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Outreach coordinator bridges culture, language gaps

By Claire Bessette

Publication: theday.com

Published July 18. 2011 4:00AM

Ken Chen is a businessman thrust into the world of women on the edge and in danger of falling off.

When Bethsaida received its grant to help homeless women, the agency's administrators told federal officials they would make sure to reach out to the growing number of Asian residents — especially Chinese — in southeastern Connecticut.

But efforts to hire a Chinese-speaking caseworker for the program proved fruitless. So Bethsaida Executive Director Claire Silva called Chen, publisher of East West Magazine, a dual-language Norwich monthly magazine. The magazine strives to better integrate Asian residents into the local economy and culture, Chen said, so they won't feel they have to travel to New York for basic goods and services.

Chen was intrigued by the program.

"I could be the outreach coordinator," Chen said of his new role as Bethsaida's contact for reaching local Asian women. "I could spread the word and help with translations.

"When they get someone in the street, they call me to help translate and see if they fit into the program," Chen said.

The 2010 U.S. Census showed that the Asian population jumped 7.7 percent in Norwich to a population total of 3,113. Groton's Asian population grew from 3.3 percent to 6.2 percent, second in the region with 2,505 Asian residents. Asian residents who work at the region's two casinos mostly live in Norwich and Montville. Montville's Asian population, according to the Census, is 1,248.

Chen, 30, takes Chinese-language brochures about Bethsaida's program to Asian grocery stores, restaurants and, most importantly, to the two casinos.

Chen recently explained the Bethsaida program and distributed brochures at an employee health fair at Mohegan Sun.

Bethsaida's efforts to reach homeless Asian women has raised Chen's own awareness. He learned, for example, that the definition of homelessness includes women with no home of their own who stay temporarily on a friend's or relative's couch.

Asian women can face the same struggles as women of any other ethnic background, he said. Alcoholism and cigarette addiction are common issues, he said. But often, they either don't seek help or even know that help is available.

He has found that women — and men, too — are much more willing to discuss their troubles when a translator can eliminate the language barrier.

"It's a matter of trust," he said. "Once you get past the communication problem, the trust issue goes away."

Chen understands culture shock. He immigrated to New York City from China with his family at age 11. It took him and his brother 18 months to "figure out what's going on" in school and the whirlwind of American culture. He graduated and attended Stony Brook University in New York, earning a degree in computer science.

But he soon tired of that, he said. He moved with his family to Groton and was asked in 2008 by Montville businessman John Wong to take over the magazine.

He and his wife, Mary Chen, and their 2-month-old daughter now live in Ledyard.

"Having come from that background, I wanted to help others," Chen said.

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