On Jan. 21, the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in Washington state, and on Feb. 29, the first covid-related death was announced in Seattle. Not long after, the state became an epicenter, with new cases and deaths mounting daily.
When a stay-at-home order was issued, Tamthy Le had been working as the interim executive director of Kandelia, a Seattle-based organization serving the local refugee and immigrant communities, for almost seven months. Although “global pandemic” was not something she could have anticipated would happen during her new role, she quickly flexed her leadership muscles. “My first concern was making sure my staff was safe and well informed,” Tamthy said. “As individuals who are the direct communication to the students and families that we served, our staff often act as a ‘Google’ sounding board, friend, or mentor to our community. When staff found out that students/families did not have access to food or income, they were quick to mobilize and provide support.”
“Luckily, when staff mobilized their efforts, they also brought in community members who donated equipment and resources to protect both staff and families, while we packed and delivered food to the homes of our families.”
Nevertheless, while Tamthy was inspired by their passion, she was also concerned about her staff’s health and safety. “At the time, PPE did not exist. Masks, gloves, hand sanitizers and disinfectants were sold out everywhere,” she continued. “Luckily, when staff mobilized their efforts, they also brought in community members who donated equipment and resources to protect both staff and families, while we packed and delivered food to the homes of our families.”
After schools shut down in March, Kandelia and partners took the initiative to call and message every student and family they served to see how they were doing; they learned that many were in dire circumstances. “We had an overwhelming number of reports of families who were out of work, out of money, and out of food,” Tamthy said. “One family was eating tortillas and salt by the time we got a hold of them.”
As a result, Kandelia began compiling all the needs that families had, including food, rental assistance, diapers, hygiene products, internet/technology. Community members responded quickly to help fill these needs. “Since then, we have provided over 1,200 bags of food/basic needs items and over $150,000 in financial assistance,” Tamthy said. “The needs of our families keep increasing but luckily, the donations are still coming in.
During this time of crisis, Tamthy sees hope in the resilience of her community, particularly young people. “So many of our students have picked up essential worker jobs to support their families. Many have also used this time to create art, including a Coronavirus Rap,” she said, adding that previous students have reached out to Kandelia to volunteer as translators or to help facilitate access to financial assistance or other public services. “My wife is a public school teacher and has been teaching her classes over Zoom every week. It’s one of my favorite moments as the voices and laughter of students fill up our one-bedroom apartment. Even for a bit, it reminds me we’ll be ok.”
For Tamthy, her service to community is rooted in the experiences of her own family. “I am so grateful that my parents and sister are not only healthy but also in professions that allowed them to retain their income during this crisis,” she said. “I am so grateful that my parents have been in the United States for more than 30 years where they can speak English and navigate difficult bureaucratic systems. I am so grateful that my family also lives in a neighborhood that is safe and welcoming, and they have not been a target of hate for their race.
“These things are not the case for so many of the families we serve and the families across the country. I do this work because of all the sacrifices my family have endured to keep me safe and thriving.”