Born in Hong Kong, but raised in Ontario, Canada, University Settlement's Project HOPE Director Eva Wong got a sense of where her calling might lead her when she first came to New York in 2003 for a job interview. It happened to be the same weekend of the Northeast blackout, when nearly 50 million people – and all of New York City – lost power for over 24 hours.
"New Yorkers are so resilient. I was impressed then – as I remain today – at how everyone pulled together and supported each other during a particularly stressful time. The significance of community and connectedness left a mark on me."
Eva has witnessed that resilience time and again this past year as she leads a team of over 20 counselors working for the FEMA-funded Project HOPE providing support to the tens of thousands of individuals and families living in the Lower East Side and Chinatown who were affected by Hurricane Sandy. So far her team has reached more than 30,000 people, and they are looked to by the city and state for their expertise in working with the Chinese community. She fortunately was able to spare some time amidst her busy schedule to answer a few questions from US.
How did you start working in this field?
I was working in the for-profit world as an actuary, but constantly volunteering, too, mainly in the Lower East Side and Chinatown. One of my favorite volunteer opportunities was a mentorship program in the Lower East Side. I worked with a group of 11-12-year-old girls who lived in the Baruch Houses. I also took over volunteer coordination in a food pantry in Chinatown.
After 2-3 years of working and volunteering, I knew I needed to change career paths and do something more in-line with my passion for serving people. I went back to school to study counseling.
As a fluent Chinese speaker, I knew that my language and cultural awareness could be beneficial to working in low-income, immigrant communities in New York City. I heard about University Settlement from a friend who volunteered with me, and at the same time I knew a family friend who also worked for University Settlement, so it seemed like a perfect fit.
I initially worked with the Butterflies program, providing mental health services for children under 5 and their families. When University Settlement became a partner with Project HOPE, I remember my heart started pounding and something immediately clicked – I knew I wanted to work with that team.
What's something that surprised you or was unexpected when you started working with Project Hope?
Working in this field, I feel that it's incredibly important to realize how many people out there need support. In many ways, if you are of a certain age, certain class or dealing with a very specific issue, it may be easier for you to receive support, often because there are programs specifically designed for you and your needs – support programs and centers for seniors, mental health programs for children, etc. But if you are a working adult, or if you don't have children, it may be more challenging to find support.
I'm not sure if it surprised me, but I am intrigued by this group of people who are sandwiched between their senior parents and their young children; so many of them are working so hard to support their families, and it means that they are sometimes the hardest to engage. Being proactive about your mental and physical health and really thinking ahead to make sure you are prepared for what lies ahead is not always easy when you have so many obligations in your day-to-day life.
The model we use is about building strengths so that individuals don't become dependent on our services. We want the people we reach to feel like they have the skills needed to carry on when we're gone.
Eva with colleagues from the American Red Cross during a recent Community Preparedness Day event.
What's one of the most significant accomplishments you and your team have had with Project HOPE?
Being recognized for our expertise in working with the Chinese and Latino communities has been really wonderful. Many of us are Chinese and Spanish speakers, but also coming from University Settlement, which has been such a mainstay in the Lower East Side and Chinatown for so many years, has made me and my team especially equipped to provide culturally sensitive, effective support to individuals and families affected by the storm.
Recently, we were noticing that many Chinese individuals and families were traveling from Coney Island into Manhattan to seek services; they weren't aware that Project HOPE services were available right in their own backyard! In addition, we were able to look at actual data and anecdotal reports coming in from that neighborhood, and we surmised that a majority of families were not being reached. We were able to secure support to share our resources—including staff who speak up to 5 major Chinese dialects—with the Coney Island team and so far we're making great progress reaching those individuals and families who still need support.
What's still needed?
I don't feel that we've completely saturated the field yet. I know that there are still people in the areas of Manhattan and Coney Island where we're working now who still have not been reached. And now is the time for us to try to determine the reasons they haven't been reached yet and to strategize around addressing those issues first. It may be, as we saw in Coney Island, that a language barrier and lack of appropriate resources is hindering outreach. Or perhaps it's because they are working so much, they simply aren't home when we're trying to connect. We can reach those people through mass media, through educating their children in schools, etc.
Also, as we've seen, there is always a real need for culturally sensitive materials – and the resources to support that. It can be a challenge to provide services that are both efficient but also culturally sensitive enough to be effective. When you're counseling someone and talking about emotional needs, people really need to express those needs in their own language, their own dialect. My team is amazing and they really take the time to tailor-make these lessons and workshops we provide—and it works!—but that takes time and resources that we don't always have.
Resilience-building is not just a one-shot deal. It's important to reinforce the coping skills you teach. To me, this type of strengthening and community building work is always needed. I feel blessed to be a part of it and excited to keep at it.