We’re All In This Together: The Wah Mei School Community Hub at Sunset Branch Library

By Stephan Koochou

My name is Stephan Koochou and I am a Program Manager at Wah Mei School, currently managing the Sunset Library Community Hub. My role consists of many things but primarily focuses on supporting staff to ensure they have all the tools they need to run a successful classroom. My goal is to make sure each participant in our program is receiving the highest quality care and an overall great experience throughout their time here.

In “regular” times, I am the Program Manager for Wah Mei’s before and after school program at Alice Fong Yu Alternative School. We are very grateful to have been able to start up two Community Hubs in the Sunset in partnership with DCYF, Sunset Youth Services, and Bay Area Community Resources. This has been a large community effort to make sure families in the west side of the city have the support they need.

2/16/21 open date; 5 staff; 23 youth enrolled; 674 meals served

A Day at the Hub

At 8:30am, our doors open and we wait for families to arrive. Upon arrival, students generally have at least 30 minutes to unwind and enjoy breakfast before their first zoom class begins at 9am. Many of our students come from different schools, which means they login to classes at different times throughout the day. Between 9am-2pm, students are either on their zoom classes, having lunch, or working on assignments in between. Our “after school” time begins shortly after 2pm, which allows us to focus on project-based activities along with outdoor activities. Since we’re about a 5-minute walk from Golden Gate Park, we take advantage of this opportunity and walk our students over daily for some fun structured outdoor play time as well as outdoor free play for our students.

San Francisco Public Libraries have been very supportive of our program and we are very grateful that they allowed us to use their space in order to serve families in our community. As a result, we are able to connect with students and support each one in ways that we otherwise couldn’t during this pandemic. With the permission of the library staff, we were able to convert some of the sections of the library to make it feel more like a traditional classroom that students are used to being in. At our Hub, that means our 3rd through 6th graders are in a classroom that is normally the library’s computer stations and teen section. Our kindergarten through 2nd grader’s classroom is normally the children’s section of the library. We even converted the library activity space into a makeshift kitchen and office.

We have created an environment which allows students to feel a sense of “normalcy” that they haven’t experienced in a long time. Our Hub did not open until mid-February, so by the time students joined our Hub, they had already been home for nearly a year. Some of our students had kept up with their distance learning at home, some students were very far behind and needed a great deal of support to catch up. They all craved interaction with their peers that had been sorely missed. This pandemic has impacted all of us one way or another, and we understand the importance of providing a place where students can socialize and participate in various activities together. It is through these daily interactions and team building activities that enable us to connect more and learn more about each participant. In just two months, we have built strong relationships with students, parents, and staff, which has helped create a sense of community for everybody.

The stay-at-home orders and school shutdowns have been very difficult for students to navigate through. When our Community Hubs opened in February, we had almost reached the one-year mark since the first initial shut down back in March 2020. Our students have expressed how much they miss the simple things such as being able to interact with each other and play outside. We have made sure to design our curriculum where each participant has that opportunity to spend time and engage in the very activities they have missed. From helping students with their assignments, singing in front of the class (as they make fun of my voice), to hiking around Golden Gate Park, we’ve shared some enjoyable experiences together that we all needed.

When my team and I initially came on to run the program, I had no idea what to expect as this was new to many of us. I remember I would always mention to them all, “we are all in this together” to let each one know that we are here to support one another in order to run a successful program. By creating an environment where staff feel confident and supported, I knew great things would follow. The first few weeks we primarily focused on learning the programs each student was using for distance learning and becoming familiar with the areas that were challenging for them. During this time, we also had to learn every student’s Zoom schedule and set alarm reminders on our phones to make sure everybody was in attendance. Once we familiarized ourselves with everything and got the routine down, we were able to fully support each student. With this collaborative effort, we were able to achieve our goal in providing high quality care to all participants. I am overall very pleased with the exceptional work my staff has done in such a short time. The system they created and put in place has allowed our Hubs to thrive in many ways.

It is difficult to say whether San Francisco is a great place to grow up right now. There is no doubt that many families have struggled through distance learning this year. Many families live in small, cramped housing with multiple generations under one roof. San Francisco is incredibly expensive for families and unfortunately children often feel the impact of their families being financially strapped. On the other hand, there are so many resources available in San Francisco to support these families. Community based organizations (CBOs) have worked tirelessly to provide lifelines to families through Community Hubs, wellness checks, food programs, and more throughout the pandemic. The City funding programs for families is crucial to many families’ survival here. While schools were shut down for most of the school year, the generous funding allowed many CBOs (including my agency) to quickly hire and train staff and secure a location where we can bring families in who needed support. The amount of gratitude we have received from parents and guardians during this pandemic has been very rewarding and fulfilling. This would not have been possible without the help of the City.

DCYF Executive Director Maria Su, District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar, & City Librarian Michael Lambert visit the Sunset Library Hub.

At this point in the school year, my staff and I are focusing on helping many students transition back to in-person learning at the elementary schools. We are also planning for our summer programs — we are so excited to be able to offer free summer programming to SFUSD students through the Summer Together initiative. Most of all, we look forward to the day that Community Hubs in their current form are not needed and that all students can resume learning in an environment with their teachers and classmates, especially knowing that many students who are not in a Community Hub or other in-person program continue to struggle with distance learning and isolation from their peers.

I want our youth to understand that in life there will be times where things might not go as planned, but we must not lose hope and direction. It’s during these challenging times where we start to learn and discover more about ourselves and should be proud of how far we have come. If you can overcome this pandemic, I believe that you can also overcome other challenges that may present themselves later on as well.

Stephan, as we struggle and grind through the pandemic, what song motivates you to continue to serve our communities?

Macklemore, “Glorious”

To learn more about DCYF’s Community Hub Initiative, visit dcyf.org/care

Making San Francisco a great place to grow up, DCYF has led the City's investments in children, youth, TAY and their families since 1991. www.dcyf.org