For three Long Beach teenagers, volunteering at United Cambodian Community (UCC), 2201 E. Anaheim St., is more than just something to do after school — it’s life changing.
Brother and sister volunteers Chhoub, 19, and Thilda Chhoun, 17, along with Ronald Jacques, 16, will be honored at UCC’s 35th Anniversary Celebration and Award Ceremony, themed “Masquerade Ball: Engaging New Faces in Our Community,” at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 11, at Hak Heang Restaurant, 2041 E. Anaheim St.
For Chhoub and Thilda, volunteering at UCC is a way to give back to their own community while learning valuable skills and making new friends. Their family history is scattered and lost, but the brother and sister do know that they were born from Cambodian refugees who escaped during the Khmer Rouge.
Their mother, who eventually relocated to Long Beach, was unable to find her sisters and the rest of their family after they were separated during the Rouge.
“When my mom was taken from her home, she couldn’t locate her sisters,” Chhoub said. “The only thing she said she was fed was rice. Americans came to help the people get out of there.”
It hasn’t been an easy road for the pair.
Thilda, a senior at Poly High School, faced some personal challenges and disagreements with her mother, and she found herself without a stable home to live. She bounced around for more than a year, and found herself with a foster family until the support at UCC was able to give her the boost she needed to find peace and a more stable life, Thilda said.
“I was a homeless teenager for a while,” she added. “But then, I started getting involved in the community and it really helps — it’s fun too. I also want to go to college in the future.”
Chhoub is currently a student at Long Beach City College, where he said he is working hard on completing his general education requirements before figuring out what to do next.
“These two are just great,” said UCC Youth Coordinator Stephen Khou. “Thilda, I call her my pride and joy, and I always know that whatever I need to get done, Chhoub will do it for me — he never complains. Ronald comes here and puts everything negative behind him — he’s just amazing.”
Chhoub, Thilda and Jacques help UCC with its fundraisers, neighborhood cleanups, translating, and teaching the citizenship classes for seniors.
“It’s all about the youth,” said UCC Associate/Project Director Raymond Chavarria. “They are the eyes and ears of this community, and for many of them, this is their second home.”
For Jacques, who is a straight-A sophomore at Wilson High School, volunteering comes as second nature. The youngster takes care of his elderly grandmother every day by cooking and cleaning for her. When he’s not helping out at home or at UCC, he is an active member of the Boy Scouts, which is how he discovered UCC four years ago.
“When I was a sixth grade Boy Scout, they would bring us to UCC to volunteer,” Jacques said. “I started coming and helping out and building up as many volunteer hours as possible.”
Jacques added that his education remains his top priority, and he hopes to pursue an education and career in auto mechanics after graduating high school.
“Everyone at UCC, especially my mentor Stephen, has really helped me,” he said. “I had some hard times when my grandmother went to the hospital, but it’s just a big family over there.”
UCC is a nonprofit that works as a multi-cultural social services agency that assists in empowering Cambodian residents of Long Beach to be more self-sufficient and productive members of society.
Tickets for the anniversary celebration and awards ceremony are tax-deductible at $70 per person or $500 for a table of 10. To reserve a seat, call 433-2490.
For more information about UCC, visit www.ucclb.org.