COVID-19 Impact: Leakhena’s Story

Employment and health have been top of Leakhena Vong’s mind in her role as Monorom Family Support Program Coordinator at Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell in Lowell, MA. “These issues are important to me in a sense where I am fearful of not only being unable to go to work but also being seriously ill due to COVID-19,” Leakhena said, citing concerns that sickness would bring her both financial and physical hardship.

Leakhena said she practices self-care and directs her energy to community as she navigates today’s new reality.  “I cope with the idea by continuing my community work every day and taking care of myself mentally and physically,” said Leakhena. “In addition, I try to often address the needs of community members to assure their needs are met throughout the city of Lowell, especially assisting families with developmentally disabled children that are usually underrepresented.” 

Specifically, Leakhena’s work involves identifying Cambodian children in the greater Lowell area with special needs, facilitating the approval of their participation in the Department of Developmental Services’ programming, and coordinating the referral of program clients to services external to CMAA to continue their wraparound support. In addition to routine monitoring and advocacy, Leakhena has traditionally provided translation and transportation support for families to various agencies and doctor appointments and attended their Individual Education Plan and Individualized Support Plan meetings. However, many Southeast Asian American families are now without these supports due to the current pandemic. “COVID-19 has prevented many families within my program from obtaining adequate services,” Leakhena said. “These include in-person counseling, regular trips to medical offices with translation services, and other basic necessities.”

Despite the obstacles, I have always found a way to constantly remember to keep a positive mindset and follow through with serving the organization’s mission of aiding minority families within the city of Lowell. 

While COVID-19 has greatly limited the in-person interactions Leakhena is able to have with clients, she continues to reach out to families via phone call. “These calls are often wellness check-ups to assure that the families are in good health,” she said. 

Another service that CMAA has provided during the pandemic is distribution of non-perishable food packages. “Most of our food is culturally appropriate, such as rice, instant noodles, canned sardine, water, toilet paper, hot dog and eggs,” Leakhena said. “If some families are not able to pick up or don’t have transportation, we do food deliveries to their houses.”

In total, all 78 families have received services through CMAA’s shifted programming as well as gift cards since the start of COVID-19. Families have also utilized CMAA’s offerings of assistance in applying for unemployment and emergency relief funds.

CMAA’s impact on families is something that motivates Leakhena to continue the work. “When meeting them, I can sense how much this program means to them,” she said. “Due to various factors such as language barriers and limited communication, it becomes hard for them to adjust to the current lifestyle in society. That is where my job comes in. I believe that families like these should be represented in some way where their needs can be addressed. It is not fair for them to be underrepresented in today’s world. As a person doing community work, I truly believe that they deserve a spot in society.” 

Additionally, her family and fellow CMAA staff are sources for hope in these dark times. “Despite the obstacles, I have always found a way to constantly remember to keep a positive mindset and follow through with serving the organization’s mission of aiding minority families within the city of Lowell. 

“I know it’s a tough situation for everybody, but I hope we will get through this together.”