Su Yon Park is remembered for her pioneering work in mental health services for youth in Oakland, Calif.
by JULIE HA
The California Wellness Foundation is posthumously honoring Su Yon Park this month with its Peace Prize Award in recognition of her efforts to prevent violence and promote peace in Oakland neighborhoods, where she worked for eight years. Park, who battled breast cancer, passed away Sept. 20 at the age of 41 in San Francisco.
Born in Korea, Park grew up in Las Vegas, Nev., and studied at Redlands University, then got her Psy.D from California School of Professional Psychology. A licensed psychologist, she joined the Children’s Hospital and Research Center Oakland in 2004 and helped establish a mental health clinic on the campus of Youth UpRising, adjacent to a local high school. As the sole clinician serving youth in a community ravaged by multigenerational poverty, violence and high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, she is credited with helping to “normalize mental health” by making services more accessible. The center now boasts the highest rate of mental health utilization among Alameda County adolescent health clinics.
Olis Simmons, president and CEO of Youth UpRising, recalled when Park first showed up for work at the organization. She admitted she was skeptical of how this Korean American woman would handle working in a neighborhood that was “mostly black and brown” and challenged by violence and poverty. But Simmons soon learned that this “Korean chick is gangster.”
Simmons, who would become close friends with Park, later found out that Park had lost her mother at age 5, then her father at age 11, and was raised by an aunt and uncle. She believes that background may explain why Park connected so deeply with the youth, many of whom had experienced terrible trauma and felt abandoned. “Now I understand why Su moved into a neighborhood where none of the people looked like her, and never missed a beat,” said Simmons. “If you can see their hearts and their needs, then you can connect with them, and connecting with them is the only way to really help them. And she learned that as a child.”
Park served as a surrogate parent to many youth, and one teenage girl in particular used to call her “mom,” said Simmons. After Park’s death, this girl, Danielle, met Park’s parents (her aunt and uncle) and said, “Oh, you’re Mom’s parents!”
Danielle is “really dark-skinned, really voluptuous, long eyelashes, big weave, and this Korean family is looking at her like, ‘what the hell are you talking about?’” recalled Simmons, laughing. “Su had that relationship with a lot of people. The No. 1 lesson she told Danielle was, no matter what, it’s going to be OK. You have to keep showing up and doing your best, and no matter what, it will be OK. For so many children, no one is there to do that.”
Hundreds celebrated Park’s life Oct. 12 at a memorial at Youth UpRising.
Park is also credited with helping to strengthen mental health services in West Oakland by forging partnerships with a local school’s principal, teachers and students. Realizing the impact of violence on youth in the area, she provided training for teachers and school staff to assist students exposed to trauma.
On Dec. 12, the California Wellness Foundation’s will honor Park, along with two others, at a ceremony that is part of a larger violence prevention conference in Los Angeles. In recognition of their efforts to prevent violence and promote peace, the honorees are also given a cash award of $25,000 each.
Park is survived by her parents, Yong and Sook Park, four sisters (Mindy Leigh, Hee Tsutsui, Ju Lawrence, and Cindy No), and her loving nieces, nephews, and numerous other relatives.
Information on tributes or donations on behalf of Su Park can be found at:
This article was published in the December 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today!