are elected officials who are with you. We will stand together. We will stand united. And we will figure out a solution,” Subeck said.

Kajsiab House serves over 150 members of the Madison Hmong community, including refugees and veterans who fought for the U.S. in the Vietnam War. Along with wrap-around services like English classes, meals and community discussions, Kajsiab provided culturally sensitive mental health counselling and therapy.

Journey is also ending a program at the Cambodian Temple, a program serving about 125 members of the local southeast Asian population to gather and receive mental health care. The temple program began in 1990 to serve survivors of the genocide under Pol Pot.

Both populations faced significant trauma before coming to the U.S., Her said Tuesday. Hmong populations “spent years hiding in the jungle where they witnessed people getting killed or gassed." Some died of starvation, some were imprisoned, and some faced brutal refugee camp conditions. Cambodians suffered execution, torture and starvation. Upon arrival in the U.S., both Hmong and Cambodians battled language barriers, cultural adjustment and racism, he said. 

Journey is looking to restructure the programs. The Bayview Foundation community center has already offered space to provide services to the Hmong population rent-free, and Journey is looking for locations to set up on the east or north side as well, though Brady has acknowledged that “what works for this community is the model, and that’s the model that we’re losing.”

Vue-Tran criticized this plan on Tuesday, saying the Kajsiab House “requires a central location” for wrap-around services.

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“This utter disregard for our Southeast Asian elders and veterans is an outrage and we will not accept it,” Vue-Tran said.

This is not the first time members of Madison’s Southeast Asian communities have advocated for the Journey programs. Last Thursday, over two dozen members of the local Southeast Asian community showed up to the Dane County Health and Human Needs Committee to advocate for their program.

Kajsiab House funding was not on the agenda, and they voiced their concerns under general public comment. They emphasized that the Kajsiab House and Cambodian Temple were the only culturally competent services in the area for a population that has suffered much.

Several speakers reported suicidal thoughts and despair among Kajsiab Clients after the news. One client of Kajsiab House said through a translator that many clients don’t read or write English, making them “very helpless.”

“We really rely on Kajsiab House,” she said. “Please don’t close our place of peace.”

Kajsiab House was created in a void of culturally competent programs, community leader Mai Zong Vue said last Thursday. Vue has been involved with Kajsiab House since its inception. She said the services at Kajsiab are very “basic and fundamental compared to other elder programs in Dane County,” and said the rundown condition of the building that houses the Hmong elders as an “embarrassment.”

“I saw how poorly our elders were treated, but mentally Kajsiab House is the place that stabilized their pain and suffering,” she said. “It is clear that Journey is moving toward a clinical hospital-based model, a model that it’s about billable numbers that would bring them profit, not about saving lives.”

Savang Chhorm, who works with Freedom, Inc., which shares clients with Journey programs, said last Thursday that the Cambodian Temple was a crucial and transforming program for her brother-in-law, who was suffering from post-traumatic stress so severe she couldn’t use a blow dryer for fear of triggering him with the noise. The temple helped her brother-in-law address his stress and apply for disability, and it’s a safe haven for women and children suffering from domestic violence, she said.

“This is their home, and to take it away from them and letting them know only a month to find somewhere else to go, it's like taking a child from their parents. I’m asking you please listen, but not just with your head, but with your heart,” Chhorm said.

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