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Renovated community center turns tragedy into something positive

Published: Saturday, March 17 2012 5:28 p.m. MDT

Michael Osheku talks about the soccer program at the Hser Ner Moo Community and Welcome Center during Hser Ner Moo Community and Welcome Center Grand Reopening in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 17, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SOUTH SALT LAKE — As community leaders feted the grand reopening of the Hser Ner Moo Community and Welcome Center Saturday, the girl's father brushed back tears.

"We think of her every day. We never forget," Cartoon Wah told a gathering of government, community, business partners and volunteers that played a role in expanding and remodeling the center, which provides preschool, English as a Second Language instruction, parenting classes, computer instruction and after-school programs for children and teens.

The center is named for 7-year-old Hser (pronounced Ser) Ner Moo, whose family fled Burma and Thailand before resettling in Utah. On March 31, 2008, the girl walked away from the South Salt Lake apartment complex where she lived with her family. Her body was found the next day in the apartment of Esar Met, a Myanmar refugee, who lived nearby. He was charged with kidnapping and murder in the child's death. A preliminary hearing in the case has been scheduled for June 11-15.

In August 2008, a small resource center dedicated to the girl was established at the apartment complex where she had lived.

"It was really crowded and due to the building code and fire code, we had to turn kids away and that was not what we wanted to do," said South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood.

Deborah Bayle, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Salt Lake, said the center has helped the community heal and has provided needed instruction to children and adults alike.

"I think this community was so divided when Hser Ner Moo was murdered and this center has brought this community together. Not only that, it's providing services to make sure that people living in this community have the resources and tools they need to be successful in our society," Bayle said.

Many parties recognized the need to expand, modernize and improve the center, located at South Parc Townhomes, 2250 South 500 East, Wood said.

"That day was a really dark day in South Salt Lake history. It was amazing to see all these partners come together and be committed to making something that was so tragic into something so beneficial to our community," Wood said.

The center once operated from a single unit of the town home complex. It now occupies the space of two units on three levels, one of which is accessible to people with disabilities.

Jason Sanford, superintendent of Okland Construction, which oversaw the renovation project, said he was initially uncomfortable asking subcontractors and suppliers the company ordinarily does business with for their help.

"After making some calls, the response was overwhelming. They were more than willing to help make it a better place to serve this community," he said.

Early estimates suggested the cost of donated materials and work would be in the range of $30,000. "It turned out to be about $90,000," which was a testament to the generosity of some 35 partners and their collective vision for the center, he said.

Tenzin Gyaltsen, a tutor employed by South Salt Lake City, said the expansion and modernization was simply "amazing."

"It's a lot more quiet now. We can focus more on helping the kids. We have a lot more space now. We can divide the kids who are doing homework from those who are doing other things," she said.

The center is somewhat of a home away from home for children who live in the townhome complex, which houses many refugee families.

"A lot of these kids' parents work. They have a safe place to come when no one is home," she said.

Robert Lincoln Shwe, 8, regularly does his homework at the center. He declared the new facility as "good."

"It's got more space and rooms in it. It has a lot of details, like the portrait of Hser Ner Moo."

Meanwhile, 7-year-old Eh Chu Na Moo Gay said she likes "just about everything" about the new space.

"Upstairs, we can do computers, coloring and drawing," she said.                                                                                                                              

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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