With her mother, a Vietnamese refugee, working seven days a week, Vy Tran found homework help, fun and mentors at Kent Youth and Family Services. The nonprofit, which benefits from your donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, helps thousands of families each year.

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Sometimes knowing that you belong is enough, especially if you are a refugee.

Vy Tran, a Vietnamese refugee, found that sense among the people at the after-school program at King County Housing Authority’s Birch Creek Apartments.

Shortly after moving to the United States at 5 years old, Tran started going to the youth center, run by Kent Youth and Family Services. Year after year, mentors guided her and friends supported her on lonely nights and weekends when no one was at home.

“I built relationships here that I didn’t have at home,” said Tran, 22.

ABOUT THIS SERIES

Each year, The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy raises money for a group of charities that help children, families and senior citizens. Throughout the season, The Times is telling how the 12 organizations make a difference in the lives of thousands, and the impact donors can have. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to the Fund For The Needy.

Kent Youth and Family Services’ work includes recreational and educational programs at three King County Housing Authority sites: Birch Creek, Cascade Apartments and Valli Kee Homes.

Founded more than four decades ago, the organization — which provides professional counseling, education and support services in South King County — is one of 12 nonprofits supported by reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.

Tran, who is now a part-time recreational attendant at the Birch Creek Youth Center, said her mother doesn’t talk about the challenges of being a single parent and moving seven children from Vietnam to the United States. Along the journey, Tran was born in a Thailand refugee camp. Once they arrived in Kent, her mother left her alone most of the time.

“She worked seven days a week,” at a hair and nail salon, and her siblings were at school or work, she said.

During junior high she depended on tutors at the youth center to help her with homework because her mom spoke only Vietnamese.

Tran built friendships and took advantage of the many things offered at the youth center, like winter break parties, free school supplies, computer literacy with a free laptop and free food.

She also set a high goal, hoping to simultaneously earn a high-school diploma and an associate degree.

But she tore a ligament in her knee, forcing her to sit on the bench her senior year of basketball, and she was overwhelmed with attending college classes.

When she leaned on youth program director Cyoon McBride for help, he listened.

“I broke down,” she said. “I cried in his office. I was so close to not having all the (college) credits. He said, ‘You’ll be OK.’ ”

Vy Tran helps a young computer user during recreation time at Birch Creek Youth Center. Tran found fun and support at the center’s after-school programs while she was growing up. Now 22, she works there part-time. (Courtney Pedroza / The Seattle Times)
Vy Tran helps a young computer user during recreation time at Birch Creek Youth Center. Tran found fun and support at the center’s after-school programs while she was growing up. Now 22, she works there part-time. (Courtney Pedroza / The Seattle Times)

Lighting the fire

As a role model to many of the youth, McBride said, “The most important part of the job isn’t to give an education, or how you are going to make them scientists. The first thing is to build a relationship. You have to love them. I tell the kids, ‘All I do is light the fire, you keep the flame going.’ ”

Tran said she wasn’t tempted by offers of marijuana by classmates, and while she became known as a “goody-goody,” it was for a good reason.

Kent Youth and Family Services

Promotes healthy development of children, youth and families by providing professional counseling, education and support services in South King County. It has offered programs for more than four decades.

“When people speak highly of you and you trust them, you don’t want to disappoint the people here like (McBride) and my family,” she added.

Your dollars at work

Samples of what Kent Youth and Family Services can do with your donation:

$25: Pays for two weeks of After School Program services.

$50: Pays for two weeks of counseling services.

$100: Buys two months of After School Program services.

For information: http://kyfs.org/

In 2014, Tran graduated from Kentlake High School and received her degree at Green River Community College. This year she graduated from the University of Washington-Tacoma with a major in psychology and minor in criminal justice. Tran will start taking Arizona State University online classes in January as she works toward a master’s degree.

This is the third year Tran has worked at the youth center, and she still lives in the apartment complex.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, she watched about 40 kids be signed in at the front desk of the youth center and peeked her head into the computer room, where some play Halo. She monitored the gym, where some played half-court basketball and a young girl dressed in pink spun inside a hula hoop.

“I can’t imagine not having this place,” she said.

The youth center has consistently felt like a home for teenagers. Shukri Olow still recalls the impact it had on her life starting about 20 years ago.

Before civil war broke out in Somalia, Olow’s dad died in a car accident. She escaped to a Kenyan refugee camp with her brother, sister and seven-month-pregnant mother. After being born, her new little sister died of malnutrition in the camp at age 2. The family moved to Kent when Olow was 10.

“We were on survival mode for a long time,” she said.

While her mom worked two or three jobs, mainly cleaning houses late into the evening, Olow and her younger brother and sister found comfort at the youth center as they made friends with young immigrants from Russia, Ethiopia and Ukraine.

“It was a teen center, homework center, a place where we made fun of each other and hung out,” the 30-year-old added.

By many of society’s markers, Olow has achieved success. She earned a college degree, works as a project manager for King County, bought a house and now has two children of her own.

She also is a board member of Kent Youth and Family Services, a perfect way, in her mind, to give back to the place that offered her so much when she needed it the most.

“The rec center was our lifeline,” she said.