Shortly after 9 a.m. on Saturday, January 22, the sidewalk at Alice Birney Elementary School in Eureka is lined with boxes of food: sweet rice, fish sauce, leeks, eggs, and tied bags of greens. Sacks of rice are stacked on a pallet and crates of Mama noodles pile up shoulder-deep near the fence. A dozen volunteers check the lists, count the parcels and prepare to transport the food in the trunks of the cars.
Thavisak “Lucky” Syphanthong is, unsurprisingly, live on Facebook, smiling as he turns his phone to film the scene and recount the effort. The food distribution of the day, which involves providing culturally appropriate staple foods to some 60 local Lao and Hmong households, is a joint project between the NorCal Lao Foundation, the New Rising Hmong Association, the Redwood Coast Regional Center and Food for People.
This is the second food distribution of the Nor Cal Lao Foundation. The first was in May 2020 with funding from the Humboldt Area Foundation (“Rice Sacks and Blessings,” May 7, 2020). This time the group was approached by Jennifer Garcia of the Redwood Coast Regional Center, who had done a similar operation in Del Norte County with the Hmong Cultural Center and offered the foundation $3,000 to help buy music. food. “They have services that don’t reach our community,” says NorCal Lao Foundation board member Syphanthong, who says language can be a barrier to help and information, especially for the elders of these communities.
“We look out for each other a bit, especially our elders,” she says, explaining that sometimes that means calling or Facetiming with their adult children to share information about COVID-19 safety so they can translate for their parents. Otherwise, little official information reaches them in their native language beyond what they find on YouTube and from abroad, which is not necessarily reliable.
“It’s all word of mouth,” says board member Ampha Mannorind. This can make it difficult for outside organizations to connect with Lao and Hmong communities. “I reached out to families, mostly the elderly,” most of whom were already on his list during the previous distribution. Just then, an older couple gets out of a car and she runs to translate for them.
Instead, Syphanthong continues: “We have identified the most needy families. The New Rising Hmong took care of the Hmong side and NorCal Lao took care of the Lao side. … The new generation, we work together.
Mai Cheng and Yanli Yang, who founded New Rising Hmong with Christina Vang last year, also translate and check off surnames on their lists. “Our goal is to reach out to the Hmong community and provide them with health resources,” says Yang. So far this has included bilingual announcements, translations on Zoom and a program on domestic violence in October 2021. They have brought bags with health information in the Hmong language to distribute with the food.
Getting the food amid supply chain shortages and price increases (the cost of a basic bottle of fish sauce has risen to $9.99) has presented its own issues, mirroring some of the same issues. that local families face in obtaining food. Volunteers ordered items weeks in advance and bought as many as they could from local stores, including Little Japan, Asia’s Best, Oriental Food and Spices and Lao Oriental Market. Still out of rice, Pang Lo and her husband Pheej Her went to Costco for the last 30 bags.
“My husband had to push the cart,” Lo laughs as his pantomimes tilt at 45 degrees to move 700 pounds of rice. It’s drawn curious looks around the store, she says, but they’re grateful it all fits in their truck. They are also grateful to be able to distribute from the grounds of Alice Birney Elementary School, where Lo is president of the PTA. Student volunteers were also on hand to help carry bags and boxes.
Garcia also reached out to Food for People, where emergency food response coordinator Robert Sataua organized some 600 pounds of local fresh produce, including eggs, funded by Locally Delicious and another 900 pounds of non-food items. perishables from the pantry. Sataua has worked with Alice Birney Elementary, organizing distributions to get food to those affected by wildfires this year, as well as the Wiyot Tribe and Bear River Band at Rohnerville Rancheria to feed those in need.
“This group is kind of similar,” Sataua says, “in that we didn’t hit them.” Food for People, he adds, is ready to do more with Southeast Asian communities in Humboldt in the future.
Garcia, absent from the event, had sent her greetings through her assistant Dolores Delgado, who set up a tent from the Redwood Coast Regional Center and was handing out information packets. What no one knew at the time was that on the day of the event, Garcia was hit by a car as he was walking and seriously injured. On January 30, her family posted an update on a Gofundme page set up for her recovery stating that she had died from her injuries. A colleague in the RCRC office said a stack of Hmong-language pamphlets that Garcia had ordered arrived shortly after news of his death was announced. She was tracking down the intended recipients to complete Garcia’s task.
On the day of the distribution at Alice Birney, the absence of another woman was keenly felt among some of the volunteers – Oneta Sayavong, who went by Auntha and was one of the founding members and a driving force behind the Foundation NorCal Lao while born to a traditional dance group in a cultural and community preservation organization, had died in March 2021. Already ill during the first food distribution in 2020, her death stunned the close group. It was the first event the members had held since his loss.
“We were so devastated by this,” Syphanthong says, noting how strange it still is without Sayavong, who was so much a part of the community. It was hard to start over, but when Garcia offered to help, he and his close-knit group rallied and got to work. As someone creeps past him to grab boxes of noodles for someone picking up food to deliver to three households, he waves at the boxes and people. “She would want us to do this. She’s all about the community.”
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (her) is the Journal’s Arts and Features Editor. Contact her at 442-1400, ext. 320, or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.