Donaldina Cameron, daughter of a Scottish sheep farmer, tended little sheep of her own in the innocuous, red brick building on 920 Sacramento Street. These innocent “sheep” were young Chinese women and girls Miss Cameron and her team rescued from sex trafficking and domestic slavery in the bowels of Chinatown. As superintendent of the Occidental Mission Home for Girls, founded in 1874, she was a relentless crusader who often worked with police on brothel raids and opened the doors to girls who ran away from their masters.
Later renamed the Donaldina Cameron House, throughout the years the five-story sanctuary sheltered as many as 3,000 women and girls who were introduced to the Christian faith and taught life skills. Bessie Jeong, who fled to Cameron House as a teenager in 1916, became the first Chinese woman to graduate from Stanford University. By the early 1930s, she would become one of the first female Chinese American doctors in U.S. history.
This same decade the mission of Cameron House would be shifting, for the number of girls needing saving was dwindling. This was good news. However, families suffered as racism pummeled the community, and domestic abuse hit crisis levels. In response, Cameron house expanded its vision and offered faith-based programs for children and youth, and counseling and social services for women and families.
Today, Cameron House is a lifeline for more than 1,000 low-income residents. Programs such as Chinese cancer support groups, food pantry services, computer classes, family counseling, and parenting workshops are vital to the community.
A mural in the entryway spans the wall, showing poignant scenes of Cameron House’s extensive history including images of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake with Miss Cameron escaping with the children, families arriving to the United States after the Chinese Exclusion Act is repealed, youth volunteering in service activities, and a man being shown the way of the cross.
The impact on young lives has been immeasurable as staff empower kids during weekly clubs, summer camps, and sports ministries. Laurene Chan’s parents met at Cameron House as teenagers. Later, she attended the camps as a child. Today, she has come full circle, working as the director of its youth ministries. She has witnessed socially-isolated children blossom with confidence. Says Laurene, “I see miracles of transformation every day. When I can, I tell each of them, ‘You are a person of great value.’
Reflecting on his youth at the social services center, Martin Ko remarks, “My leadership training definitely started at Cameron House.” Martin, now a new business manager at Alibaba, spent summers there as a day camper while his parents worked. By the time he entered high school, he and the other teens led the program under the supervision of youth directors.
“We had a planning meeting every week to organize activities and determine where to go. We planned out the supplies we needed and the bus routes to take. We even counted the number of plastic bags,” he recalls. “We were doing planning logistics, and we didn’t even know it. We had to make sure everyone stayed on track, from leading games to making sure the kids all washed their hands. It was exhausting, but it was a great time spent with friends.”