‘An invaluable asset’

Published 10:54 pm Friday, February 23, 2018

Woman works to pair Karen community with more services

Before she took her position at with Workforce Development Inc., the Karen outreach and job search instructor was already doing what she is doing now.

Before her job and before a short time as a success coach with the Albert Lea district, Eh Mwee would sometimes show up early to her job at Select Foods to help fellow Karen workers with things like tricky paperwork or human resources-related tasks. She was interpreting in her spare time, trying to be a good role model, Mwee said.

“The thing is, to be honest, I struggle(d) when I moved here first,” Mwee said. “I want to change something, not just for myself, but within the Karen community.”

What Mwee used to do in her spare time is now her full-time job. Mwee, 30, spends three days a week in Albert Lea and two in Austin helping members of the Karen community navigate forms, fill out job applications, attend orientations and — above all — find resources.

Through her work with the Workforce Development Inc., Mwee said she has learned more about opportunities in the community to share with her clients.

“There are a lot of resources in our community — we just don’t know about it,” she said.

Lead career counselor Melissa Doppelhammer said Mwee’s arrival at Workforce Development Inc. has changed the way the office has been able to serve a changing community.

“She is just an invaluable asset to have as a person on our team and in our community,” Doppelhammer said.

Mwee is the first to fill the Karen outreach and job search instructor position at Workforce Development Inc. Before the position opened, Doppelhammer approached her supervisor.

“We’re having so many people move into our community and we’re not able to serve them,” Doppelhammer said she told her manager. They struggled finding translators, and therefore with scheduling and coordinating.

It has been different with Mwee around.

“The people that we serve doubled,” Doppelhammer said of the center’s Karen clients.

Eh Mwee, left, helps out at the Project Community Connect event in January at First Lutheran Church. – Sam Wilmes/Albert Lea Tribune

Among other things, Mwee coordinated training programs for Karen residents, including a forklift training offered by Riverland College in Austin and a driver’s education program in partnership with the Albert Lea Adult Learning Center. Before Mwee, Doppelhammer said, Workforce Development Inc. didn’t have that coordination in overlapping of services.

“Everybody working together, we’ve been able to serve the Karen population in our community better than we ever have been able to,” Doppelhammer said.

When she’s not coordinating events, Doppelhammer said Mwee is always being sought out.

“If she’s not on the phone, there’s somebody waiting to meet with her,” she said. Doppelhammer estimated Mwee is translating six out of eight hours every day.

But that starts at 11 a.m., after Mwee has come back from her GED prep classes. She already finished high school, but she’s there Mondays through Thursdays.

“I just want to improve myself before I go to college,” Mwee said.

That’s part of the reason Mwee moved out of Thailand in 2009. She was there in a refugee camp from the time she was 2 months old, raised by an adoptive family after her mother died while she was still a child. Her father wasn’t around. That is where Mwee went to high school, and she wanted more education. She was looking at moving to Australia, but the timeline of her visa process in America was faster. Mwee said she couldn’t wait.

She started in New Jersey for a month, she said, and then followed the two women she moved to the United States with to Minneapolis. After two months there, the Karen Organization of Minnesota helped her get the job at Select Foods in Albert Lea in 2009.

“I grew up so lonely,” Mwee said. That is why this job, and her desire to help people, is important to her.

“I really want to help other people,” she said. “I don’t want other people to struggle like me.”

Instead, she wants people, especially young Karen people, to see her as a role model in the community.

“I don’t have higher education, but I try my best,” she said.

She wants to help adults gain confidence and become leaders in the Karen community, too. She’s working hard on that herself.

“Sometimes I feel embarrassed being around other people,” Mwee said. “When you have, when you are different from another, let’s say we attend, like, staff training or something like that and I’m the only Karen there, and I feel like, ‘Oh my God.’ I’m, I — to be honest, I’m scared, and I worry that I can do it, and I’m so different.”

But for the Workforce Development Inc., which has seen Mwee funnel more resources through to the Karen population in Freeborn County, Mwee’s differences are her strengths.

“I can’t imagine how we’ve ever functioned without her,” Doppelhammer said. What’s more, Mwee comes into client meetings with no preconceived notions or judgements.

“She is the kindest person I know,” Doppelhammer said. “She has the most genuine heart.”

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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