by Ravi Seng, Community Organizer, The Cambodian Family Community Center
Heng Kem (whom we affectionately refer to as “Ta Heng” which means “Grandpa Heng” in Khmer) has always been one of The Cambodian Family’s most active residents. He and his wife came to the United States back in 2008, when his son (who arrived here in the late 90s) was finally able to sponsor them both. Ta found about our agency through his daughter-in-law, who used to be a client of ours, and has been an active participant and responsible community member ever since.
One of our proudest moments with Ta was when he finally passed his citizenship test and became U.S. citizen! The Cambodian Family offers ESL and Civics classes twice a week, where we educate our interested residents on the questions that will be asked once they take the test. Ta attended our classes, but more importantly, it was his own hard work and dedication that earned him his U.S. citizenship.
Ta is originally from Battambang, a city near the Thai-Cambodian border. Back in his home country, he was a school teacher; as a U.S. citizen, he’s a wonderful advocate and activist for raising awareness on health/mental health disparities in underserved communities. As a monolingual Khmer speaker, he’s personally met with California State Senator Tom Umberg to discuss the importance of quality language translation and interpretation services while navigating the healthcare system. He’s also spoken in front of Census Officials and Orange County local stakeholders to advocate for the best practices to reach hard-to-county communities for the upcoming 2020 Census.
When he’s not speaking on behalf of his community, he actively attends various Town Halls and civic engagement trainings, and he’s an active voice during California Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) Steering Committee meetings, where he open up about his own mental health issues and the particular difficulties his communities face with the stigma of mental health. Ta enjoys being involved these meetings because he’s genuinely interested in how his civic engagement can impact policies and systems change, and he wants to help the people that come after him.
We asked him if he had a message for his generation, or for the younger generation after him, and he told us this: “The Cambodian Family has helped me for a long time, with services related to citizenship, Medicare, Medi-Cal, translation, etc., and I’m incredibly thankful for all of it. I want funders and friends to support TCF, to donate more, so that TCF has a greater capacity to better serve the community. For people like me – older, limited-English speaking adults, whose children are often busy working during the week – there is a great need for culturally and linguistically competent Health Navigators, interpreters, and social networks; the older generation, my generation, needs resources.”
For nearly four decades, it has been The Cambodian Family’s honor and pleasure to serve people like Ta Heng, and we will always try our best to continue to do so.
 This is an approximate translation/interpretation done by The Cambodian Family’s staff. We took quite a bit of liberty when translating, because some words/phrases can only be approximately understood in the host language.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.