Minnie Morey’s family left the Philippines for the United States when she was just a young girl. Courtesy Grand Rapids Community Foundation
Minnie Morey retired after more than 30 years in her first career. Now, she gets to spend her time doing what she feels called to do — help others.
As executive director of the West Michigan Asian American Association, Morey primarily helps Asian immigrants with their assimilation into American life, such as learning English, navigating resources or gaining citizenship.
“I'm retired, and it gives me a purpose,” Morey said. “It gives me a purpose to continue to do the work that I'm passionate about, to help others who are less fortunate. I've got the skills and the experience; I need to share that.”
Morey credits that line of thinking to her parents, who worked hard to improve their children’s lives while reminding them to make the world a better place.
When she was just a few years old, Morey’s family left the Philippines for the U.S.
She said her father’s main reason for wanting to bring his children to the U.S. was so they could access free education. Filipino citizens don’t have that right.
“He always emphasized to me that education was a way to improve our lives and also to get ahead,” Morey said. “But at the same time, we are not to forget the people who we left behind.”
Morey admits she was one of the lucky ones. Her parents were college-educated and spoke English. Many Asian and other immigrants have to navigate in their native languages, leaving them largely ignorant to the resources available. Without the service provided by WMAAA, many immigrants in the Grand Rapids area would be left in the dark.
“It takes a while for them to become an active member of the community,” she said.
First, they have to set themselves up for independence by learning English and finding a job. Next, they work to get their other family members into the country, which often takes years.
“I think every immigrant who comes to the United States is coming for a better life and free education,” she said.
Morey, her seven siblings and their mother traveled by boat to the U.S.
“All I can remember is being seasick the whole time,” she said.
Her older sister recalled their mother tying Morey and the two other youngest children to the bed at night to keep them from falling off while sleeping.
They traveled to join their father, who was scouted by the U.S. to fight in WWII. The family joined him in Texas, where he was stationed. When Morey was 5 years old, the family moved to Pittsburg, California, while their father fought in the Korean War. Along the way, her parents had four more children.
Morey attended college during the Vietnam War and then got an office job with the U.S. Navy.
After getting married to a member of the U.S. Navy and later settling in West Michigan, she got a job in the Social Security Administration, which she kept for the next 30 years. She started in clerical work and ended as a social insurance representative, helping people navigate the process for claiming funds.
“That kind of gave me my focus — helping people,” she said.
Morey retired at age 55, and after taking a break to care for her now-deceased husband, she launched a second career focused solely on helping other Asian immigrants.
In 2006, she became the executive director of the Asian Health Outreach Foundation, founded by two Filipino doctors in Grand Rapids to help Asians who were uninsured or underinsured. Her role was to help people access resources and navigate the health care system.
She said the Affordable Care Act helped that population a lot, since many of them cannot afford health insurance premiums.
The foundation merged with an Asian professional association in 2010 to create the West Michigan Asian American Association. The professional association was meant to provide networking opportunities for business owners and professionals. The merger was an effort to strengthen the overall services, she said.
From the beginning, Morey’s job has been to act as the “connector” between all Asian communities in the Grand Rapids area.
“That's the only way that we can be stronger,” Morey said. “The Asian population is growing, and I think people were starting to be alert to that because of the census.”
Her job was to find the leaders of the communities and emphasize the need for connection. Those leaders aren’t necessarily the officers of an organization but whoever the community has come to trust.
“Trust is a big thing in the Asian community,” she said.
WMAAA has about eight volunteer interpreters to help Asian immigrants enroll in health care coverage. They also help with citizenship and green card documents, ESL tutoring and more.
These interpreters, who only get paid when the WMAAA gets a grant, are immigrants themselves who have a passion for helping people experiencing what they have gone through.
“That’s how it’s successful,” Morey said.
When WMAAA started holding ESL classes, it was assumed the students already knew some English.
“Not only is it not the case, some of these people never had any formal education even in their own country,” she said.
The ESL classes consist mostly of pre-literacy students, those who never learned the alphabet or even how to hold a pencil. The more advanced classes teach students language needed to obtain better jobs.
Transportation is the biggest barrier for students at the moment, so WMAAA is considering purchasing a vehicle.
She said that while the association has been fortunate to receive the grants it has, it needs more funds to pay for tutors and interpreters. She said the organization does what it can to fundraise and spread the word. Its biggest fundraiser is the Asian Gala, which takes place each spring.
“The immigrants — they want to learn. They want to continue to do better in the community.”
The organization partners with several others in the area, including Refugee Education Center, Literacy Center, Asian Community Outreach, United Way and Hope Network’s Wheels to Work program.
The Asian community often is naturally excluded from surveys that focus on life in Grand Rapids because they live just outside of city limits, mostly in Kentwood and Wyoming, Morey said.
“So of course you're not going to get voices from a lot of Asians,” Morey said.
The minority-focused meetings Morey has attended over the years typically have focused on groups other than Asians, she said.
“They need to start looking at Asians, too, because we are growing,” she said.
Bing Goei is a big help with the business side of the organization and is a mentor to her and others, Morey said.
She and Goei are working to launch a regional office of the Farmington Hills-based Asian Pacific American Chamber of Commerce. Among plans over the past year, the WMAAA has been holding informational sessions to share the importance of having a chamber and to understand the services residents would most like to see. Almost 200 people came to a meeting recently.
Asian businesses contribute to the economy in West Michigan, she said. “Even though you don't hear about them, and there's a lot of them.”
While Morey does see an effort to be more inclusive overall, she thinks adding the chamber’s presence is an important next step to better including this group specifically.
“It is time to help the business community more,” Morey said.