Cambodian Living Room
Halfway down 21st Avenue, cars crowded the curbside and guests filed up the steps to Sophorn Sim’s front door. Children kicked off their boots and threw them on the pile of shoes already dewing on the landing.
Inside, elderly friends sat across from each other in the back living room, engrossed in conversation in their native Cambodian with compostable plates of traditional foods on their laps. A baby was passed from adult to adult before settled on a single bouncing knee. Teenagers lounged on the couch, heads bent to their smartphones. At every new arrival, voices could be heard from all corners of the house: a wave of indecipherable warm greetings. Sophorn, meanwhile, milled around the house with clipboard in hand, intermittently bouncing between conversations and writing down the names of all the attendees.
“Sophorn, how did you manage to get so many people here?” I asked.
“I’ve worked on behalf of my community for many years,” she responded. “You can say I am a trusted community leader.” But, she punctuated her response, “Twenty-five people notified me they’re not able to make it.”
I raised my eyebrows and scanned the living room and den. People scuffled in and out of the kitchen and navigated around each other to pass the foot of the staircase. Children were already rolling around on the rug and skipping between each room. Despite the spaciousness of her home, guests spilled into three rooms easily. I wasn’t sure if 25 more people could physically fit.
Sophorn is a community outreach associate for SVP Seattle Investee ECOSS. She and her family fled war-torn Cambodia 31 years ago for the U.S.
Like many Cambodians in 1975, she was held in a forced labor camp run by the Khmer Rouge, and when Communist Vietnam invaded the country, the welfare of her and her family did not improve.
“We felt unsafe,” she explained. “The country was not stable. The majority of Cambodian people were farmers and our lives were dependent on agriculture, but there was no land to grow food. We had nothing except our own hopelessness and sickness after the war.
“When we heard there were refugee camps accepting refugees on the border of Cambodia and Thailand, we decided to escape the country. That was our last hope for our lives.”
The refugee camp was her first stop before ultimately immigrating to the U.S., where almost immediately she immersed herself in helping other refugees and immigrants with resettlement. She worked with several nonprofits where she assisted families in applying for public housing, medical assistance, welfare, employment and citizenship.
“Because of our long history of suffering, it hasn’t always been easy to reach out,” Sophorn explains. “It takes time building this kind of trust with my people. They have lost so much in their lives. They were suppressed, manipulated, beat up, prosecuted, starved, personal items were taken away and they were forced into hard labor.”
She’s trusted, she says, because the impact she’s made in her community has outlived her work in social services. When many of these refugees came to the U.S., she explains, their priorities were for immediate survival needs. A healthy environment was their last priority. But seeing how powerful education and awareness can be has continued to drive her work.
Sophorn and the rest of the ECOSS team (who speak more than a dozen languages between them) provide education, resources and technical assistance to a range of businesses and multi-cultural communities around the Puget Sound, encouraging sustainable development and a healthy environment. The outreach Sophorn frequently organizes, like the one at her house and also so much as field trips to see where our drinking water comes from, is funded by Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) as part of its Community Partnerships program. Like ECOSS, the program promotes engagement with people of color, immigrant, refugee and low-income SPU customers.
“I like showing them how their daily living could impact the environment and their lives,” she says. “For my community that likes to consume fish, for example, how it would impact the living creatures in the lakes and streams if they have a spill in the storm drain and it ended up in the lake and stream.”
Back at her house, Sophorn herded everyone to the living room. The children and younger people sprawled out on the rug. Everyone else took a seat on a couch or chair and faced the projector at the front of the room. It was a tight fit, but it worked.
The projector read: “How many of you recycle more since the last presentation?” Sophorn translated in Cambodian, and more than half the room raised their hands.
“What do you do differently?” she asked.
One woman said she didn’t know milk cartons were recyclable and now she adds them to her recycle pick-up. Another woman said she didn’t know what to do with old clothes or shoes that were too worn or broken to give away. She has since collected items to get rid of and will be taking them to a recycling collection bin at one of Seattle’s transfer stations. Another person said he composts more.
For every answer, Sophorn tossed a new water-efficient faucet head to the speaker. One man in the back, said they all wanted faucet heads, not just for those who spoke. The group chuckled in agreement.
Over the next hour, Sophorn explained where Seattle’s water comes from, where it goes, how the Cedar River Watershed is one of the cleanest water sources in the country. She explained which household cleaners are safe to be drained with our water. She explained how homeowners can trade old toilets and appliances for a rebate from SPU to purchase a more efficient replacement.
When she asked questions, shower and faucet heads were passed to those who offered answers. And at the end of the evening, people were given buckets with environmentally-friendly cleaners as they went out the door.
Co Lam Pagoda
Three days after the Cambodian Living Room Presentation, I met with ECOSS associates Frances Kuo, Ruben Chi Bertoni, Kevin Duong, Master An and a landscape architect at the Co Lam Pagoda, the largest Vietnamese Buddhist temple in Seattle. The traditionally-designed structure is set far from the street, but once standing at the entrance, its facade looms beautifully over you.
Frances approached Master An last year to ask if he’d be interested in having ECOSS table at one of the temple’s community events. When Master An looked over her materials, though, he instead responded that he’d like to have a rain garden installed there at the temple. In the end, ECOSS decided not to table, seeing more value in reaching Co Lam’s congregation by building a model rain garden.
Kevin, who attends Co Lam, made the introductions and led us to the west side of the property where it opened up to an edible garden and makeshift pond. On one side of a cinderblock path, a simple network of PVC pipe and drums were submerged in two feet of water encircled by large stones. On the other side, rows of garlic grew under shaded plots that would be transformed into a more varied vegetable garden in the spring. Translating for Master An, Kevin told the architect that they’d like to replace their makeshift pond with a lotus rain pond that could double as an irrigation source for the garden.
After asking a few questions, the architect followed Master An and Kevin to the east side of the property and the terraced gardens. The park-like paths that lead above the temple itself and likely offer the largest collection of Buddhist statues and art in Seattle, set Co Lam apart from other religious centers. On the first terrace, Master An said, that he plans to remove the house structure and replace it with a 50-foot Buddha statue in the next few years. So he’d like to surround the plot with fruit trees and cisterns.
The Co Lam is a unique project for ECOSS. Typically they assist businesses and communities in installing rain gardens where they are RainWise eligible. The program, a joint effort between King County Wastewater Treatment Division and the City of Seattle, offers rebates to those who are in targeted stormwater areas. Co Lam is not eligible for rebates. But considering the number of people who visit it, it could serve as a way to reach a significant part of the community that would be interested in installing rain gardens at their own homes and businesses. It could help ECOSS help King County and the City of Seattle reach its goal to manage 700 million gallons of runoff a year by 2025. So the ECOSS team are working with the landscape architect to create a series of design options they can pitch to the city to receive funding for a demo RainWise site.
“I feel like you are god sent angels to help him and his temple,” the architect said before departing. “He wasn’t looking for you, but you showed up and you’re doing so much to make it happen.”
How SVP Fits In
Sophorn’s presentations and the partnership with Co Lam are just a couple of the ways that ECOSS works directly with communities to promote a healthy environment for all. It’s complex work. But seeing the gratitude and the trust among everyone involved, anyone would be struck with why SVP invests in their efforts.
In the past five years, ECOSS has worked with SVP volunteers on everything from human resources to marketing and communications. Subsequently, their budget has grown, staff size has grown and the range of programs have grown.
But, with new Executive Director Cluny McCaffrey and Lead Partner Bruce Jones, the partnership is hardly going out with a fizzle.
Cluny onboarded with ECOSS last March, right in the middle of annual planning season with SVP. She says, it helped focus her goals for ECOSS and wrap her head around what it means to be an investee, just in time to meet Bruce.
“Assigning a lead partner is kind of the secret sauce to the SVP partnership,” Cluny explains.
“I’ve had mentors. And I’ve had coaches. And I’ve learned a lot of things from a lot of people in my career. But I’ve never had anybody like Bruce, who is completely focused on the success of this organization and the success of me in my role. That’s the difference. He’s focused on both.”
“It’s our last year, so we’re trying to make the most of it,” she continues. “Bruce has been the accelerator. I might have been able to do these things. But I wouldn’t have been able to get so far, so fast.”
By that, Cluny means, over the last eight months she has worked with SVP in overhauling ECOSS’ accounting systems, building their strategic plan and utilizing table talks on everything from board governance to finance.
“When I assumed the role of lead partner at ECOSS, a fifth year investee with a new executive director, I thought it would likely be a matter of helping them close out their final year with SVP,” Bruce recalls. “Cluny had other things in mind.”
“They have a challenging mission, but the commitment and dedication Cluny and her team demonstrate is truly inspiring,” says Bruce.
Cecilia Garza is SVP’s communications manager. In her free time, she enjoys sailing the Puget Sound by way of her small yet comfortable Coronado 25’ and romping the beach with her 10-pound Italian Greyhound.
Learn more about Cecilia and read more of her work here.