by Gloria Hodge
In 1975, following the end of the Vietnam war, thousands of South Vietnamese refugees were fleeing to the United States to start a new life. Today, the Vietnamese immigrant population in Seattle is large, second only to China as the country of origin for immigrants in our city. This month, Hoa Mai Vietnamese Bilingual Preschool will celebrate its sixth anniversary of serving children from 20 months to 5 years old. Located adjacent to the Mount Baker Light Rail Station, we are part of the Sound Child Care Solutions Consortium. At Hoa Mai, two of our core values are providing a joyful workplace and promoting social justice. I have had the honor of working for our organization for almost 11 years and am also the founding director of Hoa Mai.
Before we closed for the pandemic in March of 2020, things were happening quickly. Yet there was a lot of confusion and unknowns. We received very few guidelines about best safety practices from King County Public Health; there were also mixed messages regarding mask- wearing. At first, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) told us to save the masks for the medical field. There were also conversations about the possible negative impacts on young children seeing adults wearing masks. One of our employees from China expressed safety concerns and wanted to wear her mask, which I denied. It seems so trivial now, but it is the one regret I have about handling the pandemic — not immediately permitting masks to be worn.
When things were shut down, we urgently planned our next steps. Staff began working remotely, mostly funded through a PPP loan. Our teachers planned lessons for the families to implement at home. We shifted to online storytimes and partnered with Farm to Table for support. We mailed seeds for families to engage with the children and plant food at home. We shared resources for assistance with food access, utility assistance, and COVID-19 testing locations (once established). We continued this work for five months.
In May 2020 our city began to uproar with the nation’s unrest due to the outrageous death of George Floyd. Some employees attended peaceful protests; others expressed their outrage verbally. Some families from Hoa Mai walked in the marches with their young children. One white family shared that when their child complained they were tired from walking in the march, they said, “We must keep walking, and here is why we are marching.”
In the summer of 2020, our sister sites began to reopen for the summer. I did not feel that was best for our programs because we just weren’t ready. We had limited resources and there were too many unknown and unaddressed issues. We did not have answers about COVID-19 testing access and precaution measures in place, so we targeted September for reopening. Who would I be as a leader to demand that our team — mostly females and all of color, from refugee, and immigrant backgrounds — return to work with none of the above in place?
In the end, our school-age program successfully reopened in September with two pods of 15 children to support online learning for the school year, and we stayed with this model through June. It was one of the hardest periods of parenting for those of us who are parents and for a single mother like me who struggled between work, childcare, and online learning.
The streets were so quiet when we returned in September 2020 at Hoa Mai. The hustle and bustle with the pedestrians at the light rail, rows of cars parked at the Diamond parking lot, and fans jumping on the light rail to games were no more. It was rare to see any neighbors or walkers — just those in need. Most of the people who were wandering around appeared to be unhoused. Immediately after we reopened, we observed people breaking into cars.
Then the AAPI violence began. The unfounded ignorance of many people feeling that the Asian community was responsible for the pandemic manifested with random assaults and unprovoked bullying and attacks against Asian Americans across our city. Our staff felt scared and unsafe, first due to COVID and now to increased violence. They stopped taking public transportation, even though ORCA passes are part of their benefit packages. They expressed that they were nervous and scared yet would still report to work daily, ready to support the young children who chose to come to learn Vietnamese and English.
Our enrollment was suffering. Traditionally, we served at capacity and had a waitlist. Many children previously enrolled did not return due to the pandemic.
In March of 2021, we began to experience break-ins at the building we operate in. Several occurred at our suites; it was emotionally draining to see the impact on our staff and other occupants in the building. However, what keeps us going every day is seeing the team supporting one another to fulfill our mission to provide the best early learning opportunities possible for the children. More significantly, the children’s resilience and bright, shining eyes beyond the masks continued to provide us the positive inspiration we needed to work through the pandemic and crime.
Recently, gun violence has temporarily muted the joy and laughter in our building. In June, a tragic shooting took place just steps from our playground; it was a very sad scene. One of our employees witnessed part of the crime as she ate her lunch on a bench. Just days before the shooting, there was another break-in and someone started a fire at Cheasty Greenspace, which had a homeless encampment.
We have thankfully been successful with a healthy program. Still, the ongoing violence has engulfed and robbed us of our time and energy with the endless reporting, safety planning, strategizing, and conversations with advocacy and community groups.
As I write this, neighbors alerted us of yet another fire at the Cheasty Greenspace. It’s 41 degrees out. We hope there are no injuries or lives taken like there were with the first fire. Later, another shooting and another break-in occurred. All these disturbing incidents happened in one weekend at one area, just like last June.
There were 14 shootings this past June in Seattle; 13 of them were South of Pioneer Square. Fires, excessive shootings, and burglaries went on regularly in the heart of a community where children and students attend high school and a child development center. This is unacceptable. This is not normal. This is not normal and must be addressed. There is also a need to provide assistance to those that have been impacted by gun violence. How can they receive the much-needed support from these traumatic events?
On the day of the June shooting, our local Starbucks closed and will not reopen. Starbucks has a motto, “we’re better together,” displayed at some of their shops in other parts of town. Are we? Additionally, they have articles posted online regarding their efforts to support racial equity and justice. Yet, our nation’s coffee giant, from right here in our own backyard, closes their doors to their shop that sits empty on the corner of Rainier Avenue South and Martin Luther King Jr. Way South following a shooting. Recently, our local Rite-Aid closed its doors. Mary Hendrix, one of our teachers who grew up in the neighborhood, shared that the store was formerly a Pay-n-Save.
When Sound Child Care Solutions was preparing me for the transition from our federally sponsored program in downtown Seattle to Hoa Mai, I vividly remember our co-founder Diana Bender’s remarks: “Hoa Mai will be grassroots efforts. You must collaborate with the community. It will be very different from downtown.”
Over the past six years, we have carried out that work of collaboration for Hoa Mai, Artspace, and the businesses within the community. I frequently look out the window from an empty suite due to lack of funding to expand. As I watch those who walk by in distress, barefoot, hungry, and in need, I often wonder: How likely would we be able to succeed, given the depressed economy and the increased violence that persists day to day? The City Council, the law enforcement agencies, businesses big and small, and residents — everyone who lives and works in this community — must work together and do a better job of keeping us safe, healthy, and thriving. We must not waver from our respective responsibilities.
Here’s how you can help: Visit the Mt. Baker Hub Alliance to see how to support our community by participating in monthly clean ups or making a donation. I do believe “we’re better together.” Let’s change our world together, one community after another.
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Gloria Hodge is the Center Director of Hoa Mai Vietnamese Bilingual Preschool (the first center with this model in the Northwest and one of the few in our nation) and Dragon’s Den School-Age Program located at Dearborn Park International Elementary. She is also the Vice President of the Renton School Board. Her work has also taken place in South Korea and Southern California. Ms. Hodge is a native of Pasco, WA and resides in Skyway.
📸 Featured Image: Mount Baker transit station near the Mount Baker Lofts. (Photo: Alex Garland)
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