When the Wichita Indochinese Center opened in 1985, its mission was to teach English to refugees and make them productive citizens.
In the beginning, those refugees were predominantly Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian.
Now those numbers have shifted to any refugee; the majority now are Hispanic, Somalian, Bosnian and Iraqi.
“At present … about 40 adults and 60 adults in the evening attend to learn English,” said Mohan Kambampati, executive director of the center at 2502 E. Douglas. The enrollment at the center has nearly doubled from 178 students in 2007 to 314 in 2013.
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The students, Kambampati said, all have something in common – they want to learn English and be contributing members of society.
“We are in the business of saving taxpayer dollars,” he said. “These students are eager to learn and go to work.”
Currently, the Wichita Indochinese Center is funded by a grant from the Kansas Board of Regents. But additional funding must always be raised, Kambampati said. The funding is contingent on mandatory matches from private sources.
Kambampati said he is grateful for the support organizations such as the Wichita Community Foundation, Kansas Health Foundation, Cargill, Capitol Federal, Dollar General, the Literacy Foundation and others have given in the past.
But more funding is needed, he said, particularly when it comes to attracting experienced teachers.
Ron Holt, chairman of the center’s board of directors, said much of the center’s success is due to Kambampati, whose career occupation had been as a geologist but who gave it up to become the center’s director.
“Mohan has personally made it a success by investing his time and energy into the center and making it relevant and workable,” Holt said.
The students learn English reading, listening and other communication skills. They learn how to do job searches and interview. They also learn civic responsibility, Kambampati said.
Some students at the center have no English skills and are recent immigrants; others are longtime residents wanting to improve their speaking and communication skills.
Helping students better their lives is a mission Kambampati said he believes in deeply. He calls it a sacred duty.
“This center is not just my work place,” he said. “It is my temple. It is my church.”
Van Tran is one of the success stories. In 2001, she went to the center to learn English. As she improved her vocabulary, Kambampati encouraged her to go further.
She earned a degree from Butler Community College and eventually her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Wichita State University.
To help pay for her tuition, she worked on the assembly floor at Hawker Beechcraft. Currently, she is an airframe design engineer at Cessna Aircraft.
“I went over there to learn English and then I come back many times,” Tran said.
Sharon Martin, owner and CEO of Martin Training and Staffing Solutions, said she has hired three students from the Wichita Indochinese Center and wants to hire more.
“Their attendance is excellent,” Martin said. “They have a desire to work and be good employees. They are eager to assimilate in the community and provide for their families.”
Backing Kambampati, Holt said, is a staff that is committed to going beyond what they get paid.
“They teach them English and how to find a job and have basic skills on getting through the door,” Holt said.
“They are making a difference in people’s lives.”