Mao Heu Thao – the Hmong Health Coordinator at St. Paul-Ramsey County Department of Public Health for the past 15 years – is receiving the award for Leadership or Mentoring.
“It is difficult to think of anyone within Minnesota’s Asian health community who is more deserving of such as award,” said Emily Li-wen Wang, Health Policy and Program Coordinator at the City of Minneapolis Department of Health and Family Support, who nominated Thao.
For more than 31 years Thao has worked as a uniquely gifted advocate for Hmong community health. Her own story is inspiring as a first generation Hmong American, who came to Minnesota with her husband in 1976, unable to speak English and expecting a child.
Through self-determination, Thao began to learn English by watching Sesame Street and taking ESL classes and working as production staff at Seagate Technology. She eventually trained as a medical interpreter, and though never completed high school, that did not deter her from earning a practical nurse degree (LPN) in 1986, before going on to complete a degree in Health Education and Administration at Metro State University.
In addition to serving as the County Hmong Health Coordinator, Thao founded the Hmong Health Care Professional Coalition. The group works to promote cultural awareness and to advocate for access to quality health care services.
Her leadership in health prompted a 1982 return to Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand to speak about life in American to more than 40,000 Hmong. In 1993, she coordinated work for the Sudden Unexplained Death Syndrome Project in Thailand and worked with Hmong refugees in Phana Nickhom Refugee Camp.
In 2003, Mao was selected as the health delegate to travel with Saint Paul Mayor Randy Kelly’s delegation to Thailand to prepare for the Hmong refugees coming to Minnesota from the Wat Tham Krabok.
Thao has organized countless health fairs, screenings and other health education booths at cultural events. There she has helped to address the specific Hmong concerns regarding diabetes, high blood pressure, oral health, mental health, kidney disease, tobacco, HINI, and others.
“For Hmong who live in poverty, with limited education levels and limited English proficiency, this may be the only time they (including uninsured and underinsured) interact with a health care professional throughout the year,” she added.
MaiKia Moua, RN, MPH Office of Community Liaison Oregon Public Health Department, supported the award, saying that Thao understands the importance of her role in making the case for the health needs of the Hmong Community.
“She has been my mentor, my guide, and a trustful friend in navigating the health system and politics of two worlds,” said Moua. “She is a leader in all sense of the word, but more so a teacher willing to challenge young professionals, to give and think outside the boxes we get stuffed in, and prepare a new generation to take lead.”