Jun 04, 2012 • By

A family’s bond with General Mills

It’s often said that what goes around, comes around. I’ve witnessed that several times at General Mills, where more than 80 percent of employees volunteer.

But perhaps the most telling example is the journey of how our first home-building effort for Habitat for Humanity 20 years ago helped a young immigrant family – led by Xao and Shoua Yang – begin a new life in the U.S.

Not only did it help the family get a toehold in this country, but it touched people who work here.

A Yang cousin now works for General Mills – Ya Yang – and he helped us track down this 20-year-old story.

Coincidentally, Ya, a senior applications analyst for our Grain and Flour Information Services team, also is a Habitat volunteer – giving back to the same program that helped his cousins.

Twenty years ago in Golden Valley, Minn., about 500 General Mills volunteers – armed with hammers, tool belts and optimism – worked alongside the Xao and Shoua Yang family to help the young Hmong couple fulfill a dream of owning a house.

That four-bedroom home not only marked the Yang family’s first permanent residence in the U.S., but also was the first home General Mills sponsored for Habitat for Humanity International, a charitable ministry that builds homes for low-income families.

Fast forward to today, and General Mills’ partnership with Habitat for Humanity is still going strong – with construction to begin today on our 21st Habitat home – and the Yang family still lives in that same home built 20 years ago.

Yia Yang, 27, the oldest child of the Yang family, remembers the six months it took to build the home, which the family moved into a week before Christmas 1992. As a youngster, he would stroll down to watch volunteers and his parents work on the site, just two blocks from the seven-member family’s one-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis.

“I was 8, and I recall my parents putting in a lot of time and effort into building the home,” says Yia Yang. “It really was amazing, and our family gives many thanks to Habitat for Humanity and General Mills. We have nothing but great things to say. And I remember the volunteers were just as motivated as my parents in getting this home done.”

General Mills pitches in

Twenty years ago, the General Mills Foundation donated $30,000 in building materials, and employees put in about 5,000 hours of volunteer work at the home of the Yangs, Hmong refugees who fled Southeast Asia in 1987 to avoid persecution from the North Vietnamese. (The Hmong fought alongside the U.S. during the Vietnam War.)

Originally from Laos where Xao (pronounced “Sow”) Yang was a student and farmer, the family moved to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand. Through a friend, Xao Yang heard about Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, and applied. He wanted a comfortable place for his family, and he and his wife were willing to help build the home, a Habitat requirement known as “sweat equity.”

“Every day, my wife helped build the house,” says Xao Yang. “Since I had a regular job as a machinist, I worked on the house during the evenings and weekends. We cleaned, shoveled, hammered nails and painted. It was a lot of work, but I wanted to provide stability for my family and a roof over our heads. Our apartment down the street was public housing – a place with not-so-ideal conditions.”

Xao Yang remembers the General Mills volunteers, especially Keith Emerson who was a retired engineer and coordinator of the build.

“My wife in April had given birth to our daughter, Sue. And Keith Emerson would make sure that she didn’t perform tasks that were too difficult, or required heavy-lifting. He was very kind,” says Xao Yang, 48.

Keith served as coordinator for the project, sometimes working up to 60 hours per week. In 1992, he had just retired after a 15-year career as a draftsman and engineer at General Mills, but agreed to lead the Habitat build. Now 77, Keith remembers the Yangs as a hardworking family, and recalls putting on the home’s finishing touches: Christmas lights on the front porch.

“At the open house, there were tears in the eyes of the Yang family. They told us that having a home was a lot like winning the lottery. They didn’t think they’d ever be able to own a home,” Keith says.

When they were ready to move into the house, the family included son, Yia, 8; daughters Sheng 2½; Song, 18 months; and Sue, 8 months; and Xao’s brother, Cheng, 14. Nearly 20 years later, the family has grown a bit and dispersed a bit, too.

Yia still lives at home and works as a Hmong community program specialist at the University of Minnesota. The three Yang daughters have moved away, and are attending colleges in Minnesota. Brother Cheng still lives there, and so do the newest additions to the Yang family: youngest siblings Steven, 16; and Scott, 15.

Open house, open hearts

Yia Yang fondly remembers that open house celebration in 1992 as an event that cemented the relationship between an immigrant family, a charitable housing organization and General Mills.

“There were so many people there, and I remember my parents seemed so happy. General Mills was giving away a lot of snacks and presents. There were stuffed Trix rabbit dolls, too. As for the snacks, I took some. Absolutely,” Yia Yang says.

The eldest child of the Yangs says he always will be proud of his parents, their courage and their accomplishments, most notably providing for the family.

“In 1992, my parents had been living in a new country for only five years – a country they knew little about. It was a new culture, a new language, so much was new to them, and they were young. Our new home became a testament of their determination and hard work, and for their desire that their kids would become better off than they were. My parents did an amazing job. And we’re all very thankful for the help General Mills gave us,” Yia Yang says.

Yang cousin works at General Mills

The Xao and Shoua Yang family only have to look at their Golden Valley, Minn., house to see their permanent ties with General Mills. But they have another link as well.

Xao Yang’s cousin, Ya Yang, has worked at General Mills for more than six years as a senior applications analyst for the Grain and Flour Information Services team. And coincidentally, Ya Yang also has been a volunteer coordinator for three builds for Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity.

Ya Yang remembers the day he made the connection between General Mills and his cousin’s home.

“When I was a kid, I realized that somebody had helped Xao’s family build their home, but I didn’t know who,” says Ya Yang. “Soon after I started working at General Mills, I had a conversation with Xao at a gathering at his house. I told him that I was going to help build a Habitat home, and he said, ‘Hey, my home was the first one built by General Mills.’”

Ya Yang has been to his cousin’s home several times, since Xao is considered a well-respected elder in the Twin Cities Hmong community. “He’s actually a very important figure in our family, and there are many community gatherings at their home, which has such a big basement,” he says.

Ya Yang knows that the generosity of General Mills has helped people close to him.

“What General Mills does every year is great,” says Ya Yang. “There’s nothing more satisfying than working on building homes for people in need. It’s a great thing, and speaks volumes for the company. It’s just another reason why people enjoy working here.”