We Are the City Spotlight on Donaldina Cameron House
By Lauren Mark, OST Programs Director/Heritage School Principal at Donaldina Cameron House
For more than three generations, Donaldina Cameron House has empowered the San Francisco Chinese community and continues to serve the changing needs of children, youth and families. We provide a welcoming and safe place where young people have fun and build positive friendships while developing the skills, confidence and social network to become effective leaders in their community. Our Board of Directors recently adopted a new agency strategy roadmap where we will look at family-centered programs to more impactfully build strength and resilience in the lives of San Francisco Chinese children, youth and families.
This school year in our OST program, we started a new Family Engagement Initiative, where we have a tri-lingual Family Engagement Counselor who helps cultivate relationships with our families and build stronger bonds of trust between our parents and our staff.
We also take quarterly excursions with our families. Many of them live in SROs; they have had to deal with death, lost jobs, or struggled to make ends meet during the pandemic. Our family outings have been a means to provide our families with a day of fun and “normalcy.” Our first family event to the Aquarium of the Bay in November 2021 had a turnout of over 100 students and family members (more than we had expected). Then in March 2022, about 90 students and their families attended a Santa Cruz Warriors basketball game together at the Chase Center, which in turn, inspired many of our students to start playing basketball in our yard. In early May, we headed to Sonoma Train Town with 100 of our students and their families. Our families have welcomed this new Family Engagement initiative with open arms, bigger smiles and healing hearts.
In January, we registered as a Heritage School under the Department of Education. Cameron House celebrates and integrates Chinese culture and traditions into our OST curriculum. Our Bilingual Afterschool Program (BAP) staff and students practice taiji to start off our program each day. We use these techniques to calm minds, ease worries, and center ourselves in preparation for the rest of our afternoon together. During our Summer Adventures program, we’re excited to engage the youth in Chinese dragon dancing, lion dancing, martial arts, Kitchen Medicine, arts and crafts, and Chinese and Chinese American history and storytelling.
In November 2020, we opened our Cameron House doors for the first time after more than seven months of sheltering in place to accommodate 10 students in our Community Hub. Our small staff of four understood the COVID risks at that time and courageously (yet cautiously) embarked on a journey into the unknown together. We were all experienced youth workers, but not necessarily trained in education (or knowledgeable in assisting with distance learning or technical assistance). We didn’t know what we now know about COVID, how transmissible it was back then, and whether this new concept of a community hub would even be a success.
Our small crew did our best to assist our students through their distance learning classes all day everyday; we managed meltdowns and adamant refusals to participate in their virtual classes; we sat next to our students to hear what their teachers were saying via Zoom; we played with and socialized with them during non-class times; we fed them several meals a day; we even needed to provide nap time for a few of the younger students. But because the whole purpose of the community hub was to assist and support students who were struggling with distance learning the most, we quickly realized that although there were only 10 students, we needed a lot more help! Our students ranged from those who just needed minor academic support, to English Language Learners, to students with severe behavioral and special needs that required one-to-one, specialized help. So we grew our staff to six and still found the full-time work to be extremely challenging each day. In the end, we learned so much about ourselves, our resiliency, and our ability to adapt to any situation thrown our way.
We learned from this adaptability when it was time to venture into our summer program in June 2021, where we served over 60 elementary, middle, and high school students in a six-week program. That is how we have gotten through the toughest time of the pandemic, where lots of things were unknown. Our committed staff of experienced youth workers took calculated risks, continued to follow health and safety protocols (even when mandates were lifted), and were always willing to go the extra mile to support the students and families in our community who are the most in need. This is our commitment to our community, and this purposeful mission has been the driving force in how we’ve been able to be successful through such tough times. We’re excited that we will be growing our upcoming 2022 summer program to serve 90 students.
Cameron House believes that San Francisco is a great place to grow up! Even during the pandemic, San Francisco was ahead of the curve in terms of sheltering in place, masking, social distancing, and then getting people vaccinated quickly. There are also so many wonderful fun and historical things to do and see around the city, where our students could explore and learn with their families when they were not in school. I was also very proud that the 80+ community based organizations (CBOs) all around San Francisco were used as a model for the nation on how to safely and successfully run community hubs, where we guided struggling students through distance learning without a single COVID outbreak! San Francisco is such a unique city with a deep history, iconic landmarks, progressive and forward thinking community members, and many people who care about the collective success of our communities.
To help children, youth, and families thrive, I think that the City could provide more funding for non-profit agencies/CBOs to hire qualified and trained “Community Educators.” In the past several years, especially during the pandemic, schools and families have come to really trust the dedication and competencies of their local community centers and the staff with whom they leave their children with each day. Out of School Time programs at these CBOs provide academic, SEL, physical, and arts education through our daily enrichment activities and often go above and beyond to build relationships with our students and their adult caregivers. DCYF can continue to help the City and school district recognize the value of OST programs and their staff and support ways for more effective communications and partnerships among the children and youth ecosystem of family, school and CBO.
Cameron House has a deep and rich history. From Ms. Donaldina Cameron saving over 2,000 Chinese women and children in the early 1900s to now, the unwavering mission of Cameron House has been to serve the people in our community by meeting individuals where they are. We can’t predict the unique situations of our clients who come through our doors, what they have gone through, and what they are feeling. Oftentimes our newer staff have never personally experienced these issues or situations. It is with empathy and a true commitment and passion for working with youth and their families that we are able to take on these challenges head on together. We also build capacity in the youth enrolled in our programs and we do this through our youth leadership development program. This leadership training has been an additional driving force in many of our youth programs, where our goal is to train our young people into becoming future leaders in their fields, schools, churches, and ultimately in the communities where they end up later in life. Our love, dedication, and ability of our staff to know the needs of our neighbors and the generations of Cameron House support to do this work has contributed the most to our organization’s success.