My name is Quoc Quan (QQ) Le and I am the current director of Project MotiVATe. I was born and raised in Wisconsin, and I came to Southern California about four and a half years ago. I studied filmmaking back in Wisconsin but the industry is out here in L.A., so I moved here. I reached out to VAALA (Vietnamese American Letters and Arts Association) to volunteer with them since I knew they ran the Viet Film Fest in Orange County, but when I heard back from VAALA member Julie Vo, she told me that as it was November, they didn’t really start things up until until February. Then she said she was a board member with PM, and if I was free, to come by on Wednesday for Study Hall and to help with the youth. The headquarters was down the street from where I was staying, I didn’t know anyone, and I had all this time on my hands, so I said sure.
It took me a few months to get acclimated to the culture and just how they run things. I had never had any experience with nonprofits or working with youth before PM. At the time, that group was very intimate because they had been together for the last 6-8 years, and so I definitely felt like an outsider. We were 1-1 (mentor to mentee ratio) then, and I would roam around and say hi, just to show my face. I got lucky because they had admitted a new mentee, Thanh, into the program but didn’t have an available mentor. It just so happened that we were having a Town Hall meeting with volunteers, mentors, coordinators, and board members to talk about where PM wanted to go and our role in the community, and it was during that meeting that I realized the amount of time and effort and love that everyone put into the program. Others had suggested that I become a mentor, especially since I was there all the time, but in the beginning, it just felt like it would be a big commitment and I also didn’t want to mess up; after that Town Hall though, I saw how strong the support system was and took the leap. I got matched with Thanh. Many mentees who just join the program start off very shy and quiet, much like how I was when I first got involved, but Thanh became much more open and vocal as time progressed. Then it became very hard to get him to do homework because he just wanted to talk to everyone!
PM started 20 years ago back in 1996 as Camp For Youth, a 4-day summer camp. At that time we served youth who had gang affiliations, especially since Vietnamese gangs were very prevalent in Orange County back in the 90s. These kids would get in trouble with the law and we would take them in for 4 days and just hang out. It was not until 2005 that we started incorporating this mentorship program with a focus on academics.
Currently we serve 10 mentees, 4 girls and 6 boys. When I first joined, we were at 16 mentees. It fluctuates every year depending on the number of staff and volunteers. We have 7 official mentors and 8 volunteers, and I think a lot of mentees really like the 1-1 ratio because there’s that one person they can go to and count on. A couple of our students recently immigrated here from Vietnam, while the majority are either born here or came here when they were very young.
Every Wednesday we have Study Hall, which is kind of like a tutoring program. We only have 3 hours a week with our youth, but we don’t just help them with homework; we also work on building relationships with them and helping them with other things like developing social skills. Kids in this current generation are not that great at interacting with other people because they tend to be stuck on their phones a lot. Also, some of the mentees we bring in fall on the autism spectrum, and social skills is an area they need support in. However, I think parents are sometimes confused about what we do. They just drop their kids off and think their kids’ grades will improve because they’re at Project MotiVATe. But I think that PM is convenient because we serve low-income families - we are completely free and we even offer scholarships to graduating seniors.
So aside from our Mentorship Program and Study Hall, we also do Monthly Activities. A lot of the mentees don’t get out much because their parents don’t have the time to take them out since they work a lot or the kids spend most of the time at school. So when they hang out with PM, it’s an opportunity for them to see Orange County. We recently had a scavenger hunt at this local mall that many of the youth had never been to before. Before that we visited an art museum, and another time we took them to a strawberry farm and picked strawberries. We also do campus visits - one of the first Monthly Activities this year was to UC Irvine. We also try to see Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Long Beach as well. Furthermore, we are based on the campus of Golden West College, so they get to experience this campus when they come here.
Summer Camp is our most popular event, and it’s everyone’s introduction or exit from PM. It’s the best way to feel the family aspect of what PM has to offer. Everybody attends, including past mentors and volunteers. We break up our mentees and volunteers into families for the duration of camp. We try to balance out different personalities and allow mentees to go outside their comfort zones and spend time with mentors they don’t normally talk to. Many mentees grow exponentially in the span of these four days. Our activities vary from team building and family competitions to talking about our hopes and fears and playing Mafia and Assassin around the campfire. No electronics are allowed, which helps mentees to open up and express themselves without having to worry about school or their lives at home for a short period of time. It also sets the groundwork for many mentor and mentee pairings. Also, camp is a special time for us because we say goodbye to our graduating seniors and welcome in our new mentees.
We try to plan around what the community around us is doing. For instance, we try to go to the Vietnamese Film Festival and the Tet Festival every year. In terms of the everyday things, we try to facilitate conversations about everything from the cultural and generational gap between parents and children to stigmas within our culture, like mental health. We partner with CPAF (the Center for Pacific Asian Families), which is based in Koreatown in L.A., to have these workshops that center around healthy relationships within families. We talk about things like how to recognize different forms of abuse and how to have healthy dialogues with families and friends, and we’ll make sure to loop the parents in so that everyone is really involved in trying to improve these lines of communication. It is tough because we only have one or two people in our program who can speak fluent Vietnamese, so we often need to outsource when we have meetings with parents. We should have Vietnamese classes!
The biggest need we have is for more volunteers and mentors. Like in any nonprofit, it’s so easy to get burnt out. All the work that people put in comes from a place of love, and they pour their heart into it. It would be easier to have more people to help share the responsibilities. We are also looking for our next Program Director!
We also need funding. We try to have one big fundraiser every year, and this year’s is on June 29th and the theme will be Casino Royale. Click here for more information.