I grew up with my family in 6 Canton Alley, right across the way from Donnie Chin’s emergency services agency, International District Emergency Center (IDEC). My home was an old storefront that had been converted into living quarters in the 1950s.
Donnie was a constant presence during my early years. He was rough and tough with us Chinatown kids. Of course, we didn’t appreciate his “nurturing style” at the time. Looking back, I realize that he cared deeply about us and helped shepherd us into adulthood. Widowed with four young kids, my mom was always working or busy with household chores. Having Donnie around as a guardian of sorts somewhat eased her anxieties about leaving us to our own devices.
He knew I didn’t like going downhill for fear of falling, so he would take me up the incline at the I-5 underpass along South King Street and leave me there while he returned to the sidewalk. I don’t remember how old I was, but I like to think that I eventually overcame my fear and got down on my own.
At times, I’d get so mad at Donnie for whatever antics he played on me that I chased him around the block where we lived. After a few rounds, he’d stop in Canton Alley and let me catch up. As I approached, he’d hold his arm out and palm my head as I wildly swung my fists at him, trying in vain to make contact.
In spite of his rough edges, Donnie saw that we needed help. He turned the basement of IDEC into a meal site for a free summer breakfast and lunch program aimed at kids who were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches. One time, someone from the program came for a site visit, so Donnie told all the neighborhood kids to show up that day for breakfast.
I recall sitting in his basement with my siblings and other kids, silently eating my bowl of cereal as the meal program staff person took notes. One of the girls didn’t like milk and ate her cereal plain. Afterward, Donnie admonished her for not using her milk since he needed to show that the food was being consumed. Although I never really acquired a taste for mock dogs, the free meal program was a godsend to my mom and other immigrant parents who struggled to feed their children during the summer.
Donnie recognized that kids with parents at home had a significant advantage over those who lacked this crucial family structure. He also wanted us to interact with other people, so he recruited Susie Chin, Dicky Mar, Andy Mizuki, and Dan Rounds to tutor my three siblings and I. Two or three Samoan kids from the nearby Yesler Terrace apartments, who were the children of one of Susie’s colleagues, joined us.
The Main Street School Annex ran for at least seven years, from about 1978 to 1985, on Sundays between 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. It began at the Milwaukee Hotel in Chinatown, but later bounced around the neighborhood to an old taxicab company and the temporary offices of Inter*Im before settling in Donnie’s basement.
Besides helping us with schoolwork, Susie and Dicky exposed us and other kids to activities and places beyond the confines of Chinatown. They took us to Gasworks Park to fly kites and helped us build them with garbage bags and wood dowels. They organized a day hike to Snow Lake at Mount Rainier National Park and gave us a writing assignment using photos from the outing. Susie, who was an avid runner, trained us at Pier 70 and Green Lake for 5K and 10K races. She also put us to work by sewing panda bear bibs that we sold at the Chinatown-International District summer festival.
Over the years, other neighborhood kids cycled through the Main Street School Annex. By the time I stopped attending, I was at Garfield High School taking many honors and advanced placement classes. I didn’t know it at the time, but I partially owe my scholastic success to Donnie. Without his foresight and the dedication of Susie, Dicky, Andy, and Dan, there would never have been a Main Street School Annex.
I’m saddened that I didn’t have the chance to thank Donnie when he stood among us. Now that he’s gone, I want to say, “Thank you so much, Donnie, for believing that we Chinatown kids deserved more. Thank you for your efforts to level the playing field of life for us, for looking out for us and giving us a place to be. We are all better citizens because of you.”