Tag Archives: hope

Sharing Stories, Building Community

We started the school year with such a burst of joy–from greeting new families and welcoming old friends, to celebrating our community at Panther Picnic. As always, being at Prospect Sierra gives me a tremendous amount of happiness and sense of purpose. This year I made it a goal to spend at least a few hours in every classroom or grade level in the first six weeks of school so that I could get to know the students better, observe our teachers in action, and more selfishly, to participate in all of the rich curriculum and activities that Prospect Sierra students are engaged in every day.

The classroom visits were, in a word, awesome. Besides doing challenging academic work in every subject, from geometry veiled as art in kindergarten, to researching and debating constitutional amendments in 8th grade, I had a chance to play tag, paint, engage in literary discussions, learn a song and dance, do a science experiment, practice improv games, and sit on the rug for quiet story time. Every day that I devoted to classroom visits was enlightening, inspiring, and tons of fun! I witnessed how thoughtful our teachers are in designing their programs, not only for their own students, but also across disciplines and grade levels. I was impressed by how our students embody our school’s values of empathy and inclusion through their classroom collaborations and outdoor play. To experience Prospect Sierra through the eyes of your students provided me with countless moments of appreciation for our school and our community.

In stark contrast to the vibrancy of each school day at Prospect Sierra, the world around us has been through a devastating time. In the last few weeks I have felt overwhelmed by the devastation, violence, and natural disasters that have hit our country and very close to home. We have wanted to do our part to engage students in conversations about the hurricanes, Las Vegas, and fires, while also protecting young students from developmentally inappropriate information and making sure that they feel safe and hopeful. This is not always an easy task. Below are resources that you may find helpful as your children continue to process difficult news. Please remember that feeling sad builds empathy, and empathy leads to action. It is okay for children to feel sad, as long as you remind them that they are safe. Being industrious and taking action can also build students’ agency and hope. 

Finally, one way I process overwhelming emotions is to write. In 2005 I moved to New Orleans, just weeks before Hurricane Katrina. I evacuated to Houston temporarily and three weeks after that had to evacuate again to Dallas because of Hurricane Rita. To say that I experienced loss, confusion, and instability is an understatement. Surprisingly however, as I wrote, I gained a sense of perspective that was profound and continues to support me through difficult times. You are welcome to read the essay that I wrote below, which was originally published in The Houston Chronicle and is now being used in a school writing curriculum and textbook. I believe that stories bring us together as a community, and we are all in need of community in times like these. I hope you will find some connection to my story below, especially if you have experienced loss or instability recently. My heart goes out to all who have been affected by recent disasters and tragedies. If you have been through a trying time, I hope you will feel comfortable sharing stories and being cared for by our community.

Published as “Vietnam Revisited: “I Was a Refugee Long Before Katrina” in The Houston Chronicle, October 16, 2005

Recently, I’ve found myself struggling to describe where I come from. I have lived in Houston for just over a month, since the day my husband and I left New Orleans with our son and dog, two days before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.

As New Orleans was destroyed before our eyes, I wept for all those who lost their homes and their lives. As sympathetic friends and family called me, begging to help, however, I found it difficult to feel too sorry for myself. Losing my home is not the most momentous thing to ever happen to me. I don’t consider myself a victim of Katrina. I lost my home long before the winds and high waters swept over New Orleans.

I am a refugee from Vietnam, not New Orleans. Thirty years ago, my mother left Vietnam with her six children, carrying little else but a valise packed with sepia-toned photographs and a heart full of courage and faith. My father was in prison, and my mother had to make the decision to leave without him in order to save her children from re-education camps or death. She was headed for America, where she didn’t speak the language, didn’t know anything about the culture, and knew no one.

In 1975, when we came to the States, we were refugees. We huddled together at Camp Pendleton in California, until we were sent to Alexandria, Virginia, where a Roman Catholic church had offered us sponsorship.

Shortly after we arrived in America, we learned of my father’s miraculous escape from Vietnam, just hours before the fall of Saigon. With incredible fortune guiding him, my father made the perilous journey from the South China Sea, and eventually to a camp in Pennsylvania, where a U.S. soldier gave him the bus fare to meet his family.

We were very fortunate. Yet, we started with nothing. The church found us housing, but my parents did not have jobs; we had no clothing and no toys. We learned English from scratch, and tried to create a home for ourselves in our new country. We folded paper to make toys and taught ourselves to read. We wore whatever the church parishioners donated to us and had no idea what was fashionable, which in a way gave us some freedom. We were different, but we didn’t try too hard to fit in. And most importantly, we didn’t try to recreate our old lives, the lives we had known in Vietnam.

After their narrow escapes from Vietnam, my parents managed to confront the most daunting task of all—to raise their children in a foreign land.  My parents held full-time jobs, worked overtime and modeled for all of us that perseverance borne out of extreme hardship.  What amazes me most about my parents is that they accepted right away that their stay in America was not temporary. They would never return home.

I, on the other hand, could not help but find my way back to the place where I was born, some 25 years after I had left Saigon. When I arrived, however, I found myself very much a foreigner.  I dressed, walked, and talked differently.

Some locals spoke to me doubtfully in Vietnamese, but I could see on their faces that they didn’t expect me to understand them. I sought out my parents’ former home in Saigon, and snapped some pictures. Later, I found out that I had never actually lived there.  In my search for home, I only found myself to be a stranger.

When I hear from others affected by Hurricane Katrina that they are mourning the loss of their childhood home, or the home that belonged to their family for generations, I feel great sympathy for them. In a strange way, I also feel envious that they have such a clear image of what was their home. After all of these evacuations and refugee experiences, the only thing I’m sure of is that I can’t call any place home. My home no longer exists as a picture in my mind, or as a warm memory embedded in my soul. I don’t have a home.

Yet, I didn’t lose my home to Katrina.  In fact, I have lost nothing. I have only gained. I have gained perspective. I have gained a deep sense of gratitude for all those who have reached out to me and my family 30 years ago and today. I have gained a powerful resiliency and, most importantly, an appreciation for the grace that I have experienced in my life.

My one-year-old son talks a lot, but up until last week, had never completed a coherent full sentence. All of a sudden, a few days ago, he said, “I love you.”

I don’t know how my journey has led me to this place—America, Houston, in a grocery store parking lot with my son and hearing his first full sentence. But I do know that feeling the comfort of home is not what’s most important.

I suppose I will always be searching for my home, but I am also certain that I will never find it. And I hope I never do. The journey, as difficult and tiring as it can be, is worth it.

“How Teachers And Schools Can Help When Bad Stuff Happens,” Anya Kamenetz, KQED Mindshift
“Explaining the News to Our Kids,” Common Sense Media

Changemakers In Our Midst

Around this time every year, I’m reminded of my first holiday season in the United States, when I was barely four years old. As recent refugees, my family had settled in the Washington, D.C. area in the spring of 1975, barely escaping the fall of Saigon and its aftermath. As the holidays approached, the weather grew cold. I recall that I was aware of the spirit of giving that surrounds this season, but that I also didn’t make a wish list or even have an expectations of gifts. There wasn’t money for that.

Then one evening in late December a church volunteer, dressed in red, came over and handed out gifts to everyone in my large family. Mine was a puffy red coat with snowflakes on it and matching red mittens. I was so excited to put it on, a coat much warmer than any I had owned, and felt fully embraced by the kindness of people in the new country that would become my home.

Thus began my journey to find ways to serve others, and especially to provide for every child the sense of safety and care that I had felt as an early immigrant to this country. This is why being at Prospect Sierra has been such an inspiration to me.

At our most recent PSPA coffee, convened by Director of Diversity & Inclusion Britt Anderson and PSPA President Jennie Watson-Lamprey, we heard from people in our community who have been taking action, showing compassion, and living Prospect Sierra’s values. One was Lilah Kendall, whose family has welcomed a Syrian refugee family into their home for a year. Another was Sandra Collins, whose daughter Scarlett taught her how to create safe spaces for transgender children in the Bay Area and beyond. And we heard from Madeleine Rogin, kindergarten teacher, who has been engaging our youngest students in conversations about race and Black Lives Matter as part of their changemaker studies. She joins a large number of Prospect Sierra faculty who actively teach about social justice. In all of the above stories of action and changemaking, and the discussion among parents that followed, we could see the remarkable work of role models in our community being changemakers and embodying Prospect Sierra’s mission.

In December we also heard from our brave third graders who volunteered on their own time to be activists in support of the Standing Rock Reservation. After having learned about Native Americans in their humanities curriculum, one student presented an oral project about her aunt’s involvement in providing much-needed resources to water protesters blocking the Dakota Access Pipeline construction, and camping in harsh conditions. Our students jumped at the chance to make a difference and they put together an impressive lesson that they shared at Tapscott Monday Morning Meeting. Besides building awareness for their peers of this current event, the third graders have begun to see the impact they can make as changemakers, however young or small they are.

If you’re interested in getting involved in some of the changemaker actions that have been mentioned above, I’ve listed the resources provided to us by those individuals who have taken action below.

Finally, if your entire family is compelled to do something, please join us for All Together Now on Sunday, January 29. We will gather at Tapscott at 11:45 a.m. for a potluck lunch and then go out into our community to engage in service until 3 p.m. Stay tuned for more details in January, or contact Britt Anderson at banderson@prospectsierra.org if you’d like to help.

When one person shows support and compassion for another, an entire community is lifted. These are just a few examples of changemakers in our midst who have inspired us to continue to take action and to find ways to further Prospect Sierra’s core values of respect, fairness, compassion, diversity, and service. During this season, consider those who have less and provide support with small and large actions. As Gandhi said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” The academic program at Prospect Sierra provides students the content knowledge, critical thinking skills, and a deep understanding of human emotions to support them as they go forth to gently shake the world and make it better.

Syrian refugees

  • Jewish Family and Community Service-East Bay: “Promotes the wellbeing of individuals and families by providing essential mental health and social services through every stage of life.”
  • International Rescue Committee (IRC): The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and helps people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover, and gain control of their future.

Building resiliency skills for gender nonconforming and transgender kids

  • Bay Area Rainbow Day Camp is the first day camp for gender nonconforming and transgender kids and is hosted at Prospect Sierra by the nonprofit EnGender, led by Prospect Sierra parent and trustee, Sandra Collins.
  • Gender Spectrum is a great resource for everyone interested in challenging the gender binary and creating gender inclusivity for everyone.

Racial justice

#No DAPL- protecting the water on the Standing Rock reservation

  • Oceti Sakowin Camp: Oceti Sakowin Camp is a unified encampment of water protectors dedicated to protecting our land and water against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
  • Standing Rock: The Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council is a governing body empowered by the SRST Constitution committed to promoting an environment for the self-sufficiency of all tribal members.
  • Indian Country Media Network