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Bridging The Gaps

Release date: 
April 18, 2007
Release Number: 

BILOXI, Miss. -- According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2005 American Community Survey, nearly 4,800 of the 2.8 million people living in Mississippi are also members of the Vietnamese community. More than 43,000 Mississippians are part of the Hispanic/Latino community. For Loan "Kim" Bui and Marisol Lacayo, these figures are more than demographics; the figures represent people whose recovery may hinge on a little help from these ladies.

As Voluntary Agency Liaisons (VAL) for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Bui and Lacayo specialize in outreach to the Vietnamese and Hispanic/Latino populations. They don't want anyone to miss an opportunity for FEMA assistance due to language barriers.

"I want to make sure that what we learned from Katrina helps the organizations here on the ground have the information they need for the people that seek their help," said Lacayo. "Things such as ensuring products on the ground are translated to reach all audiences. And translated properly. Sometimes you lose what you're trying to say, you lose the context."

Bui believes Katrina altered her life and her family's lives for the better. Bui owned a nail salon before Katrina destroyed the family home and her business. She helped her parents' friends by accompanying them to the Disaster Recovery Centers. If they couldn't speak English, Bui translated information and helped them apply for FEMA assistance. About a month later, she became a FEMA Community Relations Specialist. It didn't take her long to realize that she wanted to become a VAL.

Lacayo arrived at FEMA via a completely different path. She fled El Salvador with her parents and two siblings to come to the United States. They settled in California where she met her future husband. He joined the U.S. Air Force and they, with their two children, were on their second four-year assignment to Keesler Air Force Base when Katrina destroyed the Gulf Coast. Lacayo evacuated her son and daughter from their Ocean Springs home and temporarily moved to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. Her husband remained in Biloxi. When she returned to Ocean Springs, her home was spared severe damage but Lacayo lost her job with Keesler Federal Credit Union. Undaunted, Lacayo decided to volunteer with Boat People S.O.S., a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting the Vietnamese-American community. "I walked in looking to volunteer and walked out with an actual job," said Lacayo. With the help of translators, she worked as a case manager.

Later, Lacayo worked with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency's (MEMA) Individual Assistance department until she was hired as a FEMA VAL in Nov. 2006. "If anything happens in the Hispanic population, I'm it," said Lacayo with a smile. "I'm the VAL people come to; whether it's my fellow VALs or all of the other departments in Individual Assistance."

As a VAL, Lacayo works within the Hispanic/Latino community to help organizations and long term recovery committees provide better assistance. She has organized the Hispanic Coalition, which currently consists of 20 partners, and oversees the Hispanic Ministries which includes all of the Catholic churches under the Diocese of Biloxi. Lacayo also assists Rebuild, Recover, Restore Southeast Mississippi (R3SM), a partnership of 25 agencies dedicated to helping people in Forrest, Lamar and Perry counties.

"Marisol has worked very diligently to help make FEMA accessible to the Latino community in our area. She is always ready and willing to help with any long-term recovery case in a manner that is friendly, efficient and very competent," said Mary Townsend, assistant coordinator for Hispanic and Latino Ministries of United Methodist Church, Seashore District. "Along with the American Red Cross, she was instrumental in organizing the Hispanic Outreach Coalition, a group which meets monthly to share information and col...

Last Updated: 
July 16, 2012 - 18:46
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