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'It's like we've lost a big diamond'

Vanessa Petrie, a tireless advocate for Asian immigrants, dies at 46, leaving behind a legacy of dedication.

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Vanessa Petrie, a social worker and ally to scores of Southeast Asian families, died Monday of cancer. She was 46.

The eyes of Kham Phanh Insouta, a Lao and Thai translator affiliated with the Southeast Asian Preschool for 10 years, moisten when she reflects on the woman who hired her.

"It's like we've lost a big diamond, a big piece of gold," said Kham, 46. News of Petrie's death has sent waves of sadness through the Southeast Asian community, she said.

Former co-workers at the school at 1801 62nd Ave. N (on the grounds of Bethel Lutheran Church) remember Petrie and sigh. Barbara Crow, the school's director, said she wishes she could pick up the phone and call Vanessa about a current dilemma.

"I wish I could say, "I need help. Can I get some advice?' "

Petrie helped create the Southeast Asian Preschool in 1988 as a social worker with United Methodist Cooperative Ministries, which funds its operations along with a grant from the Juvenile Welfare Board. The preschool's purpose: to help children of families who have immigrated from Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia.

For at least the first half of the 1990s, Southeast Asians were the fastest-growing immigrant population in Pinellas County. Unlike the earliest and more prosperous Vietnamese immigrants, who began arriving in significant numbers in the early 1980s, the parents that Petrie sought out, and found, usually earned less than $10,000 a year.

(Some of their stories, and those of children at the Southeast Asian Preschool, were chronicled in a four-part, December 1998 Times series, "The Girl Whose Mother Lives in the Sky.")

Since 1995, Bosnian immigration, as well as Hispanics from Mexico, Columbia and Cuba, have caught or surpassed the numbers of Southeast Asians arriving, said Jose Fernandez, who directs immigrant services for Catholic Charities.

Petrie went to great lengths to identify and recruit potential students. She combed through the phone book for Asian names. She used her skills as a social worker to get relevant information about familyhistories, recalled lead teacher Peggy Chlapowski ("Mrs. Chip" at the school).

"She (Petrie) educated people on the trauma these kids and their families had gone through," said Mrs. Chlapowski, 54.

" This mom lost a leg escaping Cambodia. This dad spent five years in a re-education camp.

"She helped us understand why the parents couldn't help. They were coping themselves."

"Barely coping," chimed in Crow.

By all accounts, Petrie worked ferociously to help families assimilate. Her husband, Larry Petrie, 53, said his wife would pull sheets off their own beds to give to Asian families. She tangled with slumlords and city officials; drove children to medical appointments; and supplied students with annual gifts, including a backpack, a new outfit, and Christmas presents.

In the school's first semester, Petrie and her father, Garet Shepherd, drove children to school in a rickety white van, which frequently broke down. She then secured funds from the Juvenile Welfare Board, and replaced the van with a small school bus.

"She worried about our kids a lot," said Kim Tran, 48, whose daughter and son both passed through the preschool. (The daughter, Thoa, 16, is now enrolled in St. Pete High School's International Baccalaureate program.) "If anything happened to them, we found out right away."

Tran and Kham, the translator, also remember Petrie as a faithful partygoer, who never turned down an invitation to Laotian or Vietnamese New Year's celebrations. Both described Petrie as a nonjudgmental leader who never raised her voice.

When angry, Kham said, "She would say, "Oh, dear!' "

On the second of two trips to Laos made through United Methodist Cooperative Ministries, Petrie contracted food poisoning at a state dinner. Hospital conditions there concerned her, said Larry Petrie. After a bad back forced her retirement from UMCOM in 1997, she organized another trip in 2000, this time shipping ahead a cargo container of medical supplies to Bangkok, which were then transported overland to the capital of Laos, Vientiane, using funds Mrs. Petrie had raised with St. Luke's United Methodist Church.

Less than a month after her return, Petrie got the bad news: She had cancer. In the last months with friends, she cheerily showed off "chainsaw scars" left by brain tumor surgery.

Petrie is survived by her husband, a son, Geoff, a daughter, Julie, her father and a continuing legacy. Enrollment at Southeast Asian Preschool has climbed to 33. Its mission now includes Thai immigrants as well. Crow envisions a time when it will include any refugee who needs to learn English.

Such an outcome would have suited a woman who turned a mission to help refugees into a consuming passion, said Larry Petrie.

"She could never let it go," he said. "And I mean that admiringly. She always had to keep going."

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