Meet Dani Thach, Founder of Khmer Youth Association of Florida. Assimilating to American culture, Dani began to lose touch with her Khmer roots. After attending the 3rd World Youth Conference in 2009, Dani had an epiphany to cultivate a youth group in her community to serve the purpose of educating the youth of the Cambodian culture through the arts. Shortly after returning home, KYA was established. Since their inception in 2009, KYA members who moved for college branched out and started Khmer Student Organization (KSO) at two Florida Universities.
“I love people and learning about other cultures. I love to travel. I like to embrace other cultures and try different types of food. I am a people person and I like to socialize and meet people. I would also like to make a difference. We are all set here on earth for a purpose and I am still in search of my purpose.” – Dani
Are you a 100% Cambodian?
Dani: As far as I know, I am 100% Cambodian. I am considered Khmer-Krom. We are indigenous people from the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam. We use to be a part of the Khmer empire but because of political reasons we are now part of South Vietnam. We still continue speaking and practicing the Khmer language and culture.
Where were you born? When did you come to the states?
Dani: I was born in Khmer-Krom, which is now South Vietnam. I came to the states when I was nine years old as a refugee. It was a long and interesting journey to the United States. I came from Vietnam, and then went to Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines and then Florida.
Where do you reside?
Dani: I currently reside in St. Petersburg, Florida.
What inspires you?
Dani: I’ve always wanted to make a difference ever since I was very young, especially when being in the refugee camp and being helped by the volunteers. I remember clearly when I was seven years old, I injured my leg because a huge nail penetrated my leg. There was a fence that I tried to cross over and there was a two and a half inch nail that got stuck in it. When I pulled my leg, I yanked my skin off. My mom found me and I was completely covered in blood. She carried me to the Hospital, which was the Red Cross. They simply took a cotton ball with rubbing alcohol and cleaned my injury. It was the most painful thing ever! There was a lack of medicine which was used for only serious conditions. I was screaming on the top of my lungs. All the people there were volunteers and I want to be able to give back what people have given to me. I’m not a fan of blood so I can’t go into the health field but there are other things I can do to make a difference as well. If people did not have the desire to want to make a difference, then I would not have had the help that I did. Everything was given to me based on charity and people having a heart.
Secondly, I feel like our culture is slowly dying and becoming extinct because our culture is so rich and ancient. Modern ways are taking over our daily lives and I would like to preserve our culture.
What was your prior involvement in the Cambodian community before KYA?
Dani: My mom had always participated in the Khmer community. Since I was a young child, I always remembered that my family were always active participants. I drifted far away when I went away for college but my mom was the one that brought me back.
Explain the process of the Khmer Youth Association from inception to recruiting of members?
Dani: I had the opportunity to attend the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the 3rd World Youth Conference in 2009. My mom noticed that I was kind of losing touch with my culture and she wanted me to go to these events. It’s hard when you grow up in America and trying to live the “American dream” and fit in. You kind of want to fit in so people won’t judge you. When I went away to school, I lost interest in my culture and my mom noticed that.
My mom wanted a representative from our region to attend this 3rd World Youth Conference. She wanted me to attend because I was not working. I was laid off at the time. I thought, “Okay, a free trip to Philadelphia and New York, and people are willing to pay for me to go for one week.” When I sat there and listened to the speakers, it really brought back memories of my childhood about how I thought when I was eight or nine years in the refugee camp and my desire to make a difference. I came here to the U.S. and everything was about me, and wanting to improve myself and I neglected that individual that wanted to make a big difference in the world. I had lost touch with my identity and it was a huge eye-opener. I was being superficial and that experience brought me back to my humble roots.
It was very inspiring to hear speakers that had experienced the same hardships. I specifically remember listening to a speaker that was Khmer-Krom as well, from Australia and how she was able to start a youth group in her parent’s garage. I looked around and I saw so many empty chairs and I realized that there are so many Khmer youth in St. Petersburg that could fill up all these seats. At that moment, I had an epiphany; I was going to go home and start a youth group. I had always had a desire to make a difference in people’s lives and I was losing touch with my culture. It was a force within me and it was like KYA was born in that moment. Before coming home, I called my parents and I told them that I had exciting news. Then, I called my friend Mey, because she has a huge heart and we had always talked about making a difference for our community and carrying on traditions for our fading culture.
When I returned, I was invited to attend the adult organization of our community and I told them that I wanted to start a youth group. They were very happy and supportive. A family friend and almost like an uncle to me, Pu Tin Nhon, who used to have a youth organization had heard what I wanted to do and he asked to have a meeting with me and his niece Linda. We met at night, after his restaurant was closed, at his home. Linda wanted to start a youth organization because she attended a university event and was saddened when she did not see a Cambodian organization and I can relate to this because when I was in school there was never any clubs or groups that represented Khmer people.
At the end of our meeting, we had a common goal: a youth group that represented Khmer people that empowered the youth that focused on helping the community, networking and education. I had good people around me so I held a meeting in July 2009 at my parent’s house on a Sunday to pitch it to the youth. I asked my mom and others to invite the Khmer kids in the community. The first thing I told them was that I would like it to be a student organization, but there will be people that will help to advise them like advisers and there would be officers who are comprised of students that would be elected by the members. There is also a board of directors that are appointed by the chairperson, which is myself. It’s all open and anyone is welcome to serve.
Even though it is a Khmer student organization, we do not discriminate. If students have friends that want to be a part of a positive organization they are more than welcome. Everything that KYA is today is because of the members, even the name was chosen by the members. They wrote the mission statement as well. They are the ones who really created KYA.
What kind of community involvement and activities do you serve with KYA?
Dani: We recently had a huge event Baun Pa Chuam which is day of worshiping your ancestors. We do a lot of events with our adult community. We have also participated in the University of South Florida’s Journey to the East. We also participated in the 2010 Asia Fest, which Linda; the former president, won Ms. Asia Fest. Also a couple of our members started a Khmer Student Organization at USF and at the University of Florida. These members have continued to branch out and initiate these organizations at the college level.
Can you explain your affiliation with the KSO?
Dani: KSO (Khmer Student Organization) is a student group at UF and USF. They were established by KYA youths that went away to college. KSO at USF (University of South Florida) was developed by three KYA’s members Rane Kien, Viet To and May Thach. KSO at UF (University of Florida) was developed by KYA member Linda Son.
Did you have any mentors? If so, who?
Dani: My uncle Bruce was the one that sponsored our family to come to the United States. He taught us how to adjust to American life and he was one person that I always looked up to while growing up. My parents are my mentors, especially my Mom because she is a very strong lady and has a huge heart and is completely dedicated to the community. She is a wife, a mother of four, a career woman and a humanitarian. She’s amazing. Also, I have a lot of respect for Pu Tin Nhon, because he works very hard for his family. He owns a restaurant and has received his GED, and is now finishing up his AA in his 40′s. I used to work at his restaurant as a server. After we closed the restaurant, he would give me a lot of great advice over dinner. I have a lot of respect for people who have a big heart and for people who work very hard to get where they want to be.
What is your favorite Khmer dish?
Dani: Salar Machu Khreung, a sour beef soup with Asian spinach.
What are some of KYA’s upcoming projects?
Dani: We are working on a calendar, volunteering events and a new traditional dance group.
What are the future goals for Khmer Youth Association of Florida?
Dani: We want to be able to travel to Cambodia, kind of like a mission trip. We would like to go there and help in rural areas, or teach English or skills. This trip would definitely be for our oldest and most mature members and it would be a great experience for our members to visit their mother’s country. I hope my KYA members can connect with someone their age in Cambodia.
Locally, I would like KYA to continue participating in the community and multicultural activities and to continue educating our younger generation. We want to celebrate our culture, our heritage and educate the public about where we are from. I feel that our culture is so rich. At times, it’s lost in translation and if we do not celebrate it, it will die. We want to celebrate individuality no matter where you are from.
For more about Khmer Youth Association of Florida:
Originally Posted by Sophia S.
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