The saying, “Home is where the heart is,” couldn’t ring truer for Naja Vang, senior compliance analyst at Securian Financial.
By the time she was 10, Naja and her then five siblings had moved four times. Affordable housing was hard to come by. Each move was stressful for her parents — as they packed, figured out new schools and schedules, and moved into the next apartment or duplex — not knowing how long they’d stay.
Moving often also meant not having a sense of belonging with neighbors, friends or the community. No place felt much like home to Naja.
A long and winding road
Naja’s parents’ journey to Minnesota began after the Vietnam War, when they fled the mountains of their native Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand in 1979. They lived there for nine years until 1988, when a sponsor helped them settle in Minnesota. They started a new life, but it was rife with challenges.
“They had to learn a new language, get jobs, get used to having heat and electricity,” Naja explains. “It was a whole new world to them.”
Not least among those challenges was finding affordable housing for their growing family. When Naja’s parents learned about Habitat for Humanity, they applied and got on the waiting list — albeit a long one.
Finally, they learned they were accepted and that their family would soon have a place to call home — forever.
Naja — the second oldest of 11 kids — says she and her siblings used to dream and play make believe about having a home. “We talked with my parents a lot about owning a home,” she says. “They always said we’d get there one day.”
Dreams really do come true
Throughout the construction process with Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, Naja’s mom and dad put in the sweat equity Habitat requires of new homeowners.
“My dad worked full time and helped with the house when he could,” she explains. “My mom worked part time and worked on the new house from 5-8 p.m. Habitat taught them everything from how to hang drywall to how to maintain the furnace.”
When the day came to receive the keys to their home, the volunteers who helped build it lined up along the walkway leading to the front door.
“I will never forget that day,” Naja says. “Everyone was cheering and giving us hugs to welcome us to our new home.”
Naja explains that as she grew older and learned more about Habitat for Humanity, she began to realize the extent of what went into building that home—and what it meant to her family.
“It’s emotional because I know the struggles my parents went through,” she says. “Providing a home for us was something they had wanted to do for a very long time. I noticed a shift in them once we moved into the house. They didn’t seem worried anymore. Having a home brought stability and comfort to their lives. They could finally say, ‘This is forever.’”
Time to give back
Now a parent and homeowner herself, Naja understands firsthand the amount of love her parents and the Habitat volunteers put into her parents’ home.
“As I learned more about how my parents got into the Habitat program and how we got our home, it made a deep impact on me,” she says. “I think all the time about the people who built our house. I’d love to reconnect with them and tell them the impact they made by volunteering.”
Naja now channels her childhood experience and volunteers for the same organization that gave her a place to call home. Securian Financial has a robust volunteering program with Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity that gives employees a chance to help build a home every summer. Naja has volunteered for Habitat with her Securian Financial coworkers since 2015.
“I think it’s wonderful that our company has these volunteer opportunities because Habitat made a big change for my family,” Naja says. “I think it’s important to allow employees to give back to the community because it can make a big difference in someone’s life.”
A different kind of work
Naja says she’d buy a house for everyone if she could. “I don’t have the financial means to do that, but I do have the physical means.”
This year, she and her coworkers put up walls, built stairs and installed insulation in a Habitat home under construction in St. Paul.
“It’s nice to work together outside of work, see each other’s non-work personalities and build deeper relationships,” she says. “It’s fun to put on a hard hat for a day, get out of your comfort zone and help build something for a family.”
Naja adds that volunteering contributes to her work-life balance. She started working at Securian Financial in 2012 and attended college simultaneously, earning a degree in accounting. Her packed schedule at the time didn’t allow for much else, so she’s grateful to be able to give back now.
“I would encourage anyone to volunteer as they have time because even though you think you might not have an impact, the end receiver knows how much everybody puts in to make their dreams come true.”