New year, new initiative


As the lights dimmed, six teens gracefully emerged from behind the scenes. Their brilliantly blue dresses contrasted the red fans firmly grasped in their hands.

Watching in silence, the audience inside the Ba Le Caf�, 606 Washington Ave., gazed at the South Philadelphia High School students dancing in unison. At certain points during the performance, the forceful opening and flickering of their fans shattered the quiet. The crowd was pleased.

One of the teens performing the fan dance was Phung Nim, who relocated to Philadelphia from Vietnam in 2004. Though both of her parents are Chinese, Nim never learned any cultural dances while in her homeland.

Much to her enjoyment, her time to dance had finally come.

"I like to stand in front of people and meet new people too so I can talk to them," said Nim, who participates in the English as a Second Language program at her school.

With a mission to nurture community and cultural harmony, United Communities Southeast Philadelphia hosted a Lunar New Year celebration Feb. 16. Organizers also attempted to strengthen partnerships between the organization and various businesses.

While over 60 guests munched on Asian hors d’oeuvres, they got a taste of the Asian holiday.

Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, commenced Jan. 29. Typically, the new year begins the day of the second new moon after the winter solstice.

Legend has it that Nian, a man-eating beast, would sneak into homes, avoiding detection by residents. Using the color red and loud noises such as fireworks, the Chinese could scare away the creature. These customs led to the first New Year celebration, according to Wikipedia, the online dictionary.

Hosting the celebration related to the organization’s goal of promoting reciprocity in the community, said Miriam Olson , United Communities’ president.

"Part of our mission is to be good neighbors and to help people get acquainted with each other," she said after the event.

UNITED COMMUNITIES FORMED in 1969 after the merger of existing settlement houses. Serving as a beacon for residents, these dwellings provided shelter and service to persons unequipped for self-sufficiency.

The organization "was built on the assumption that people need to work together on their own behalf and with others that can help to make the changes they want in their social environment," said Olson.

The organization continues to live out its goal–serving over 10,000 individuals last year–through after-school, counseling, homeownership and truancy prevention programs. Services catering to youths, individuals and families also are popular. Olson noted over 1,500 children participated in youth-enrichment programs.

In addition, United Communities Community Development Corp., implemented in 1996, has turned 29 residents into homeowners.

"We’re building a stronger community and we’re doing it block by block," Olson said.

The Pan-Asian Association of Greater Philadelphia has partnered with the organization, securing a new community center last year inside the Southwark House, 101 Ellsworth St.

"The community is growing so that there aren’t too many locations–outside of Chinatown–that are geared to address Asian-American problems," Skip Voluntad, senior advisor for the association, said in a previous interview with the Review.

Pressing forward, United Communities is looking to expand its partnerships and community outreach, using last week’s celebration as a stepping stone.

"We’re really doing a stronger push this year to get to know more people and for more people to get to know United Communities," said Francis Carney, the organization’s executive director.

While the event was to celebrate the community’s diversity, it also was to develop "relationships with small businesses and corporations so we can really have a long-term strategic partnership with businesses in the area," said Brad Baldia, director of development and outreach for United Communities.

Those in attendance included representatives of banks, foundations and small businesses within the South Philly corridor, Baldia noted.

Future goals for the organization include the creation of a women’s center and raising funds for this year’s Spring Fair.

"We’ve invited nonprofits and other health organizations out to share resources," Lindsey Lewis, the organization’s program director, said about the fair.

Oliver Nie was responsible for teaching the celebration’s performers everything they know. Through an after-school program at South Philadelphia High, he instructs students on Chinese culture and dance.

During the celebration, two girls also performed a Javenese dance from Indonesia, with a purpose to wish someone well.

Nie was pleased the organization exercised cultural diversity and would like to see more activities to serve a burgeoning group.

The area’s "Asian population is growing bigger and bigger," he said. "We do need some associations and organizations for the kids in this community."