Kim Cook jokes that she is a one-woman Vietnamese Peace Corps. Born in Vietnam, Cook has traveled across the United States, helping those in need in some of America’s poorest urban areas. In that spirit of philanthropy, Cook founded the Vietnamese Resettlement Association, a Falls Church-based organization that provides assistance to immigrant women across the Washington, D.C. area. The organization, since its founding, has served more than 10,000 women, and the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure organization has taken notice. Cook recently received a $200,000 grant from the organization to bolster the modest budget of her group and help fund its women’s health initiatives.
Cook first came to the United States in 1962 on a leadership scholarship, and was trained by the U.S. government to be a social worker and return to Vietnam to help those struggling in the war-ravaged nation and serve as a cultural go-between for the American and Vietnamese governments.
“I wanted to go heal the wounds of the war, but that was my idealistic self that wanted to do that,” Cook said. During the late 1960s, Cook would travel to different villages to help citizens caught in the middle of the war. She said it wasn’t unusual to return to the villages where she worked to see all of her work destroyed by an overnight bombing.
“One social worker could not heal all of these villages,” Cook said.
Cook and her husband left Vietnam for the United States in 1968, after they “decided the war was going to be lost.”
Through the late 60s and early 70s, save for a two-year stint in Thailand, Cook and her husband, a diplomat, traveled to different urban areas across the United States, and in each she sought positions reaching out to those in need just as she had in Vietnam.
After going back to school and raising her two children, Cook returned her focus to the needs of the Vietnamese community, except this time she was concerned for their welfare outside of Vietnam, as many Vietnamese people fled after the fall of Vietnam or were stuck in refugee camps. She, along with other community activists in the days before the Refugee Act, lobbied and demonstrated in Washington, D.C. for Vietnamese refugees to be allowed into the United States. It was then that she began the Mutual Assistance Association, in which the Vietnamese Resettlement Association found its roots.
“We had to set up a whole system, how to help these refugees, some who hadn’t been outside of their villages, to settle in a country they don’t know anything about, and to help them organize communities of refugees so that they could turn around and help themselves.”
Since 1990, the organization has focused more on the social issues facing the Vietnamese community by providing a number of services like translation assistance and mental health support through its Falls Church-based walk-in facilities.
Though supporting a noble cause, Cook and the many volunteers who rallied behind her efforts still struggled to establish the walk-in facilities, having to barter cleaning services in exchange for clinic space when the Vietnamese Resettlement Association first started.
“We live off of volunteers,” Cook said, recalling the early days of the organization, before state funding and other types of grant support made making ends meet more comfortable. Now, the organization can usually fund four full-time staff members year to year, but is still assisted by volunteers who donate their time and professional services.
Though they’ve called a handful of Falls Church spots home, the organization is now housed in the Willston Multicultural Center near Seven Corners, outfitting the space with donated furniture and equipment.
“We grow up with the community,” Cook said. “If our community is poor, we have to stay poor.”
The organization generally operates on a $150,000 – $250,000 budget, which will be boosted by the $200,000 Komen grant, given in two $100,000 chunks this year and next year.
The Komen grant was awarded in part because of the Vietnamese Resettlement Association’s women’s health initiatives. For the past 15 years, the group has been promoting healthcare for women in not only the Vietnamese community, but in all immigrant communities by providing women with free-of-charge services like regular breast and cervical cancer screenings.
“We felt that a lot of newcoming women neglected to take care of themselves, as mothers always take care of everybody else and not themselves, and they also don’t have the resources to do things like get a mammogram or a Pap smear,” Cook said.
Through their program, women who qualify are given one-on-one counseling, then sent for medical services to an area doctor.
“They go to see the doctor on an individual basis, not as group, so nobody knows that they are in any special program,” Cook said.
Cook plans to use the funds provided by the Komen grant to expand the reach of her organization into Arlington and Prince William counties and area Hispanic communities, focusing on spreading the word in churches and public housing facilities to let women know what kinds of services they can provide.
“We only want to do the best services for people that really need it. We are replacing their little village, their little pueblo, their extended family in their own culture, and therefore we are very much trusted,” Cook said. “I believe in using a community development model. The organization has to come from the community. Because of that philosophy, the people have turned around and helped us. Even when we have no budget, we are still open.”