Five minutes from “Little Saigon” in San Jose, CA, just past the Pipe Dream Court and McLaughlin Avenue intersection, is the remarkable city-owned and Catholic Charities-run Educare Center.
On Friday, February 2, during early childhood student pickup time, Catholic Charities of Santa Clara hosted a Lunar New Year celebration for the Santee neighborhood community at the Center.
Two hundred people from multigenerational families and communities gathered to exchange red envelopes, play the dice game bầu cua, cut and color the year of the dragon headbands, eat Vietnamese foods, and delight in remarkable dragon dances from local youth.
Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, one of 30 sites for the inaugural year of the Team Up Project, identified the need to build relationships between the Vietnamese and Hispanic families who live in the sixteen blocks of the Santee neighborhood.
The families served by the Educare program are evenly split demographically between Vietnamese and Hispanic. The Educare building on Santee Blvd is the geographic dividing line between these communities.
Sixteen years earlier, the city injuncted the neighborhood due to high rates of poverty and violence. In the process of investing in the neighborhood over several years, Catholic Charities Santa Clara (CC Santa Clara), Educare California, HeadStart, the Department of Education of Santa Clara County and Franklin-McKinley School District have built a remarkable set of buildings and programs for the community. The playground in front of the Center offers the only green space in the neighborhood, and the community center on the property provides grocery pickup within a food desert.
The Lunar New Year celebration (known as Tết amongst Vietnamese communities) took place between 2:30 and 4:30 p.m. on Friday, one week before the start of the holiday.
The program ran during the typical pickup window for children from Educare. When families registered on-site, they were given red envelopes and could earn tickets for multiple raffle prizes by participating in the many educational activities throughout the halls. Vietnamese and Hispanic staff from Catholic Charities and their partners co-staffed tables to enable accessible communication, education, and fun for everyone who participated.
Just under half of the 200 participants were Hispanic. Maria, a community member who lives in the neighborhood, has a middle school son who had previously attended Educare. She received a flier about the event and came to learn and support it, though this was her first time participating in a Tết event. Maria’s mother won a Cuisinart kitchen utensil, and her teenage son won a Lego set as a prize in the drawings during the event.
Marisol, a member of Project Hope with San Jose City, and former staff member of CC Santa Clara was enthusiastic about the celebration.
“Isn’t it cool, introducing people to the foods and celebrations they may not have experienced before?” she shared, pulling back the aluminum tops of trays full of eggrolls and fried rice. Theresa, a promotora (a typically Hispanic or Latino community member who receives special training to provide care and support for the community) from the nearby Washington neighborhood, brought a friend to support and learn from this model in Santee.
This program was not easy to implement, but it came together within a couple of weeks when Vietnamese parents were invited to share in the planning.
“We learned so much,” said Rosalia Estrada, a program manager for organizing and community outreach at CC Santa Clara, “about what certain decorations, symbols, and colors mean.”
There were comical moments at the event, like when the dancing lions popped confetti as “Happy New Year” banners hung from their teeth. “The children think they are pinatas,” someone from the crowd said as kids rushed in to pick up the candy that wasn’t there until parents pulled the kids back to the viewing circle. Partners from neighboring Catholic Charities neighborhood staff, municipal staff, and partner organizations came to participate and learn about this model.
The program aligns with the educational commitment of Educare and the bridgebuilding focus of the Team Up Project.
James McCaskill, senior director at Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, shared that this was his second Tết celebration of the day – he had participated in a program with a senior’s program that morning.
“Rosalia and the promotoras have done a remarkable job,” he shared in conversation.
Estrada added, “The promotoras and families care about their community and want to support it.”
McCaskill and Estrada are the CC Santa Clara site leads with Team Up; both have led the project after taking over from the original leads due to one staff member’s departure and an unexpected staff member passing. While that level of disruption in a couple of months is exceptional, the need for civic and faith organizations to adapt to the constant and changing realities of the community is simply part of the day-to-day for many non-profits across the country. It rained on the day of the Tết celebration, which was planned to take place in the front courtyard of the Center in Santee. In a neighborhood that rarely gets rain, the Team had planned for and then adapted their program to meet inside the building instead of in the courtyard.
CC Santa Clara’s Lunar New Year event served many purposes. It was educational for students and families, a service to the community, and a low-risk way to foster interaction and connection between Vietnamese and Hispanic community members.
Participants saw Vietnamese and Hispanic staff and volunteers serving side by side, promotoras introducing themselves to families across cultural lines, parents observing their children playing together, and were invited to express their hopes for Santee in the coming year.
Before the event ended, families were asked to fill out surveys and turn them in for tickets to an upcoming movie night; these questions asked about getting to know new people and learning or sharing about the Lunar New Year.
The organizers will continue to build on this event and families’ responses and host community-wide bridgebuilding celebrations for upcoming holidays, including Day of the Child and Earth Day.
There is only one organization in Santee other than CC Santa Clara and partners that are trusted and positioned to foster this respectful honoring of diversity, mutual relationships across differences, and shared action for the common good. This bridgebuilding work is happening in communities nationwide and will continue to grow through the Team Up Project.
The Team Up Project is a collaboration between Catholic Charities USA, Habitat for Humanity International, Interfaith America, and the YMCA of the USA. The partnership emerged from recognizing that these remarkable service organizations, dispersed throughout the US, are trusted community partners where people of diverse identities and divergent ideologies already come together, often to address a tangible community need.
In this inaugural year, the Team Up Project has been exploring how creative and intentional investment in programming can strengthen already impactful work to enhance bridgebuilding.
Our polarized and often divided nation is the often disheartening backdrop to the Team Up Project. While schools, libraries, and families wrestle with how to honor and celebrate the diversity of cultures, beliefs, and practices in our neighborhoods and towns, Catholic Charities Santa Clara is working diligently to invite community members into this need and opportunity and, in doing so, share a model for others.
Take heart – this is happening every day and take the invitation that you, too, can listen to a neighbor, serve through a local organization, and find ways to work with neighbors to team up.
Becca Hartman-Pickerill is a Senior Director of Democracy Initiatives at Interfaith America.