|What does Sovanna credit with his success? A commitment to the community he loves and a going the extra mile to drive civic engagement. Yes, that's him in the "ballot box" with CMAA staff and community members on Election Day last week.|
Sovanna's story is one of resiliency and determination.
Through his journey from a refugee camp in Thailand to Lowell, the Executive Director of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association (CMAA) shows us all that success comes when you lead with your heart.
Like so many people in Lowell, Sovanna arrived in the City after years of struggle and loss. Born in a refugee camp after his family fled the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, stability was not a word you would use to describe his early life - until he arrived in Lowell.
"I can still picture that house on Merrimack Street, next door to the old Sizzling Kitchen, meeting my aunt and cousins for the first time. It was a powerful moment."
Over the years, Sovanna loved all that Lowell's neighborhoods had to offer, experiencing diverse cultural influences, hearing different languages. Lowell felt like a good place to grow up.
"I had so much fun as a Senior in high school, I decided to stay for another year," he says with a big laugh. While Sovanna may not have been the best student, he credits a number of community youth programs with keeping him from losing his way as a teen. He was even part of the early years of Dance4Peace, an evening of performance art centered around non-violence, which grew out of a program at the Health Center.
After high school, he enrolled at Middlesex Community College, but part way into his program, he found himself a single dad when his first daughter was born. While charting a path forward for his family, he took advantage of a job placement program through CMAA. That program led him to UTEC - and a new passion for nonprofit management. Over the next 12+ years, he moved through almost every part of the organization, and was the creative force behind many of the signature design elements at UTEC's headquarters on Warren Street.
Then, in search of something new, he spent several years on one of his other passions - marketing and communications. But, it wasn't long before he felt the call to return to the nonprofit world in Lowell.
"I missed the direct contact with the community," he says.
Hearing that CMAA was looking for a new Executive Director, Sovanna took a big leap and applied for the job. Knowing the qualifications didn't exactly align with his resume, he was surprised the Board also took a leap and gave him the job. "They said, 'We know you're going to operate from your heart.' And that's what I've tried to do."
Taking the helm of such a crucial organization supporting Lowell's Cambodian community - so near and dear to his heart - was not easy. "I remember thinking 'Wow - I don't have any of these skills.'", he says with a laugh. "But, I also knew I would work as hard I could to get CMAA to where the community needed it to be."
Over the next few years, Sovanna did that, and more, doubling the organization's annual budget and tripling programming and staff. A big part of his strategy is partnering with like-minded organizations, such as Lowell CHC.
"It's important to have a place like the Health Center, where community members feel safe, where they see people helping them who also reflect them."
Never content with the status quo, Sovanna is always looking ahead. "It's amazing to be back at the organization that jumpstarted my nonprofit career," he says. "I've made it my mission to build as many new leaders as possible."
Now, he and his wife, Lianna Kushi, are raising their daughters in Lowell, while he continues to shape this community he calls home.
We are honored to walk beside Sovanna in that effort.
"I am proud to live in a place that has a community health center. In many ways, Lowell CHC is the beating heart of this City."