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Two huge trailers, filled to the brim with bags of rice, packages of dried egg noodles, and other food supplies, stood in front of the Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay, ready to be unloaded. A few paces away, staff and volunteers packed food into individual bags to be distributed later that day to the center’s clients.
“We buy most of our Asian items from Sun Sang, Latino items from Los Mexicanos in Fruitvale, and Habesha items from local Ethiopian markets on Telegraph,” explained Myan Duong, a senior program director at the community center.
The scene unfolded last Friday morning, nearly one month after a fire ripped through the community center at 655 International Boulevard, rendering it unusable. The blaze, which occurred on Feb. 6 at roughly 1 a.m., is believed to have originated at a homeless encampment located behind the center. Most of the damage was sustained in the back of the building that faces Clinton Park. The encampment, which previously pushed up against the back wall of the building, now sits several yards away, separated by a tall chainlink fence put up to cordon off the area while the center is rebuilt.
Shirley Gee, the community center’s executive director, learned about the fire as it was happening. She got an alert on her phone from Citizen, a location-based app, indicating that there was an active blaze at East 12th Street and Seventh Avenue. She listened to live police scanner audio being streamed on the app and heard that the fire had apparently spread from a homeless encampment to a nearby building. “This is when I knew, it was the center on fire,” she said.
“We lost 30 to 40% of the building,” said Gee, who immediately left her home for the community center after receiving the alert. Seeing the devastation when she arrived at 2 a.m. made her sick to her stomach. “I felt like I had to eat an elephant all in one sitting.”
For over 20 years, the Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay has provided essential services to Southeast Asian and other immigrant and refugee communities in Oakland. Its core services include job placement, ESL classes, translation services, naturalization support, and food distribution. Staffers take pride in delivering services that are culturally relevant and “client-centric,” or driven by input from community members, said Duong.
After the fire, which occurred on a Saturday, workers at the center hit the ground running. By Monday morning, some were being deployed to buy food at local stores while others salvaged whatever items they could from the burned-out building. Close to $100,000 in food inventory was lost in the fire. The food distribution program was able to continue almost unabated, however, in large part due to an emergency food distribution grant from Alameda County that the center received immediately after the fire, according to Duong.
Of all the center’s services, Gee said getting the food distribution program back up and running was the most urgent, since many of the Vietnamese American Community Center’s clientele are seniors who cannot easily leave their homes. “If we don’t get the food out, people don’t eat,” said Gee. “It’s as simple as that.”
The center’s ability to distribute food to residents hasn’t diminished since the fire. According to Gee, the organization is on pace to serve about 30,000 meals this month—the normal, pre-fire amount—to the roughly 2,500 people on their client list. Gee credits staff members like Duong, who comes from a family of Vietnamese immigrants, for their dedication to serving Oakland’s refugee community. For her and other staff, said Gee, the work is personal. “Many of them are children to immigrants,” she said, “so they understand the importance of keeping resources available to the community.”
On the Monday after the fire, staff members and volunteers were operating on the street, but by Wednesday, a trailer had been dropped off and a tent erected to provide shelter from the elements. A resident, Bruce Vuong, offered free use of his warehouse just a few doors down for emergency food storage.
In some ways, operating during the pandemic has made it easier for the community center to adapt to providing services without a building. At the start of shelter-in-place, the center shifted to making its food program entirely mobile—delivering directly to people’s residences—so that their elderly clients wouldn’t be forced to leave home and risk exposing themselves to COVID-19.
Knowing that many of these same residents lack computers, the organization also anticipated that communication would be an issue, without in-person interactions. Through a grant from the Public Utilities Commission, the center was able to purchase and distribute mini-tablets along with instructions on how to use them, which were translated into their clients’ appropriate home language. The devices allowed the center to continue its programming virtually, and when the center’s computer lab was destroyed by the fire, those online services were able to continue without a hitch.
Joanne Garcia, the center’s education manager and ESL teacher, says the technology initiative has been crucial given the overlapping challenges posed by the pandemic and fire. “I think this is the most important time to keep everyone connected.”
Even before the fire, the center’s leadership had been asking the city, which owns the building, for more resources to upgrade the space and increase support services for the center’s community—including their unhoused neighbors living next door in the park. “We’ve been urging the city for months to prioritize Clinton Park and our center,” said Duong.
The organization is committed to staying at the current site, she said, because the location is accessible to most of their clients.
According to Garcia, the fire on Feb. 6 wasn’t the first to occur at the camp, only the worst. “There have other been various small fires in the area,” she said. “It was an eye-opener, not only for ourselves but for the city.”
Gee has heard horror stories of construction projects at other city-owned properties being delayed for long stretches and hopes the center can avoid a similar fate. She and others at the center fear that even though the city owns the building, the community center may need to absorb some of the costs associated with the rebuild.
“We are projecting we’ll have to fundraise somewhere between $600,000 to $1 million to make up for the shortfall” to complete the rebuild, Andrew Vo, a coordinator at the center, wrote in an email to The Oaklandside. It’s not yet clear whether the insurance companies and city, which owns the building, will cover the costs.
After the fire, the organization quickly set up a GoFundMe campaign with the goal of raising $50,000. At the time of this report, it had raised just over $117,000. Most of that money will be used on building repairs, according to those at the center. Michael Yang, a private donor, and the Oakland A’s have also donated to help with immediate needs.
“Small or large, we’re very grateful,” said Gee. “Even our clients, people with very limited income, are just giving what they can.”
Staffers are hopeful the center can reopen, at least partially, within several weeks.
Despite how emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed she’s been, Gee feels much better than she did on the morning of Feb. 6. “I’m eating the elephant, one spoonful at a time.”