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Betty Kwan Chinn Serves Up Meals for 500

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Faiza Elmasry

After being thrust into homelessness as a child in China, Betty Kwan Chinn now feeds hundreds of hungry people in California.
After being thrust into homelessness as a child in China, Betty Kwan Chinn now feeds hundreds of hungry people in California.

Betty Kwan Chinn knows what it is like to be poor.  

A victim of persecution in her native China, she grew up on the street, hungry and homeless, but was able to emigrate to the United States more than 25 years ago.  Ever since, she's been helping to feed the poor and homeless in her adopted California community.

Hungry and homeless

Chinn will never forget what it feels like to go without. Although she was born to a wealthy family, her world fell apart was she was seven years old.

The 1960s was a time of political and social upheaval in China. Her family became a target of the Cultural Revolution and her mother and brothers were imprisoned or sent to labor camps. She ended up alone on the streets of Kai Ping, China.

"Every time when I asked for food, I was beaten up by people," she recalls. "At that moment, I told myself, 'When I grew up, if I'm still alive, I'll make a lot of food to give to people who are hungry to eat.'"

After four years of begging on the street, Chinn says, she became mute and felt like an animal. With help from one of her sisters, who had immigrated to the United States, she escaped to Hong Kong, then on to the United States. She was 14.

Coming to America

"I had never been to school," she says. "I stayed home. Then I found my best friends on Sesame Street. They were the ones who taught me English."

Gradually, Chinn got her voice back and started to speak English, becoming part of American society. She met and married Leung Chinn, a Humboldt State University professor. They have two sons, and live in Eureka, a working class community in northern California.

In 1984, an elementary school classmate of her older son told her she was often hungry. Chinn started to pack an extra sandwich in her son's lunchbox for her. When she learned the girl's family was living in a van in a nearby parking lot, she began to provide meals for them, too.

She recalls how shocked she was to see how many other people were in the same situation, and decided to make it her mission to provide for the less fortunate in her community.

Betty Kwan Chinn loads up her catering truck and delivers food to people living on the street.
Betty Kwan Chinn loads up her catering truck and delivers food to people living on the street.

Feeding the hungry

"I'd do anything I could do to make people not hungry," she says. "When I even hear somebody say, 'I'm hungry,' my stomach hurts. I feel the hunger inside me. I still remember the hunger."

She used income from her part-time job to buy food, which she would load into her catering truck and deliver to people living on the street, under bridges and highways, anywhere she could find them. At first, she didn't tell anyone about what she was doing - not even her husband.

"He did ask me, from time to time, 'Why are you cooking so much food? Why we buy so much food from the supermarket?'"

Betty Kwan Chinn receives the 2010 Presidential Citizens Medal - the nation's second highest civilian award - from President Barack Obama.
Betty Kwan Chinn receives the 2010 Presidential Citizens Medal - the nation's second highest civilian award - from President Barack Obama.

When he eventually found out, 10 years later, Chinn says he became her biggest supporter. She now provides daily meals for around 500 people in Eureka.

'More like a mom'

"I'm not a nonprofit, I'm more like a mom," she says. "I do coffee and doughnuts in the morning. I do sandwiches or hot food in the afternoon. Beside the people who live on the street or in a car, I find a lot of mentally ill people on the street. I really want to take care of these people who need my help. If I don't go there, they don't know how to start their day. They don't even begin their day."

Though she never publicized what she was doing, Chinn's efforts were noticed and appreciated. In 2008, she received the Minerva Award for remarkable women from California's first lady, Maria Shriver.

"When Maria Shriver gave me $25,000," she says."Then it was the first time I spoke up in my community. I said, 'We need help.' I needed to build a shower for the homeless. We got a place to build a shower. We opened it last March."

Chinn's accomplishments have inspired others and drawn attention to the problem of hunger and homelessness in her community. She says there's still work to do.

"I dream someday I can have a place called, 'Betty's Place,' so anybody hungry coming to my house will have a chair to sit and eat," she says. "I don't want to open a shelter. I just want a place where I can build a bridge for them so someday they will return to the society. That's my dream. I'll have two doctors. I'll have a dentist. I'll have a psychologist to help me out."

Chinn was one of 13 recipients of the 2010 Presidential Citizens Medal from President Barack Obama, the nation's second highest civilian award. She was honored for showing how one person can touch the lives of hundreds of people whom the rest of the world has forgotten.

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