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Updated: November 27, 2023 / 2023 Champions of Health Care

Champions of Health Care: Nguyen will do whatever it takes to meet clients’ needs

A woman sits at her desk with her hands folded in front of her. PHOTO | Courtesy of Family Health Center of Worcester Oanh Nguyen, WIC director of Family Health Center of Worcester

Oanh Nguyen is a person who shows up and gets the job done. In her case, that sometimes means working seven days a week to make sure vulnerable population groups in Central Massachusetts have access to nutrition, among many other things.

As the WIC director at Family Health Center of Worcester, she’s tasked with connecting families in and around the city with the state’s Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program (WIC), as well as other human services as needs arise. Sometimes, this means meeting with families in the health center’s offices, but other times, this means more intensive, direct outreach.

a bio box for Oanh Nguyen
Oanh Nguyen bio box

It was a little less than a year ago, Nguyen said, her office learned the state was expecting an influx of refugees from Haiti, some of whom would be temporarily housed in hotels in and around Worcester. The first location she would work with was a Days Inn in Shrewsbury, where 20 families were sheltered. That, she determined, was a lot of people with limited transportation to siphon through her office in a short period.

Nguyen devised a plan, recruiting her staff to travel in-person to the hotel and register the nearly two dozen families into the WIC program to ensure their access to nutritious meals. Originally, she thought they’d need about a half day to get the job done. In the end, her staff was there for most of the weekend.

But registration for WIC benefits wasn’t the entire project.

“When she had these new arrivals and she’s getting them enrolled with WIC benefits and they don’t know how to use the grocery store, she walks with them to the grocery store and shows them how to grocery shop and shows them how to use their WIC cards,” said Susan Sleigh, chief operating officer at FHCW.

Nguyen helped connect them with basic, safe cooking tools to use in their hotel rooms. That’s the kind of person Nguyen is. When faced with an obstacle, there are never zero options available, Sleigh said.

Nguyen’s personal life helps drive her passion and energy for the work she does. Born in Vietnam, her family suffered deeply after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. In large part, this was because her father had held a position in the U.S. Air Force and, following the war’s end, was sent to a reeducation camp. Her family, Nguyen said, faced fierce discrimination as the government retaliated against those who were considered allied with the South.

Ultimately, her mother took Nguyen and her two young siblings and fled by boat. That boat, Nguyen said, capsized twice. With the second flip, they lost their compass, food, and water. Desperately thirsty, she hallucinated a glass of water in front of her she couldn’t reach.

“I understand the meaning of having no food,” Nguyen said.

After the captain intentionally sank the boat and won the sympathy of the Malaysian government, her family made it to land. They were in transition until they were accepted by the Canadian government and allowed to settle in Montreal in 1979.

In Canada, Nguyen worked her way through college and graduate school and started a career in insurance. In 2000, she married a Vietnamese-American and moved to Shrewsbury. In 2001, she started working for the Family Health Center of Worcester. She’s led the WIC program since 2004.

At FHCW, Nguyen is known for doing whatever it takes to make sure client needs are met. Nothing, Sleigh said, is beneath her. She will work overtime, answer phones, and see clients if that’s what’s needed. Still, Nguyen insists she could not do her job if it wasn’t for her supportive team — and by that, she means the multitude of coordinating and healthcare-providing departments at the center who care for her clients, as well as her direct reports in the WIC office.

“It’s really apparent to people who work with her that she is confident,” Sleigh said. “When I became her supervisor … When I first had my first one-on-one with her, she said ‘I’m not going to need you.’ And she’s 100% correct.”

Sleigh laughed, “She does not need me at all.”

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