PUBLISHED: June 20, 2015 at 11:01 p.m. | UPDATED: October 28, 2015 at 3:07 a.m.
Hours after Shannon Marie Morrison’s death, allegedly at the hands of her boyfriend Gregory Rainer, Mai Vang, 35, had mobilized many on St. Paul’s East Side for a fundraiser for Morrison’s family.
Mai Vang heard that the Morrison family needed help to pay funeral expenses. Within three days, she and Jennifer Swanson, another East Side resident, recruited more than 30 volunteers for a spaghetti dinner benefit Monday evening. Mai Vang estimates at least 500 will attend.
“I always help those who reach out to me,” Mai Vang said, noting that she has six more fundraisers planned this summer.
Mai Vang’s compassionate and entrepreneurial spirit is something East Side residents have come to expect. She cooks meals for the homeless, raises money for neighbors who have cancer and buys items at Salvation Army stores for families in need. On the neighborhood’s Facebook group, which has more than 14,000 members, several people called Mai Vang “Eastsider of the Year.”
When a group member asked, “Who is the most famous East Sider?” responses ranged from former Gov. Wendell Anderson to super middleweight boxer Matt Vanda. The most popular answer? “Mai Vang: The Egg Roll Queen!”
Since April, Mai Vang has fried more than 14,000 of her famous egg rolls in her home kitchen. One-quarter of the rolls went to a charity event on behalf of the Peter Yang family, who lost their 4-year-old daughter in a February house fire.
Mai Vang sold the rest for $1 per roll to raise money for her own cochlear implant in November.
DEAFNESS INDUCES CHARITY
In some ways, Mai Vang’s hearing condition triggered her good Samaritan efforts.
It all started in August 2013, when Mai Vang woke up confused. She couldn’t hear a thing. Doctors confirmed she had gone deaf. She regained some hearing three months later, but last June, she relapsed. For the past year, it’s been much the same: gradual improvements, only to lose all auditory perception. Hearing aids are too expensive, Mai Vang said, so she has pursued natural healing: meditation, nature walks and massage therapy.
Mai Vang talks much less with her husband and four sons, ages 9 to 18.
“People try to repeat. They talk loud and then give up,” she said in an interview conducted via texting. “I’m a little sad now that people don’t treat me like before.”
But amid this frustration and her 14- to16-hour workdays — Mai Vang owns Gemican, a St. Anthony Village-based software company — she has found an outlet in volunteering. On an April walk, she noticed a group picking up trash. Now, her daily treks include trash clean-up on the East Side.
“One street at a time,” she said. “And it’s still nature walks!”
These daily hikes are nothing compared with Mai Vang’s treacherous and circuitous route to St. Paul. She was born in Laos at the height of the Hmong genocide campaigns that killed about 100,000 and displaced more than 250,000. She and her family lived for eight years in a refugee camp in Thailand until immigrating to the United States. Mai Vang has lived on St. Paul’s East Side since 1990 with brief departures to attend Winona State University and St. Olaf College.
“We have a mix of colors and culture,” Mai Vang said of her neighborhood. “More importantly, people are helping each other. We all try very hard to improve the living standard over here.”
Mai Vang said her goal in volunteering is to “create miracles for families.”
She said, “People can be wonderful if you give them the chance.”