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Award-winning program started by Cal Berkeley students served youth of Oakland Chinatown for 29 years

OASES served thousands of children in Oakland Chinatown through its tutoring and mentorship programs

By Raymond Douglas Chong, AsAmNews Staff Writer

Oakland Chinatown is an impoverished ghetto in California of Asian immigrants from the Guangdong Province of China and countries of Southeast Asia in the destitute flatlands of Oaktown (nickname for Oakland). The immigrant residents are restaurant cooks, cafe waiters, store clerks, factory seamstresses, and field laborers who barely survived amid this urban blight. As they toiled for minimum wages in modest working conditions, their children — the next generation — were slowly assimilating into American society without proper guidance, especially in regards to education. In this harsh environment of pervasive poverty, Asian gangs roamed on the tough streets of Oakland as others dealt crack cocaine and executed violent crimes. The Oakland public schools were performing poorly for decades. Oakland Unified School District faced financial bankruptcy, administrative failures and sensational scandals.

In the fall of 1977, the Family Services Division under the Oakland Chinese Community Council (OCCC) (now known as Family Bridges), ran a tutorial program led by Lucia Cheung in the Lincoln Elementary School auditorium and at the OCCC Youth Services Center in Lincoln Square. The inaugural Tutorial program had initially focused on middle and high school students.

Winnie Gin, an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, foresaw a bleak future for the children of Oakland Chinatown. They were mired in dark poverty with a background of limited English proficiency. In the fall of 1983, Winnie and her classmates boldly formed Oakland Asian Students Educational Services or OASES, a Cal student club, to tutor the children at Lincoln Elementary School.  At its inception, 15 volunteers served 40 students. OASES collaborated with OCCC. The Asian Youth Program Advisory Council, with Winnie as Chair, oversaw the tutorial program. During our early years, funding was a constant challenge for the grassroots organization with minor administrative support by OCCC.

In the face of drastic funding cutbacks, OCCC decided to focus on senior programs, and they regretfully cancelled their youth programs. On October 2, 1989, OASES responded to the cancellation and announced a new Asian youth agency in Oakland Chinatown. The initial officers were: me as President; Winnie Gin, Vice President; Pamela Lee, Secretary; and Tommy Lim, Treasurer.

Our mission was simply and purely:

  • To provide educational and social programs for youth in the Asian Pacific American and culturally diverse community;
  • To build community values by encouraging dedicated volunteers to share their knowledge and experience; and
  • To challenge students to excel in life.

OASES always evokes my fondest memories, especially about the growth years from 1985 to 2000.  We proudly watched OASES evolve into a state award-winning community service organization as we expanded into several programs with a new facility in Oakland Chinatown.  I passionately applied my heart and soul for OASES, as my honor and privilege for the Asian youth of Oakland Chinatown.

The brilliant undergraduates and graduates from Cal were our greatest assets as passionate volunteers for OASES. They faithfully served the Asian youth in Oakland Chinatown community with humility and zeal. As role models, they offered a way for a better future in higher education by keenly sharing their knowledge and experience with their students. They gave a bright promise of hopes and dreams for the Asian youth by their positive influences. OASES also empowered them to coordinate our programs, and they developed curriculum for the students. They were purely devoted to OASES as their noble cause.

Our directors ,recent Cal graduates and young professionals who believed in our vision and mission, were also firmly committed. They ardently served during the formative years of OASES, as they humbly sacrificed their time and money to maneuver and direct OASES during the constant difficult times. They had a clear dream of an optimistic future for OASES as community activists in our programs and the associated activities.   We expanded our Tutorial Program beyond Lincoln Elementary School to Westlake Middle School and Brewer Middle School and to Oakland High School and Oakland Technical High School in the adjacent neighborhoods. As a key innovation, we devised a system that enabled a case manager to track the student progress to improve his or her academic performance. 

Mike Lang and Tiffany Cheung notably served as our directors. Robert Lau, Mark Francis, and Charles Quach ably served as my Vice Presidents. Robert Lau, a Cal graduate and Hong Kong immigrant, was a fervent advocate of OASES, as my fellow founder and my Vice President. As a youth, he had a dear friend who committed a serious felony and was imprisoned. So he vowed to help Asian youth in Oakland Chinatown toward a better path. He organized our nonprofit organization startup. Robert developed our finances that were crucial in funding our administration and operation. 

We gradually developed a myriad of after-school programs: English as a Second Language (Fall 1994); Inspire Mentoring (Fall 1995); Kids Into Computers (Spring 1995); Asian Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership (Fall 1998); and Summer Enrichment. Our exuberant field trips including picnics at Lafayette Reservoir in Lafayette and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and other wonderful venues in the Bay Area.

Miss Carrie Jun Cai, a resident of Oakland Chinatown, was our precocious student with OASES, the only daughter of a single mother, who was a Chinese immigrant from Zhongshan in Guangdong province. While attending Saint Paul’s Episcopal School, Carrie thrived under the various programs of OASES, especially with experiments in the Kids into Computers Program. A community foundation, Asian Pacific Fund, twice awarded her in its Growing Up Asian in America student essay contest.

With a solid academic foundation, Carrie pursued her dreams. She excelled in French during high school; she earned a bachelor’s degree in human biology and a master’s degree in education at Stanford University. As an undergraduate research assistant at the Stanford Center for Infant Studies, she investigated how children acquire language at a young age. After obtaining her doctoral degree in Computer Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology,  Dr. Carrie became a research scientist with Google at Mountain View in California.

Carrie reflects about her time with OASES in this article:

Having grown up in Oakland and lived in the bustling center of Chinatown for most of my life, I have always felt that OASES was a central part of my academic upbringing and cultural community. In my earliest memories of OASES, I recall brainstorming creative ways to construct a prop for our Greek play, along with my tutor and teammates. On other occasions, I dissected animals to understand their underlying anatomy, and did a science experiment on electrical conductivity as part of the Kids into Computers program.

Carrie Jun Cai(center) dissects a frog at OASES

Looking back on my time at OASES, what I value most were not the nuggets of knowledge I gained, but rather the many avenues through which I could invent and make new discoveries. During my electricity science experiment, I remember pondering how to define an interesting scientific question, debating among a vast array of battery size options to buy at the store, designing the layout of my demo, and sharing my newfound discoveries with a room full of science fair attendees. What I remember most was that moment when I grabbed the two wires tapped both ends and witnessed my system finally light up.

Most importantly, though, what I learned at OASES — the process of discovery, creation, and problem solving — has been foundational throughout my academic career, whether in the humanities or engineering. Currently, as a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I design new technology to enhance online education. Depending on where I am in the research cycle, I may be brainstorming ways to help people learn more effectively, programming interactive systems and prototypes, designing experiments, or gathering and analyzing data. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to learn, discover, and grow at OASES, which has been invaluable in cultivating my curiosity and shaping how I think every day.

As result of our excellent innovative programs, President Bill Clinton named OASES for his Daily Point of Light Award. In recognizing OASES as a Daily Point of Light on November 22, 1999, former President George Hubert Bush wrote: Your dedication to improving the education of Oakland’s immigrant students is a remarkable example of the generosity and compassion that helps to better our communities. I commend your work and thank you for being a shining point in the lives of the people of America. California Partners in Education recognized OASES for Outstanding Volunteer Programs Award as Outstanding Community Based Educational Partnership Serving an Elementary School. The League of Women Voters of Oakland honored OASES with its Civic Contribution Award. OASES also received the Outstanding Community Service Award from University of California at Berkeley, a Certificate of Excellence from Cal Corps and the Golden Rule Award from J.C. Penney Company.  Our reputation was truly outstanding in the Oakland Chinatown community and beyond for its educational impacts with a corps of exceptional volunteers.

Our dedicated staff at OASES devotedly worked for our noble cause. They had the required knowledge, skills and abilities to deliver academic and enrichment services. We fully trusted their professional acumen in administration and operation of our programs. They knew our volunteers and students well while fulfilling our core mission, six days per week. On July 1, 2006, Wai Kiu Lee, a Cal graduate, became our first Executive Director.  He previously had associated with OASES as a tutor, coordinator, head coordinator, and program administrator.  He always wanted to give back to the community. When his family arrived to America from Hong Kong, his parents in Sacramento received social services from various agencies. He always believed in delivering results despite challenging obstacles. As a personal sacrifice, Wai Kiu delayed his medical school education until OASES was solidly established in Oakland Chinatown.  Along with Wai Kiu, Betty Lin, Associate Director, and Elaine Cham, Outreach Coordinator was our first staff. On August 12, 1998, Wai Kiu was recognized as “Dream Maker” as an American outstanding community leader with the prestigious Do Something BRICK Award for Community Leadership.  The Brick Award recognizes and supports the accomplishments of ten outstanding leaders under the age of 30. Wai Kiu transformed OASES from a college student club into a full service community center.

City Councilmember Henry Chang presents an award to OASES. Wai Kiu Lee, Executive Director is on hand along with Raymond Chong

OASES always had an intimate and unique partnership with Lincoln Elementary School in Oakland Chinatown as the site of our core tutorial program. We always had strong relationships with their principals. They recognized that our after-school programs enhanced the academic performance of their students. As principal, Wendy Lee was our tireless advocate in the Oakland Chinatown community. She advised us on the academic needs of her students. She eventually served as our director. At a critical time, OASES was facing a funding shortfall. Wendy loaned her personal money to cover construction of OASES Center.    

For the first fifteen years, from 1983 to 1998, OASES was without a home, because we had no permanent office in Oakland Chinatown. We floated in temporary spaces of OCCC and Career Resources Development Center. We daringly implemented Project Lookout to remodel the second floor of an old glass-cutting factory in Oakland Chinatown at 196 10th Street, a corner across Lincoln Elementary School, below Choice Korner, a liquor store. For seven months, from August 1997 to February 1998, staff and volunteers diligently toiled hundreds of hours to complete construction. Wai Kiu Lee, our Executive Director, spent days and evenings in overseeing the remodeling through the arduous permit and construction process.  Pascal Sze acted as our volunteer general contractor.  A quiet man of myriad skills, Pascal worked long nights and weekends on the building’s structural, electrical and plumbing. The impressive result was a professional office of 2,700 square feet, including administration, computer lab, and multipurpose room, built by novices. Our volunteers labored for 2,700 hours to build OASES Center.

OASES Center was a major milestone in our history. During a sunny winter Friday afternoon, on February 27, 1998, we celebrated the grand opening of the OASES Center, at 196 Ninth Street in Oakland Chinatown.  Our program began with a joyous vibrant traditional lion dance in grand style with popping red firecrackers.  Shannon Reeves, Chief Executive Officer of the Freedom Fund, gave a dynamic keynote speech and Wai Kiu Lee and I gave our inspirational speeches. Carol Quan, Superintendent of Oakland Unified School District, and Cheryl Hightower, Superintendent of the Alameda County Office of Education, attended our event, as well as Carl Chan, President, and Jennie Ong, Executive Director, with Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. We had arrived home, our sacred oasis in the heart of Oakland Chinatown. OASES Center was our significant team achievement. Henry Chang, Oakland City Councilmember, presented an OASES Day Proclamation from the Oakland’s Office of the Mayor. OASES Day was our defining moment.

From 1983 to 2000, we seized the golden opportunity to help the Asian youth of Oakland Chinatown community with OASES. We faced hardships and crises during our long journey of seventeen years. Nevertheless, we persevered despite tough odds against us. We were always optimistic with our ceaseless energy and enthusiasm, and we patiently nurtured OASES as it grew with our volunteers, staff, and directors. At our inauspicious startup in 1989, I had clearly envisioned sustainable stability and fiscal solvency for OASES as our primary goal. With my fellow directors, we recognized that an OASES Center, an Executive Director with staff and program funds were critical goals to OASES’s sustainability in Oakland Chinatown. During our adolescent years, we faced tremendous challenges and had scarce resources. With passionate zeal, we assertively and vigorously pursued our dream for OASES, and we thrived in a team environment of creativity and innovation. We kept our eyes on the prize. The awesome significance of OASES was that we gave hopes and dreams to the poverty stricken children in their meager lives at Oakland Chinatown. At Lincoln Elementary School on 225 11th Street, 90% Asian, 47% in poverty, and 89% of parents had high school or less education.  With OASES support, Lincoln Elementary School ranked highest in academic achievement in Oakland, an achievement that was duly recognized in California.

After a vibrant odyssey of 15 years, I had kept my promise and finally retired on July 1, 2000.     I had accomplished my vision and mission for OASES for this noble cause with the righteous few. Committed volunteers, competent staff, and compassionate directors were firmly in place with an operating budget of $500,000 and eight staff. At the beginning of the new millennium, the 21st Century, in 2000, a new era for OASES dawned in Oakland Chinatown.

In 2000, as our second Executive Director, Perry Chen carried the momentum for OASES under leadership of Charles Quach as President. In 2005, as the third and last Executive Director, H. Nhi Chau continued to sustain OASES.  She quoted: Our reward?  Our reward is in these students!  At its peak, OASES served 400 students by 400 volunteers with operating budget of $1 million. During the economic turmoil of the Great Recession in 2008, OASES faced an immense fiscal crisis as grants steadily disappeared. OASES eventually merged with East Bay Asian Youth Center in September 2012, which now continues as OASES Mentors Program. OASES sadly ceased to operate as a nonprofit organization.

For 29 years, OASES had faithfully perpetuated eternal optimism among our Asian youth in the rough neighborhood of Oakland Chinatown in the East Bay. From my intimate vantage, I am very proud of our brief legacy in the Oakland Chinatown, for we deeply transformed their lives. OASES was our ultimate success story in exceptional community service by righteous few during an extraordinary time, and for the recent past, OASES was a true Shining Star in educational horizon of Oakland. OASES -Our Noble Cause in Oakland Chinatown.   

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