Most expats don’t plan on putting down roots and growing old on the peninsula, but many will extend their initial contracts to spend a few more years exploring Korean culture and the countries within its reach. For many young expat ESL instructors, a teaching career is a temporary stint to facilitate travel or test out the field—not necessarily a career they plan to continue at home. That’s why embracing their own interests while teaching is so important, for their happiness and their resume.
During her eight years working in Seoul, expat Xouhoa Bowen was always looking for ways to help others. She moved to Korea in late 2007 to fill a one-year commitment teaching English at a hagwon, after which she planned to pursue a position more closely related to her studies in international development. Time flew by and Bowen found herself at home in Seoul, but a lack of Korean language skills confined her to the expat bubble. To expand her community and learn more about her new home, Bowen sought out volunteering opportunities, which led her to push for the creation of volunteer programs in her workplace. She coordinated service projects that led to many Saturdays at orphanages and centers for the underprivileged.
In 2015, Bowen moved her family back to the US, which was exciting and at the same time nerve-wrecking. She wasn’t keen on jumping back into the education field and while she had ideas for starting a nonprofit of her own, self doubt crept in. So she started small, looking for ways to help out in her new home in San Francisco’s East Bay.
Bowen saw needs in two communities that she felt drawn to fill: support for local families and assistance for women and children. But giving back proved difficult. Whether it was not being able to bring her children along, running into organizational red tape, or limited ways to contribute, Bowen found it hard to make the impact she had envisioned.
Rather than giving up, she decided to focus her efforts on motivating and empowering families in her community to engage and give back in the ways that they could. “You can make an impact and solve big challenges if you find creative ways to do it” says Bowen. “I knew there were needs, and people with the will and resources to tackle them, so the key was finding a way to marry the two.”
In December 2015, Bowen began the Community Impact LAB to empower women, engage families, and support underserved populations. The acronym in its name is derived from the latter half of the aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats”, which succinctly describes the nonprofit’s goal — to engage families in innovative and impactful ways in order to help all families thrive.
The nonprofit has three programs; the Social Good LAB, Learning LAB, and Family Support LAB, each with its own focus and area of impact. The Learning LAB aims to empower women. Like most mothers in Korea, many new moms care for their children at home, leaving behind a workplace where they were recognized for their knowledge and skills. “When you become a mother, there’s often a struggle to reconcile your new role with who you were and what you did before, especially when it comes to your professional identity.” says Bowen. The Learning LAB promotes knowledge sharing by mothers in their areas of expertise, from yoga and physical therapy to combatting imposter syndrome. “It’s important for all these incredibly talented women to be able to qualify, quantify, and share their skills.”
The Family Support LAB supports both parents and children through family playdates and other networking events. Most members are new to the area and new to being parents, both of which have obstacles of their own. The goal of the Family Support LAB is to provide resources to both mothers and fathers. On Mom’s Night Out/Dads Night In, the mothers go out of the town while the fathers get together to spend downtime with their kids. The goal is to combat the status quo: fathers around the world tend to spend very little time with their kids. Korean fathers spend an average of just 6 minutes a day with their children, while American fathers don’t spend much more than half an hour, according to recently published research. The Family Support LAB’s events are meant to encourage fathers to engage on a more regular basis.
Finally, the Social Good LAB focuses on charitable projects helping families in need. Each project enables parents and kids to participate and directly meets a need; the group has prepared meals for homeless women and kids, delivered flowers to elderly residents, and collected new and used items to help vulnerable individuals. Bowen just completed the “39 Moms in 39 Days” campaign, a drive to collect and deliver car seats and baby essentials for newly resettled refugee families, most of whom have had to flee Afghanistan because of their work as interpreters. “It was an ambitious goal, but I knew people who believed in the cause and it was just a matter of removing obstacles.” Members picked up items all over the East Bay and people from across the US and even Korea sent items through an Amazon wish list. They surpassed their goal by four car seats.
Although Bowen is no longer in the education industry, she often finds herself using the skills she honed as a teacher and manager in her role as president of the Community Impact LAB and credits her time in Korea for helping her discover the gumption to start a non-profit of her own. It’s growing quickly for a reason. Members like Lindsay Bowling joined the organization because its ideals aligned with her own, and its mission reminded her of her own childhood. “Some of my earliest memories are of my mother helping others and finding ways to involve me. When I became a parent, I knew I wanted my children to be raised the same way.” In short, members of the Community Impact LAB are helping others while building a community for their children where volunteerism is an everyday part of life.
The Community Impact LAB is always grateful for donations which aid projects in the Social Good LAB. If you’re interested in helping the Community Impact LAB make a difference, please spread the word and consider making a donation.