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SAN JOSE — Community leaders, military veterans and Santa Clara County elected officials broke ground Saturday for the country’s first healthcare service center designed specifically to serve the Vietnamese American community.
The center, built by the county and expected to open in the fall of 2021, will be a one-stop shop, where residents will be able to access the county’s senior wellness programs and mental health services, get vaccinations, visit a pharmacy and more.
“Today is a symbol marking a new beginning,” said Nguyen Khac Binh, major general of the armed forces of the former Republic of Vietnam.
Binh called the center a sign of respect and recognition of a Vietnamese community that has been in Santa Clara County for more than 40 years, a sentiment echoed by elected officials at the event.
“My hope is that it demonstrates deep respect for the Vietnamese community,” Supervisor Cindy Chavez said, comparing its significance to the opening in 1999 of the Mexican Heritage Plaza, which was considered a sign of that the community’s contributions to the region were recognized.
The groundbreaking is the culmination of years of work and community meetings, spurred by a 2012 assessment, proposed by Supervisor Dave Cortese, of the health of the Vietnamese community in the county.
That assessment found that the roughly 147,000 residents in the county with Vietnamese ancestry — the second largest such population in the world outside of Vietnam — still struggles with unequal health outcomes. Vietnamese women, for example, are five times more likely than any other ethnic group to be diagnosed with cervical cancer.
About 51 percent of Vietnamese Americans in the county speak English less than “very well,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau, another potential barrier when residents attempt to access county services.
In 2015, Chavez and Cortese called for the creation of the service center. Before breaking ground, the county held community workshops to hear what residents wanted in the new center.
“One issue that got raised was having access to services that were culturally sensitive, that may create more opportunities for women who are victims of domestic violence to get help,” she said.
When it’s completed, the center’s 37,000 square feet will also offer dental services, health screenings and educational programs. The cost of building the center is currently estimated at about $37 million, money that will come out of the county’s general fund, Chavez said.
For Thang Do, the architect with the firm Aedis tasked with designing the center, one question from those workshops stood out.
“At the first community meeting, the question that resonated with everybody was, ‘What makes the center Vietnamese?’” said Do, who was born in Vietnam and moved to the country at 16.
In response, Do and the design team incorporated Vietnamese elements throughout the building, from bamboo trees to the outline of the Vietnamese coastline cast into the pavement path that will lead into the building’s main entrance.
Those elements are critical for making the community feel at home in the new center, said San Jose Councilman Lan Diep, who attended the groundbreaking ceremony.
“That’s a sign of respect,” Diep said. “I think that’s appreciated by the elders in our community.”
Do hopes the center will eventually become an unofficial focal point for the community, which is credited with having helped revitalize downtown and East San Jose in the 1970s and 1980s, when Vietnamese immigrants began arriving in the county in large numbers. For that, the center “should feel uniquely Vietnamese,” Do said.
Do said his favorite part of the building is the main plaza, which will feature a diagram of the Vietnamese diaspora, including Santa Clara County and Orange County in Southern California. The plaza will connect directly to the senior dinning hall, which is important because that older generation was central to the design of the entire building.
“They’ve been waiting for a center like this for a long time and they need the social socializing aspect of that,” he said. “And so the plaza, I can envision a lot of them hanging out there, playing chess or drinking tea.”
Santa Clara County breaks ground on future Vietnamese service center