A Conversation With Anita Tam: The PTA Mom Turned Wonder Woman

Anita Tam has spent over a decade participating in a multitude of community outreach and volunteer programs.

Anita Tam, 53, is an Asian-American mother of 2 who immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong as a young adult. Based in the San Gabriel Valley, Anita has spent over a decade participating in a multitude of community outreach and volunteer programs. She is currently a Member-at-Large of YSC (Youth Science Center), a non-profit committed to encouraging math and science education, and was recognized as Volunteer of the Year in 2015. Anita also participates regularly in the Rowland Council PTA, Asian Pacific Family Center, a clinic focused on bettering mental health, the Sheriff’s Community Advisory Committee, and SELPA CAC (Special Education Local Plan Area) among others.

However, her underlying passionate work has no official title—assisting with new Chinese immigrant families, who often do not just deal with adapting with a foreign land, but with juggling how to properly provide and nurture for their kids. A 2016 study suggests that roughly 25 percent of first-generation children live in poverty, and a subsequent 2017 study shows that about 13 percent first-generation Chinese immigrants suffer from poverty. Research done in 2016 also suggests a relation between poverty levels and mental health, as about 22 percent of children living in poverty deal with mental illness. Anita aims to reach out to some of these vulnerable, unseen Chinese youth that make up this percentage on a local level, using her vibrant laugh and endless encouragement to not only build up these children, but their struggling parents as well.

Interviewed by Jenny Le

Firstly, could you talk a little bit about what programs, jobs, or miscellaneous roles you’ve had in your community in the past 5 years?

For the most part, I reach out to a lot of new immigrants. Of course, I’m also involved with the Rowland School District PTA, Youth Science Center, and Asian Pacific Family Center, but it boils down to me reaching out to students and taking them out to do volunteer work. I then try to reach out to their parents and to share with them communication skills to make it easier for them to establish better relationships with their kids.

Why do you focus particularly on new immigrant families and their children?

When the kids go to school, it’s all in English, but when they go home, it’s all traditional Chinese—it’s very, very difficult. So I try to be a bridge by talking to the parents and kids. Kids are often, in a way, victims; their parents chose to bring them here, and now those kids are their responsibility. The kids don’t have any hope or plans for the future because their parents told them they’re “nobody.” Also, the kids aren’t planning to go to college because their parents can’t afford it. I’m trying to instill hope in the kids and to change the parents’ negative thoughts, so I encourage the students to go to college and get into volunteer work, which builds up their self-confidence. When they’re involved in volunteer work, they’ll find their talents and what they want to do. I think this is important because children are our future, and one of them could even be the next Obama (laughs).

What inspired you to want to make a greater impact on your community?

(Laughs) I feel like I was born for it. In 6th grade, there was a social work club where we went to slum areas and helped the kids read. One very cold day, I met a kindergartener, and all he had was a t-shirt on. He told me his parents were in China, and he didn’t know where his caretaker—his uncle—was, and the man was too busy to take care of the child. I will never forget that encounter.

What inspired me to do it on a wider scale was when I was staying at home and making good money. My daughter had been having a tough time, and I knew I could always get another job later, but that if anything ever happened with her, I would never be able to get her back. So I quit my job, and I began to participate more in my daughter’s life, starting with the PTA.

Since you keep in contact with the kids/kids’ families that you help, what are some changes that you see in them?

I’m very proud when the students and parents call me, and tell me that what I’ve transformed their lives, especially some parents. They now understand that it’s about them changing—how they talk with their kids, how they deal with them, etc. For example, I found out a parent had heavy anxiety, and I helped her apply the coping skills she learned. A year later, their church had an outing and the people there told me, “You were the one who transformed her!” Right now, she acts very differently; she thinks more deeply about herself and her words, which is good for her kid who also suffers from anxiety and ADHD. As for the kids, many students take me out to lunch, drive me and help me around my house. They tell me, “I will never, ever forget you, because of the things you’ve taught us, all the places you’ve taken us…”

How do you get started and connect with these immigrant families?

Sometimes my friends tell me a family needs help, so I’ll go over to the family, establish a relationship and then build trust. Then I’ll start taking the kids out to do different types of volunteer work. Other times I connect with others in parenting classes, but mostly as I’m doing this community work, I basically have an open door that lets me get connected to all these different people.

How do you build up relationships with the immigrant families you meet with?

I do that in different ways. For the first week, I go to their place twice, because I need to figure out the problems before I can help, but I still want to give a little advice. I don’t ask for anything in return, and buy stuff for the kids sometimes. I just am there for them—I don’t have any political agenda or anything, I just want the family and kids to try. I encourage them to learn more and be aware of their own mental illnesses, and how to deal with them.

What are some of difficulties you’ve experienced while helping others who are financially and socially vulnerable in such a personal way?

Many parents don’t understand what I’m doing, and they always think you’re after something. This is often because of Chinese culture—if you’re not doing it for money, they think, “What’s wrong with you?” Also, there’s only so much I can do—some kids end up taking the advice of their toxic family members because of pressure and fear of losing what little they have. I can’t make people do things they don’t want to do, or change something they don’t want to change. I just do my best to open them up to various resources, give them some advice, and at the end of the day, I pray for them.

Since you help with a wide scope of immigrant families, do you see a significant difference in the issues of financially-unstable kids versus more affluent kids?

I’ve been to million dollar homes to families that live in only one room. Among the poorer, they’re concerned with financial issues, which makes it more difficult when the parents are also worried about whether they can help their kids develop. For those that are richer, the parents are not as present, and they’re still not sure how to set boundaries for their kids. They don’t have to worry about food on their table, but there’s still plenty of issues with bringing up kids and dealing with mental illnesses.

What have been your own experiences with financial insecurity and mental illness?

Until I was 4-5 years old, my family lived in one room because of the Cultural Revolution, and we eventually got an apartment. When I moved to the U.S., my father made me work full-time, while going to school part-time. I was making $800 a month, while paying $400 for rent, and giving $60 to my brother. So I had only $340 a month to use. Later on, my brother also relied on me after he started drinking. So one day, I was a car passenger and got thrown out of the vehicle—but that’s just what I tell people. In reality, that was a suicide attempt; I wasn’t happy. After the incident, I couldn’t do a lot of things like work because of a serious brain injury. For the two years I spent recuperating, I had no financial support.

I’m 53 years old, but I still have plans; I’m still learning, and I’m like Wonder Woman, you know—flying around and seeing whoever needs me and trying to help!

How do you think your childhood and experiences shaped your mental health?

I realized later on that my parents probably had mental illnesses, such as my father, who suffered from bipolar disorder, and my mother, who was depressed. Chinese parents often suffer from issues such as PTSD because of their history with war such as the Japanese invading China in WWII and then the Cultural Revolution.

I also experienced suicidal thoughts for a while; I would think to myself, “Nobody needs me here. I’m nobody. Why don’t I just go?” I went to go see a therapist, and as I started getting better, I sensed that there are a lot of people out there going through the same problems, but they don’t know how to seek help, or even want to seek help. That really inspired me to reach out and say, “Hey, you’re not alone with your depression, there’s hope.” I really became passionate about reaching out and advocating for the youth.

How do you feel that you’ve personally grown from helping these families?

Something I learned and that I try to make the parents understand is that all kids are different, and not one way is going to fix everything. Even with mental health, my depression is different from another person’s depression. And I also learned that there are some people that I can never reach out to; I’ve accepted that, because I’ve at least tried my best.

What are your plans and goals for the future?

I’m going to continue with SELPA CAC and help out children with special needs with workshops and outreach. I also plan to continue volunteering at Youth Science Center, and help with implementing programs at CCHC [Comprehensive Community Health Centers], like the youth summer programs and having guest speakers talk about current issues. And since I’ve just beat my depression and learned about my issues with executive functioning, I also plan to attend Mt. Sac just for one class before I sign up for bible collegemaybe Hope University. While at school, I want to extend my reach from not just helping kids, but college students. I’m 53 years old, but I still have plans; I’m still learning, and I’m like Wonder Woman, you know—flying around and seeing whoever needs me and trying to help!

Jenny Le is an editor on the InSight Magazine team.

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