SAVED BY SEAYM. Vannady Keo, left center, sprinkles powdered
sugar like the viral "Salt Bae" meme for a laugh while working
as part of the afterschool program at the Asian Counseling and
Referral Service in the Rainier Valley, in Washington. Helping
create gingerbread houses are (L-R) Bryan Phung, 12, Gordon
Huang, 13, and Ivan Thich, 13. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle
Times via AP)
From The Asian Reporter, V28, #2 (January 15, 2018),
Despondent Seattle teen found a future through
By Ryan Blethen
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE (AP) — When Vannady Keo left his mother’s Kent home
after his freshman year of high school to live with his father
in Seattle, he could not have foreseen the importance of the
As a freshman at Kentlake High School, Keo was struggling
with depression, not doing well at school, and at odds with his
"I was just a typical American kid. My parents wanted me to
have Cambodian roots, so those were some things we argued
about," Keo said. "In school, I always had a lot of friends. I
would always try and hide my depression by hanging out with
them, being the cool kid, the class clown."
Moving in with his father was an attempt at a fresh start,
even if Keo wasn’t sure how it would play out. That new
beginning happened shortly after the start of his sophomore year
at Franklin High School. Keo received a pass to leave class and
report to Room 205. He thought he was in trouble, given his
academic effort up to that point.
Keo wasn’t in trouble. He was about to be saved. The
then-15-year-old found a group of other students sitting in a
circle with Joseph Mills who runs the Southeast Asian Young
Men’s group (SEAYM) at the Asian Counseling and Referral Service
(ACRS). He wasn’t sure what he was getting into, but decided to
take a seat and listen. He was amazed to find other teenagers
struggling with the same issues he grappled with: isolation,
depression, and a disconnect with their immigrant and refugee
"I was like, ‘Wow, I thought I was the only one.’ I just
decided to open up that one day, and I opened up and told them
my problems; we were just conversing about it and I don’t know,
it was really enlightening, and it made me feel not so alone."
The shift from despondent teenager to a focused young man was
gradual, but the catalyst was his first encounter with Mills and
Mills started the group to help Southeast Asian middle- and
high-school kids from refugee or immigrant families, a group
that struggles with school more than others. In 2016, 79 percent
of Washington high-school students graduated compared with 68
percent for Pacific Islanders, according to the state’s Office
of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The documentary Model Minority Stereotype, made by
SEAYM, points out that the dropout rate for Southeast Asians is
higher than it is for other Asians, with 35 percent of
Cambodians and 29 percent of Vietnamese leaving school before
gaining a high-school diploma.
The program, which has been run out of ACRS for a decade,
uses documentary filmmaking to teach life skills and build a
connection to families, cultures, and community. The
documentaries created by group members explore alcohol and drug
use, racism, and the gap between parents and their children.
Mills runs outreach programs at numerous area schools, such
as Franklin, Cleveland, and Rainier Beach high schools, as well
as a number of Seattle’s South-End middle schools. The group
meets after school, often at ACRS in Seattle.
ACRS has a broad mission that began 45 years ago in the
basement of Blaine Memorial United Methodist Church on Beacon
Hill to serve Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. As the
agency grew, it bumped around from Beacon Hill to the
Chinatown-International District before finding its home a
decade ago in Rainier Valley.
The services offered go beyond what is suggested by the ACRS
name. The agency offers programs for all ages, including job
training, helping immigrants gain citizenship, health and
wellness, and even getting people registered to vote.
Immigrants and refugees of any nationality and ethnicity are
welcomed. More than 40 languages are spoken by the staff. If a
person comes through the doors speaking a language nobody at
ACRS speaks, they will contract with an interpreter.
ACRS and SEAYM’s influence on Keo has changed the trajectory
of his life. Once school seemed like a waste of time and was
only useful for people who want to become doctors or engineers,
Keo said. Those professions didn’t interest him and were out of
reach because of his poor grades. SEAYM help him realize his
"full potential" and understand that an education was important
for his future.
This hit home after a documentary about marijuana use he was
part of won a grand prize at a drug-prevention conference. The
prize carried with it a trip to Washington, D.C.
Being in the nation’s capital, meeting U.S. senators Patty
Murray, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, ignited something
in Keo. Where once he didn’t consider his future, he now saw a
path. He is now working toward his two-year degree at Seattle
Central College, with plans to transfer to the University of
Washington and eventually get into politics.
The subject he did well in throughout high school was
government and political science. His government teacher even
said he wouldn’t be surprised if Keo became a senator or a
"For me, I don’t want to make some random company money for
the rest of my life. I want to put something into the world,"
Keo said, when talking about his future.
ACRS has become more than a place that helped Keo when he
needed it. It is now his employer. He works 20 hours a week in
an afterschool program for middle-school students.
Mills said that Keo has taken full advantage of all that ACRS
"What’s been fun with him is how he has taken to some of our
afterschool programs to pursue his interests," Mills said.
On a recent afternoon, Keo and another ACRS employee tried to
corral about 15 middle-schoolers while making gingerbread
houses. Half of the ACRS gym was filled with round tables topped
with bags of candy and an assortment of mostly completed
gingerbread houses. The final product wasn’t as important as the
camaraderie, laughter, and flying powdered sugar.
Keo describes his work in the afterschool program as being a
builder of relationships.
"I get close with them. To have someone to talk to. To be the
person that I needed when I was in bad shape," he said. "These
kids also have parents who are also refugees and immigrants, so
sometimes at home wouldn’t be the most fun. They can come here
where they can participate with other middle-school students who
have similar problems and build gingerbread houses."
None of this — helping kids like him, looking toward a future
in public service, having a good relationship with his parents —
would have been possible had Keo not gone to Room 205 when
"All these new experiences were literally spilling out of
ACRS and just because I got one random pass one day to come join