2013 Caring For Children Awards Gala: Honoring Our Past, Forging Our Future

By Wun Kuen Ng

The Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF) is an umbrella group of fifty membership organizations, all of which strive to meet the challenges of and better the Asian America community. The CACF played a special role in influencing the policies and agenda of mayoral candidates and City council members, and played an instrumental role in advocating healthcare access for the public as the federal Affordable Care Act was implemented. The gala, held at Tribeca’s Three Sixty° venue on 10 Debrosse Street on November 19 at 6:30 PM, sold out, with tickets issued to over 430 guests in attendance. This year the awards honor three extraordinary community leaders for their dedication to improving the lives of Asian-Pacific American children and families: Beesham A. Seecharan, Managing Director and Associate General Counsel of Goldman, Sachs & Co., Joyce Moy, Executive Director of the Asian American/Asian Research Institute of the City University of New York, Preeti Sriratana, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer at Sweeten.com, Founder of AU, and President and Chairman at Apex for Youth.

Beesham’s speech was dedicated to his mother, Sahifa Seecharan, who passed away yesterday, November 18. Her sweet force of nature and love of her children and family best exemplify the highest values she held in how she lived. She was a great influence in Beesham’s life and passed along those values of caring for one’s children and family. He felt honored to receive the award and have his mother see him receive it from the best seat in the house. His parent’s affection, attention, and network of extended family members, neighbors, public library staff, teachers, bosses, mentors, and friends guided him on his path to success. Despite starting from humble roots at Castle Hill, he aimed high and achieved, influenced by his father’s motto, “Simple living, high thinking.” As for the future, he best summed it up by something a young girl in India said in response to a question, “If you are a comic book hero, what superpower would you want?” The little girl responded, “the power to see into people’s hearts and make their dreams come true.” Seecharan believed that we all have superpowers within our control, that we all readily are able “to help a child look into their own heart and give them the tools to make their dreams come true,” through volunteering, mentoring, and supporting those on the frontline. There is no better time to start than today.

Beesham A. Seecharan was born in Brooklyn of immigrant parents from Trinidad & Tobago. While a student of Columbia Law, he volunteered to tutor students at Jackson Heights every Saturday morning with South Asian Youth Action, and, in effect, has been tutoring youths for fifteen years. He later became a member of the SAYA Board of Directors and reported on the status of Asian Americans in New York City. The tutoring program has since expanded to Brooklyn and the Bronx. On the Steering Committee for the Asian Professional Network at Goldman Sachs, he and his colleagues volunteered one day to provide a workshop on college and career preparedness. The number of students that attend the workshops increase every time, as does their maturity and presentation skills. The program has been extended from K-12. Having the option to make his home anywhere in the world, Seecharan chooses to make his home in Jackson Heights, in order to better connect to his community and stay grounded.

In Joyce Moy’s speech, she spoke about history: the history of exclusion, hardship, and the difficulties of our ancestors. What drove her great-grandfather to come to America where he had no voice and was unable to speak English was an obligation to build a better future for his children. Four generations later, she is here because of his dream. A parent of two adult daughters, she guided them when they were younger and now has learned to listen to them as adults. Moy stressed the importance of teaching children to carry on the values of previous generations while looking forward. At the end of the speech, she stated that she is a serious person and apologized that she was not so funny, making the audience laugh.

Moy’s research at AAARI provides valuable data on the Asian American community, allowing professors, community leaders, and the like to apply for grants and funds to help community-based projects that deal with issues such as health, the need for domestic violence programs, cracking the bamboo ceiling, children suffering from bullying and more. Legislators and policymakers need to be educated on the needs of the Asian American community, and thus, presented the report, Asian Pacific New Yorkers Count: Awareness to Action. Asian Americans make up 14% of New York City, but only receive 3% of all city funding. The Asian American population has also changed in the past twenty years; it includes a higher count of Koreans and Southeast Asian immigrants. Seventy-three to seventy-eight percent are foreign-born. According to the report done in 2010, more than 6% of seniors are likely poor and more than 95% are foreign-born, do not speak English, or know the public transportation system enough to venture out of the community. Moy’s commitment to her work and to the Asian American community stems from the need for inclusion and being heard. Her great-grandfather came to the United States in the 1880s, but was not allowed to be an American citizen, which meant he had absolutely no voting power. The same thing happened to her grandfather, and father. This resulted in stunted political growth in the Asian American community. Those who are not welcomed, or included, do not bother to stay. There is a need to connect with the non-speaking constituents, negotiate the system, be more engaged and demand recognition and change.

Moy felt that the CACF is a strong organization with goals and a focus on facilitating movement. It has professional leadership and a systemic way to organize, legislate, and negotiate the governmental policies and system.

Preeti Sriratana received the call about the award from Wayne Ho on his last day as Executive Director at CACF. Sriratana felt honored but could not accept it until he talked to the new executive director, Karen Kithan Yau. He was not sure if he could live up to the award and wanted to make sure the CACF had the right person. Three weeks later, he accepted the honor.

During his speech, Sriratana mentioned that the last time he had an award was from high school: not for math, science, or any of the academic subjects, but for perfect attendance. His parents, both busy doctors, told him afterwards to never waste their time like that again. To navigate the hurdles in his life, he had many incredible mentors that helped him. He believed that if you transform a child, you transform the family and the community: “There is so much to do for the children and community; only you can make a difference.”

Growing up in Normal, Illinois, Sriratana could identify with many of the issues the students he tutored at Apex for Youth went through. He, too, was a child of immigrant parents from Thailand, first-born, went through the public school system, and had to take care of his two siblings because his parents were overly involved with their careers. Teachers in Illinois did not know what to do with him. Not college ready, he was kicked out after the first semester, failing four out of five classes. His parents were so upset that instead of yelling at him, they just walked away from him upon hearing the news. Along the way, he encountered great mentors that helped him focus, and he got back on track. He went on to earn his B.A. in Architectural Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, his Master’s of Public Affairs at Harvard, and his Master’s in Architecture at Columbia University. His grandmother was also a dominant force in his life, always reminding him that other people have it worse than he did, so to help them. He became a Board of Directors of Apex for Youth five years ago, then became Chairman in 2010. He used the leverage he had within a personal network of friends, family and acquaintances to help increase donations to support six full-time staff members. Under his leadership, the tutoring services went from 80 students to 500 students per year, serving the Chinatown and Lower East Side schools, and the fundraising went from $1,000 to an amazing one million dollars. New mentoring program were established, such as the Big Sister/Big Brother program. In 2011, a charter school in Elmhurst was created. The goal of Apex is to prepare the students to be confident and college-ready. Because of his background in architecture, he introduced architecture and design into the curriculum in addition to math and science. There are tours to Chinatown, Bowery, and Lower East Side explaining why and how neighborhoods change, with the intended goal of educating children to be sensitive to their environment—its needs, scale, use and residential space. “Unprecedented,” a word he uses a lot, seems to be a call to action, a personal message urging others to join in and act upon the momentum these organizations have accumulated.

Speaking with some of the high school students from the Asian American Student Advocacy Project in association with CACF, many deeply appreciate the mentoring, opportunities to network, and the connection to the Asian American community through understanding and knowing the issues: lack of visibility and funding. Through leadership programs, weekly meetings, and Campaign Bridge’s ability connect them with counselors, the students feel more college ready. Xin Ting Liao, who has only been in the United States for three years has parents who do not speak English and would not be able to help her with the college application process; she found ASSAP, which provided the guidance and support for her to take the next step. Sharelle Quizon, another high school student, was exposed to and so deeply moved during her participation at ASSAP by a manual on Asian suicide entitled “A Letter to My Sister”, by Lisa Park, that she felt compelled to share it with as many people as possible. Aristotle Leung’s time at AASAP helped him solidify his identity as an Asian American; having left New Jersey at the age of five, and growing up in the international school system in Hong Kong, Leung learned at AASAP about the issues the Asian American community faced. It inspired a career in politics with dreams of getting into Middlebury College. From an introverted high school freshman to one giving a speech at an award dinner, Tasmin Rahman is a living testimony to the idea that mentoring works. By joining the AASAP program, she is inspired to do advocacy work, and carries the lesson that no matter how difficult things become, one should always reach for the primary goal.

Special Guest Chris Atwood had the difficult task of rallying the dinner guests into raising $50,000 dollars. There was an anonymous donation of $5,000 to start him off, prompting him to ask the other dinner guests to begin donating at the level of $5,000. Jose Shu raised his hand, spurring the audience into reaching its goal. As the evening progressed, the levels tapered off, from $2,500, to $1,000, to $500, to $250, and finally to $100. There was a moment when Atwood was sweating and warned his audience that they would be subjected to his bad singing if there were not more donations. The youngest donor was Alexa Miller who gave $100. Atwood guessed that she saved up her allowance money for a good cause. Just as CACF was $850 away from reaching its goal, one dinner guest volunteered to make up the difference if Atwood would stop talking. Although Atwood had never have been told that, he took it in stride and knew that the applause was for the funding goal being accomplished and not for his departure.

The newly anointed Board member Rebecca Alexander came on board as advocate for education and opportunities. Throughout her ten-year journey in China, in which she became fluent in Mandarin, Alexander saw that the American dream was being made possible in America but not in China. She advocates education and providing opportunities. Jessie Harlin, a Board member for a year and a half, pointed out how often immigrant parents have to rely on their children to translate, and maneuver through the system. There are currently over forty Benefit members—the Board makes a point of diversifying its members, recruiting from all sectors of the industry.

The Gala was attended by a diverse group of people. There was a table for Goldman Sachs employees who came out to support one of their own honorees, a table with lawyers from the Attorney General’s office, corporate sponsors like Western Union had a table for its employees and employees working with the Mexican community at Yonkers, with the Dominican Republic community at Washington Heights, and other sectors. All gathered and enjoyed an evening with a plethora of delicious appetizers, ranging from Peking duck rolls, to tuna roll on rice crackers and scallops, and a swanky dinner of roast chicken, ending with a dessert of pie a la mode, cookies, and chocolate-covered strawberries.

Some thought the pacing of the evening could have been better. Too many speeches were lumped together in a row with an insufficient break in-between to properly speak to the dinner guests at different tables. The table seating could have also included students to gain their perspectives. Since some came as a guest of a friend, they were not sure what the mission of CACF was and hoped to hear definitive goals and accomplishments of the organization and stories from the students. Nevertheless, the CACF Gala sold out; there was not even a press table.

Currently, CACF is under the leadership of Karen Kithan Yau since June 2013. Trained as a lawyer, she brings with her a set of professional skills in critical thinking, analysis, and advocacy work to meet the challenges of running a large non-profit like CACF. Through her position, she juggles the macro issues of having a transformative vision for the community and the micro issues of prioritizing time and meeting many demands of multiple stakeholders. With a clear understanding of what the law can and cannot do, and what the system can and cannot do, she cannot fall into a lawyer’s narrow mindset, relying also on nontraditional approaches to find the solution. A child of garment factory workers, she transitioned into the non-profit sector to arrive at the CACF because she believed in its mission and her personal values. She is passionate about her work and believes the work she does affects people like her. The five-year vision she has for CACF is to expand education, healthcare access, and language education into the services of CACF, elevating the conversation to engage more on the national level.

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