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For city's Asian community, move consolidates services

The Southeast Asian Preschool moves to Bethel Lutheran Church, bringing together many social services.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 29, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- An hour before registration was to begin Sunday, parents and children were already converging at Bethel Lutheran Church to sign up for the new school year at the Southeast Asian Preschool.

When it opens Sept. 12, the school will start a new era. Established in 1988 at Lakewood United Methodist Church near Pinellas Point, the school recently moved to larger quarters at Bethel Lutheran, 1801 62nd Ave. N. The school serves the children of Southeast Asian refugees.

Besides giving the school space to expand, the relocation will consolidate a range of social services to the community at a site that is more central to Pinellas County's growing Asian population. The Asian Neighborhood Family Center, which is operated by Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services, moved to the church in June.

According to the latest census figures, during the past 10 years, the Asian community in St. Petersburg has increased 67 percent, to 6,640.

Currently the Southeast Asian Preschool is licensed for 28 children, but officials hope to increase the number it serves to 45 this year. There are about 20 children on the waiting list, said Marylina Carbungco, director of program services for United Methodist Cooperative Ministries, which runs the preschool.

The new location has more classroom space, a bigger playground, a courtyard and a kitchen, Ms. Carbungco said. The school is partially funded by the Juvenile Welfare Board.

The new location will open other options for the preschool, said director Barbara Crow.

Previously it offered only half-day sessions, but the new space is large enough for cots and hence a full-day school.

"We're hoping to reach out to some other refugee communities after this year and being in this location, we are closer to the Bosnian population, which is one of the communities we are hoping to contact. We want to open up our doors to any other young children who need to learn English," Mrs. Crow said.

Besides, she added, "We are much closer to the Asian population that we already serve. As much as we loved Lakewood, it was very far from the Asian neighborhoods."

Long Le and his wife, Tuyet Hong Tran, are pleased with the move.

"The last one, it's too far," said Le, who was waiting to register his 4-year-old daughter, Anhthu.

The school is now very close to their home, he said.

The Asian Neighborhood Family Center also is closer to their home and those of members of their community. The center's move may clear up confusion that has surrounded recent administrative changes of some key social service programs for the Southeast Asian community.

For seven years, Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians and Thais in Pinellas County had grown accustomed to receiving certain services through the Asian Family and Community Empowerment, or FACE, center, which is now located at 2201 First Ave. N.

Earlier this year, however, the FACE center lost its main funding, which came from the Juvenile Welfare Board, after the board cited fiscal mismanagement.

FACE also lost five staffers to Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services, which works with resettling refugees.

For a while the services administered by Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services were still offered at the FACE building. However, because of friction between the two organizations, in May the Juvenile Welfare Board voted to help move the services run by Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services out of the FACE center and into Bethel Lutheran Church.

The relocation has been good for the Gulf Coast-run center, which provides ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) and GED classes, computer instruction, cultural awareness activities, parenting skills and a variety of social services, said Miriam Williams, clinical administrator at Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services.

"We had over 50 children enrolled in our summer program within a week of moving to our new location," she said.

Gulf Coast's after-school program will begin next week.

Meanwhile, the FACE center continues to serve the community as well, said Bun Hap Prak, who has led the agency for years.

"We are doing everything we usually do, in spite of the change in budget," he said, referring to the cut in funds.

The FACE center is offering services such as an after-school program, citizenship classes and basic English for adults, he said. And its summer school program included African-American and Hispanic children.

The FACE center is not duplicating services, he said.

"They (the Asian Neighborhood Family Center) are duplicating, because the Asian FACE center has been in operation for seven years. The word is that the Asian FACE center has closed down, but the people have been coming and they are so pleased that we are still available," Prak said, adding that his agency is relying on a few small grants and the generosity of several individuals.

"I think that the more services provided the merrier," he said. "The need is not going to stop."

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