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  • Writer's pictureKathy Chin Leong

Kari Lee

Executive Director YMCA

How would you describe Chinatown’s status nowadays?

It is pretty empty. Before Shelter in Place, it was all about public relations to let people know it was not a Chinese virus. Tourism was impacted already before that. Some restaurants are open with business. Banks are open with lines of people 10 to 15 deep. Agencies running essential services are open. Other than that, nothing else is open. Even doctors’ offices shut down.

What has changed at the YMCA?

Our concern for Chinatown residents is food security. We are doing prepared meals for SRO families on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. We operate now as a food pantry, and we are helping the food bank. The week of SIP, five pantries shut down because they were run by seniors (who have to stay home) and at facilities that had to shut such as churches and school sites. We are trying to help along with Cameron House and now a Presbyterian church.

Can you give us details? How does that work?

We do two days of food pantry, every Monday and Thursday. People who are registered at the food bank get one large or two bags of groceries. The contents are dependent on what is delivered to us. There is always a starch, fruit, and protein which could be eggs or meat. Yesterday it was a slab of pork loin. We have had eggs, chicken, and staples such as carrots, onions, and rice. Yesterday it was lettuce and organic apples. Sometimes we get canned goods. They try to provide all the food groups to keep people healthy. The food comes on palettes, and we sort and bag everything. We have been serving 560 people a week.

Who does the legwork to make this happen?

We are all staff and volunteers. We do a health check and temp check when people come in to help. We have masks and gloves, and we try to keep the distancing. We bag and line things up, it takes us two hours. People have to come to us; we have lines set up and have the distancing in place.

What else is the YMCA providing during the COVID-19 season?

Essential workers need childcare, and we offer that in seven YMCA sites throughout the Bay Area. Some essential workers have no other options; we are following the state rules to have separate spaces for this. We have daily temp and health checks. The parents cannot come in to the space. We bring the children to them. There is thorough cleaning of the basketball court used for childcare; everything is very monitored. Currently in Chinatown, we have four kids, and I feel residents are very cautious. The parents figure out if there is a sibling who will help, they are not going to come out. We can handle only up to 12 kids in a room, and the kids have to space out. We have been open for two weeks; it will build up. This is available, and it is free. This is funded by the city and coordinated by the city. We document everything. First, it was open to healthcare workers, and then it became open to other essential workers and school district staff. We are not in a rush to fill spaces, but we have it all set up.

How has this affected your YMCA youth program?

We have a small program with 18 high school kids. Part of it is a culinary program, so our staff deliver ingredients to kids every two weeks, and they all cook from their homes together. The program includes life skills, workforce readiness, and college trips, but we cannot do that now. They work out together on Zoom. We set up a mentoring program to help students make decisions on college. The kids come from Greater Chinatown, Richmond, and the Sunset.

And what about your Senior Program?

The biggest thing we do for them is the phone calls. We have 5 staff who call our seniors to make sure they have the support and food they need. We were doing this at the beginning, catching individuals who needed to get prescriptions filled and wanted to know how to sign up for the food bank. They needed to understand how to pay their rent and get the right benefits. We were all feeling the same chaos. Now, it has turned into more of maintaining mental health and we chat with them. Everyone needs it. We have 350 seniors participating in our social programs, and 400 other seniors who are members. There are a lot of logistics involved. We try to keep calling weekly. Some are not answering their phones because they don’t recognize the number. The real work in all of this is maintaining one-one-one relationships with everyone.

And you also maintain an afterschool program, correct? How are families coping?

We have 600 kids in the afterschool program. Staff have been calling and talking to their parents to check in with them. These last two weeks the parents have been concerned about their kids’ education. They are really concerned they cannot get Wifi. They finally could get Chromebooks, but it is frustrating they cannot help their kids because of language issues, and it is stressful. We are trying to help parents to learn Zoom. They are lending their kids their cell phones to use the data plans, and, even then, connections are spotty, especially for the SRO families.

In Chinatown, there has always been the issue of no public Wi-Fi. These are all concrete buildings where it is hard to open walls and install wiring; it is really challenging.

How are the kids doing academically?

The kids in Chinatown are falling behind. Principals are trying, and they are frustrated. For grades K-2, there is a district packet, but Chinatown was not included in the distribution, and they didn’t get their packets until a couple of weeks ago. Chinatown was not included in the food distribution to schools, and they were not included for four weeks. These are free district lunches that the kids rely on for their meals. And what about the rest of the residents in Chinatown? What are you hearing?

Parents are worried about their employment. Some ask us to help write letters to delay rent; we are translating letters for them. We tell them they need to notify the landlord and not just avoid paying rent. We help with unemployment claims. Some are getting the checks, and some are waiting. A lot of them are under-the-table workers with work in hotels and restaurants that is just gone. They are part of the underground economy, and they don’t qualify for anything.

I have talked to private doctors who don’t even know how to stay open. They don’t know how to do tele-medicine. The older doctors now have a hard time paying their rent. The retail and essential folks are suffering, too.

We have had to furlough staff, but we are supporting each other. We talk about being a test site, and different leaders in the Asian non-profit community are asking who has resources and asking who needs resources. That is a strength of the Chinese community. There is a lot of resource sharing and the desire to be staying connected together.

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