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San Francisco teen begins Chinatown youth camp to assist struggling college students

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — A San Francisco high school student who saw a great need in her Chinatown community during a time of distance learning has launched a tutoring center to help struggling students.

Ella English came up with the idea during the height of the pandemic when she was just 15 years old.

The now 17-year-old incoming senior at Lick-Wilmerding High School is spending her summer running a free, fully fledged youth camp.

It was opened with just five students.

“A lot of them are first-generation. Their parents were immigrants and, actually, a lot of them are immigrants themselves,” English explained. “So we have special groups for them where tutors come in and they can speak Chinese and we make sure they can speak Cantonese or Mandarin so they can have that bilingual teaching lesson with them.”

English originally brought her idea to the non-profit Charity Cultural Services Center (CCSC) on Commerical Street. She recruited a few friends to help tutor and, once word spread about the free services, the students kept coming.

“I like to read. There are a bunch of books over there in the back and I like to draw,” said 9-year-old Cindy Pang.

“I like that you can learn things and I like that there are fun activities to do,” said 9-year-old Leqi Li.

Today, two years into the program, there are nearly 150 students and 50 tutors and counselors.

The San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and their Families took notice last year and provided funding to help pay tutors and expand its capacity through the Summer Together Initiative. The program also partners with the San Francisco Public Library.

“I started at 15. It seems really difficult in the world just for young adults to get involved — teenagers to get involved with problems and solve problems and just work to solve problems that they see in the world,” English said. “So I think it’s taught me that if I see an issue and I’m passionate about an issue I can dive right in. I should dive right in.”

English says her inspiration comes from her mother, a Chinese refugee who fled Vietnam. She had a hard time learning the language and assimilating when she arrived in San Francisco’s Chinatown, much like many of these students.

“I think their parents are really busy. They work a lot and supporting a family as an immigrant can be really challenging,” English said. “My mom tells me about her experiences and her parents experiences and how she definitely didn’t have opportunities like this when she immigrated. She kind of just sat at home.”

CCSC made contact with the Wah Ying Social Club building owner across the street when the tutoring center started to grow. The owner provided space at no cost when it’s not in use by the Chung Ngai Dance Troup and International Wing Tsun Association North America.

“We have a dire need, especially the pandemic have heightened the need of the community. Distance-learning, as we can see, affects more low-income families — more than the people that otherwise have resources,” said Ashley Cheng, executive director of Charity Cultural Services Center. “So proud of the growth that we’ve been able to see and the impact we’ve made in the community.”

The program runs year-round. The center is always looking for more tutors to serve the growing number of students.

“If I could say one thing I’m most proud of is just the impact we’ve had on the kids,” English said. “They come to camp just beginning to see their counselors, beginning to start their lessons. They go home not wanting to leave.”

Betty Yu

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