Story BY KEN MOCHIZUKI
Neighborhood House Executive Director Mark Okazaki recalls an immigrant Ethiopian woman requiring assistance sifting through her stack of mail. Which was junk mail? Which were important immigration materials? With the help of a Neighborhood House interpreter, they sorted the stack out.
“We are their safety net,” says Okazaki. “We are the front door. We can help immediately, and then hook them up with other resources.”
Who comes through that front door correlates with current conflicts and crisis’s in other parts of the world. Okazaki, 52, who has been at the helm of Neighborhood House for the past six years, first saw a wave of Southeast Asians, many from Cambodia. Then came the immigrants and refugees from Ethiopia and lately from Somalia. He says he wouldn’t be surprised if the next wave arrived from Sudan.
“If they end up in Seattle, we will eventually serve them.”
Neighborhood House, which serves King County’s public housing communities, turned 100 years old this year. That milestone will be celebrated next month. Its mission – “to help diverse communities of people with limited resources attain their goals of self-sufficiency, financial independence and community building” – is “purposely left broad,” Okazaki says, making Neighborhood House a unique multi-service agency versus other non-profit community organizations with a single purpose.
Okazaki oversees a staff of 150 that speaks 27 different languages and dialects. Working on an $8 million budget with funding from “30 different grant sources” with the bulk from government sources, he says, Neighborhood House operates five major programs:
• Child Development – The federal Head Start program has been an integral part of Neighborhood House for the past 40 years. Available to children of low-income families, Head Start and Early Head Start prepare children for school, Okazaki says. The programs focus on cognitive development, social skills, health, parent involvement and identifying special needs.
“Sometimes we’re giving them their first toothbrush,” Okazaki says. A lesson students participate in is “how to share.” While making cookies, six students make do with five cookie cutters. Eating “family style” is also part of that lesson.
Okazaki stresses parental involvement, and his staff has run into its share of old-country cultural barriers. Somali parents don’t play with children. An Ethiopian woman stated, “Babies can’t learn.” An East African man, Okazaki says, brought his child to Head Start and, seeing the female instructors, told his child “you don’t have to listen to them.”
“A lot of immigrant parents think they don’t have to go into a school,” he says.
“Cultural Brokers” then go into action to try and convince the parents otherwise, Okazaki says. Parents of infants are encouraged to talk or sing to their child because, at that age, “the brain needs to hear language,” he says. Through the Parent-Child Help Program, parents are encouraged to read to their child. If the parent cannot read a picture-book text, then the parent can “make up stories.”
The Program measures “how well a child engages, and how has the caregiver changed, Okazaki says. “Intervention at an early age can change the trajectory of a child’s life.”
Head Start Centers, for children three- to five years old are located at the public housing communities of NewHolly in South Seattle, High Point in West Seattle, Rainer Vista and Yesler Terrace. The Early Head Start Center, for children from birth to three years old, is located at NewHolly.
• Family and Social Services – Centers for these services are located at High Point, Rainier Vista, Yesler Terrace and Greenbridge in White Center.
In the Neighborhood House 2006 annual report citing statistics from the past year, “2,319 people sought information, referrals or assistance from Neighborhood House; 323 crisis calls were resolved, including many that prevented the eviction of families from their homes.”
Okazaki says the case managers are the spine of Family and Social Services.
• Employment and Education – The 2006 report stated: “469 adults, primarily in immigrant communities, accessed new employment resources; 335 job-seekers were connected to job placement or training services and education; our employment clients increased their hourly wages by an average of 30 to 40 percent per hour.”
Among Neighborhood House’s education services, “197 young people participated in after-school programs” at four Youth Tutoring and Resource Centers located at the Burndale and Green River sites, both in Auburn, Greenbridge and at Tyee High School in Seatac.
• Transportation – Operating a fleet of 14 vans, Neighborhood House has, according to the 2006 report, provided 4,937 individual riders with transportation “to critical services and medical appointments, including kidney dialysis treatments.”
Eligible riders are scheduled by “brokers” in Bellevue, Okazaki says.
• The Voice newspaper – The 16-page, free publication covering public housing issues and events is distributed to over 12,000 residents and community members. Selected articles are translated into several languages, including Amharic, Tigrigna, Russian, Vietnamese, Somali and Cambodian.
“Because we are a community, neighborhood-based organization, a lot use our services just from word of mouth,” Okazaki says. With Neighborhood House’s central office located within Yesler Terrace, “we are just down the street,” he adds. “We have a physical presence in a public housing community.”
Neighborhood House began as the Settlement House in 1906. The National Council of Jewish Women, Seattle Section, assisted Jewish immigrants arriving from Europe. Initial services offered by the Settlement House included a religious school and sewing class.
By 1916, the expanding Settlement House, which then also taught language and citizenship classes, music and medical treatment, moved to a two-story house within Seattle’s Central District. Renamed the Educational Center a year later, the Center “provided services to nearly 14,000 people per week” by 1929, according to the history compiled by Neighborhood House.
No longer deemed as only an “educational” establishment by 1948, the Educational Center became Neighborhood House, a member of the National Jewish Federation of Settlement and Neighborhood Houses. As an independent, nonprofit agency in 1956, Neighborhood House then entered into an agreement with the Seattle Housing Authority which secured space for the House at the Authority’s Yesler Terrace housing community.
“… [N]o other housing authority in the country had brought a multi-service agency into a public housing community to serve the residents,” the history reads. “Neighborhood House would go on to open service centers in public housing communities all over King County.”
Okazaki, a Seattle native, has always worked in the social service sector, including time at the Employment Opportunity Center, Center for Career Alternatives and the Private Industry Council. He calls heading Neighborhood House “the hardest job I ever had,” but at the same time says “I love this job.”
“There’s a need here – we need to do something about it,” he says. “The grandson of different immigrants who came across a different ocean is now running the organization.”
Visit www.nhwa.org for more information on Neighborhood House programs.