South Asian Couple with Refugee Roots Starts Elder Care Service Business in Minnesota
Date: September 15, 2021
Souk & Youa Her
Owners of Elder Care Day Services
Souk and Youa Her are high-school sweethearts who bonded over their families’ shared background as Hmong refugees: Souk was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, while Youa was born in America soon after her parents left a Laotian refugee camp in the late 1970s. “It’s like living in two worlds — we both grew up feeling fully American, but we’re also deeply connected to the Hmong community here in Saint Paul,” Youa explains.
Both Souk and Youa’s parents worked hard to build a new life in Minnesota. Souk’s father worked for a non-profit called Catholic Charities, and the family invested in real estate and a clothing alteration store, and opened an Asian grocery store. Youa’s family was part of the Hiawatha Valley Farm Cooperative Project, a local initiative that gave refugees agricultural training, and ran a business supplying ucumbers to local food manufactures. Later, the family opened Saint Paul’s first Hmong grocery store on Selby Avenue in the late 1980s. Youa’s mother also took factory jobs and her father was a community liaison officer for the Department of Natural Resources. “They were very entrepreneurial and wanted to improve our quality of life and gain financial freedom,” Souk says. “That made us want to start something of our own too.”
After finishing college, Youa became a social worker and Souk took a job in corporate communications. But in 2015, after Souk was laid off, the pair took the plunge and launched their own business: Elder Care Day Services (ECDS), which now provides care, meals, and activities for the elderly and adults with special needs such as chronic illnesses or mental health challenges. “It wasn’t easy figuring out how to launch a business,” Youa says. “There wasn’t any guidance to help us tap into support programs, so we built everything with our own hands.”
Before COVID-19, ECDS employed eight people and cared for more than 60 local adults, mostly referrals from local case managers and Hmong community groups. The business closed for four months during the pandemic, when vulnerable clients weren’t able to attend group activities.
Luckily, PPP loans enabled them to pay their workers during the furlough. “Coming from a refugee background gives you a lot of resilience,” Souk explains. “Our families experienced war, persecution and death, and that gives us a drive to keep working to make something better for ourselves.” Now, the couple are hoping to expand by opening a residential care center to deliver services to even more elderly and disabled people.
Souk and Youa’s families seldom talked about their experiences as refugees, but instead focused on building for the future. That mindset has influenced Souk and Youa, too, as they’ve overcome adversity to keep their business operational. “We came from nothing, so the only way was up,” Youa explains. “We’re going to keep climbing and keep on investing in our community.”