By: Amber Inthavong

If you are a first generation Laotian-American, then you know what it was like going to the temple with your parents as a kid, being immersed in Buddhism, spicy food, loud conversations, and late night parties with old friends. You grew up living that culture.

Once your parents immigrated here in the 1970s, they wanted to hold onto every part of the Lao culture they could. When they came to the U.S., they brought everything about Laos with them! It was the only way they could make it feel like home.

Laos people are a tight-knit community; everyone knows everyone else. We come together for every major life event. When there is a wedding, a death in the family, a new baby, or Lao New Years, we all show up. This deep cultural bond may be the most supportive environment in which to grow up.

When the Lao Buddhist Temple in Westminster, Colorado had a devastating fire on the morning of December 5th, 2011, you can imagine the impact it had on the community. Once a place for gathering weekly, where monks live and prayer happens, our temple was in ruins.

In the seven years since the damage, the Lao community has stepped up our support on a whole new level. We have spent that time creating fundraising events to support the rebuilding of our sacred space. Each fundraiser and party requires tireless effort, prepping delicious food to sell, stocking up on drinks to charge by the bottle, hiring bands and dancers who rehearse for hours to deliver beautiful Lao traditional music and dance performances. All of this is done in honor of the temple.

The temple’s Executive Administrator and Project Manager, Sunnie Gist, plays a tremendous part in the rebuilding of our Buddhist temple. Sunnie wears many different hats: she deals with building codes, insurance, safety issues, permits, and serves as the liaison for many community partners.

She has been the key to putting on all of the concerts and cultural shows. Sunnie has been involved in the community since 1996, and more recently, she took on full responsibility in event coordination and communications.

Photo credit: Emmy Thammasine

Here, Sunnie provides a peek behind the scenes and an update on the progress of the Buddhist temple rebuild.
AAm: How is the temple rebuild going?
SG: The temple’s construction progress is based on fundraising efforts. Progress moves forward as funds come in, which can be slow at times. Ninety percent of the labor is done by volunteers, and ten percent has been done through speciality licenses like engineers, master plumbers, and master electricians.

AAm: How much progress has been made in funding for the new temple?
SG: Funding has been slow. The majority of the building effort so far has been completed with insurance money from the fire. It’s very hard to get a new building loan from banks to push the project faster, due to strict requirements and disadvantages of being a non-profit organization and a religious organization. Fundraising has definitely been a challenge.

AAm: Are there any exciting things to share with the community about what comes next?
SG: Our site has been set up to build in phases:
• Phase 1 is building the Sala which has been designed with a walkout basement. The basement will be used as a Cultural Center for dance classes, English/Laotian language classes, cultural study classes, community meetings, and will act as an overflow space for the Buddhist festival. Phase 1 will include a new front entry gate, a new trash area, and a detention pond for rainwater or flood overflow. Once Phase 1 is done and all inspections have passed, we aim to move in.
• Phase 2 will include the parking lot and partial landscape. Due to lack of land space and parking space, there will not be a separate building for parties.
• Phase 3 will be the construction of the Sim, or a prayer house for the monks. It will be built over the original slab foundation of the old burnt down temple site.
• Finally, Phase 4 will include the rest of the landscaping and fencing around the property.
Sunnie adds, “It’s going to be exciting as each phase is completed; generations of people will remember that they were a part of making this happen. The temple will be open to the public to visit, learn, and share Lao culture.”

The loss of the Buddhist temple was much more significant than just losing a place to pray. The one place where families and friends gathered to honor their culture together and feel closer to home was profoundly damaged. However, this close-knit Laotian community has shown that no matter how difficult the circumstances, in times of need, there is no giving up. Each generation of Lao heritage that unfolds after us, with great hope, will grow up knowing the same values and principles.

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