The eldest of six children, Kwin Khieng was the first person in her family to attend and graduate from college. She studied at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and majored in Biology. Growing up as a Khmer American in a small town (Lake Elsinore) was confusing for Kwin. “Our parents barely spoke of the past and/or our country’s history, so relating to peers or other Khmer Americans was somewhat difficult. If my mom ever spoke about Cambodia, she only told stories of being in the refugee camp and how we fled to America. But she barely told us why and what exactly happened.”
In high school, like most Cambodian child refugees growing up in America, Kwin was in search of her identity and craved to belong to the dominant American culture. She shares, “I wanted so badly to be accepted by my American counterparts that I did not care to speak of my Khmer culture or where I came from.” She felt isolated and alone because it was rare to find Khmer friends that cared about schoolwork and had the desire to make a difference in the community. Kwin stayed focused on her academic studies and was involved in other extra-curricular activities such as Associate Student Body and Advance Placement classes. Due to her interests and passions, she found herself surrounded by non-Asian Americans.
Like most college students, Kwin discovered herself and her true calling when she was enrolled in college. She realized that she was not alone in her plight. She made friends with other Cambodian students who not only excelled in academia but also had a vast knowledge of her country’s history and culture. She shares, “During my freshman year of college, I met up with other Khmer students who had the same passion that I did. It was enlightening and refreshing to meet these smart and passionate Khmer students. Immediately, they took me under their wings and guided me throughout college. They were my friends away from home.”
Due to her personal experiences and a sense of belonging, Kwin got involved with the Khmer student organization called United Khmer Student (UKS) at UCLA. Through the UKS, she participated in a Khmer Culture Show, mentored Khmer students from a nearby high school, and helped to create a sense of Khmer community on campus. These activities made such a huge impact on her that she wanted to make a difference as part of her life’s work. Kwin continues to be involved in the UCLA community as an alumnus.
Today, Kwin runs and operates a behavioral management program in the Anaheim area, which assists adults with developmental disabilities. The program offers education including self-help skills and vocational skills. This program not only helps adults with disabilities, but it also provides job and internship opportunities for Khmer students who are interested in becoming behavioral psychologists or pursuing other majors related to the field. Kwin has come a long way to be where she is today, operating her own business. Her involvement at UCLA in the Khmer club and other community service organizations has greatly influenced her to give back to others.
“My mission is to empower individuals regardless of their disabilities, race, gender, religion, etc. to strive for a better quality of life. Everyone deserves a chance at greatness. Given my family’s history and the adversities that we had overcome, I was able to accomplish many feats. Without assistance from others and having positive role models and amazing mentors, I would not be where I am today.”
Note: Part II of the in-person interview is in the video editing process. Check back soon!
Where were you born? Where are you based?
Kwin: Like many of my Cambodian peers, I was born in a refugee camp bordering Thailand and Cambodia called Kao-I-Dang. I am currently residing in Anaheim, California.
What is the name of your organization? What does it stand for?
Kwin: S.A.G.E. that stands for Self-Advocacy for Growth and Empowerment. It is a community-based management program.
What is your mission and purpose for S.A.G.E?
Kwin: My mission is to empower individuals regardless of their disabilities, race, gender, religion, etc. to strive for a better quality of life. Everyone deserves a chance at greatness. Given my family’s history and the adversities that we had overcome, I was able to accomplish many feats. Without assistance from others and having positive role models and amazing mentors, I would not be where I am today.
Who benefits from your organization?
Kwin: Our organization currently provides services for adults with developmental disabilities. Those services range from job development/ placement, art therapy, music therapy, basic daily living skills, mobility training, community services, etc.
What makes it different from other organizations that already exist with a similar purpose?
Kwin: Our program uniquely customized a plan to fit the individual. Whatever their goals in life may be, we will find the resources to aid that individual in accomplishing their dreams and aspirations.
Do you have a board?
Kwin: Yes, our board currently consists of the president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer.
During the process to start your organization, how much time did it take before it started functioning/running?
Kwin: Two years. Initially, we were not able to secure any business loans from the banks due to the fact that the new business/program was a start-up. Most banks were not approving FBA loans for new businesses. My partner and I scraped and saved just enough to cover the first month of expenses (rent, payroll, utilities, etc.). We did not have an office for the first three months. Since S.A.G.E. is a community-based program, we utilized the city’s resources as much as possible such as community centers, libraries, etc.
What are some of the steps you took to start your organization?
Kwin: We had to write and submit a (20 pg) proposal to the Regional Center of Orange County (RCOC), a non-profit agency that provides reimbursement for the services we give to our clients. A panel of individuals from the RCOC would read the proposals and select the best program design and send a letter to the prospectors to come in for an interview. Once the live interview is conducted, the RCOC makes their final decision and sends you a letter of acceptance. Before submitting the proposal, you have to provide proof to the RCOC that you have a business and have enough funding to sustain the program. Initially, we had a partner who had a business for over 20 years and could provide the financial backing if needed. Eventually, our partner left and we had to start everything from scratch. But out of 10 different organizations that submitted a proposal to start a program, we were one of the lucky three selected to open a program.
Do you need a license or certificate to be qualified as an organization?
Kwin: Yes, we are license through the city of Orange since our office is located there. Our program is under a corporation, which is also licensed through the state of California.
Where do you receive your funding?
Kwin: We receive reimbursement from the department of developmental services (the state). Regional Center is the non-profit agency that sends us referrals of different clients.
Do you accept donations or services for your organization? If so, what do you accept and not accept?
Kwin: We accept donations of in the form of currency, time, ideas, and job for our clients.
If I want to donate to your organization, what do I need to do to make this happen?
Kwin: Call or email us at 714.931.9242 or [email protected].
Is your organization a tax-exempt 501 (c)(3)? What does this mean for your organization?
Kwin: Our organization is not a 501 (c ) (3) nonprofit. However, the agency that refers clients to us is a 501 (c ) (3). This means that we cannot give tax exemptions if somebody donates money. However, we will be exploring our own tax exemption later this year so we can expand our services to individuals with developmental disabilities.
As a corporation, are there certain standards you need to follow?
Kwin: The standards that we need to follow consist of keeping meticulous records of all our financial affairs, maintain a high level of professionalism, and convey this professionalism to our clients and employees. We also need to maintain strong relationships with everyone in the industry so we can all help each other increase the quality of programming in this field.
What advice would you give to aspiring people who want to start their own non-profit or corporation?
Kwin: I would have to say that if what you are conceiving will make you happy and you are not risk averse, then do it. However, remember that you need a business plan and a backup plan, otherwise you may see yourself sidetracking instead of staying the course.
What are your goals and hopes for your organization for the next five years?
Kwin: Over the next five years, we hope to be Los Angeles County, Riverside, and Ventura. The expectation is that our program will eventually expand to a level where we will be able to serve children and then help reform the school system with regard to their special education programs. We also want to lead the pack in researching positive outcomes with technology and individuals that have disabilities.
Where can I find more information about your organization?
Kwin: You can find more info on the website, which is currently under construction.
S.A.G.E’s Website: Self-Advocacy Growth & Empowerment
Originally Posted by Yenly T.
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