Woman survives being homeless and earns second highest honor

By Chinami Tajika

President Barack Obama stands with Betty Kwan Chinn in the East Room of the White House, where he presented her with a 2010 Citizens Medal on Aug. 4. (Photo by Charles Dharapak/AP)

Betty Kwan Chinn’s mission in life is to help the homeless and less fortunate. On Aug. 4, President Barack Obama awarded Chinn a Presidential Citizens Medal. That day also happens to be Obama’s birthday.

Chinn is from Eureka, Calif., and was honored for her work in providing food and clothing to the homeless.

According to the Times-Standard, Chinn was born in China to a wealthy family that was oppressed by Mao Zedong’s government during China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

Chinn told the Times-Standard that she was separated from her family at age 7 and forced by soldiers of the Red Guard to live on the streets with a sign tied around her neck that said “child of the devil.” She lived on the streets for four years, during which time she became mute.

After escaping China by walking 1,600 miles to Hong Kong, she came to the United States.

“For more than 20 years, Chinn has provided sustenance and hope to the homeless in Eureka, rising early nearly every morning of the year to greet them with a smile and respect while serving hot coffee and meals from her own truck, paid for out of her own pocket,” said First District Assembly member Wesley Chesbro (D-North Coast) in a statement. Chesbro was the one who nominated Chinn for the medal. She was previously honored as Woman of the Year for district 1 by the California State Assembly.

The Presidential Citizens Medal is given to Americans who have “performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens” for more than 40 years. It is the second highest civilian honor in the United States.

This year, a public nomination process was introduced for the first time. Traditionally, U.S. senators nominated citizens from their state.

“None of [the awardees] asked for this award,” Obama said during the awards ceremony. “They didn’t apply for it. Instead, they were nominated by the men and women all across the country whose lives they have touched. And, even though their names may not be well known — at least not until today — they are heroes to those who need it the most.”

Of 13 honorees, four, including Chinn, received a medal for work in feeding the homeless and less fortunate.

“[The honorees] remind us that we all have a purpose on this earth that goes beyond our own lives and our own individual needs. And they teach us that no matter what challenges we face, we each have the power to make the world a better place,” Obama said. “They didn’t write it off as another example of life not being fair. Instead, they saw it as a problem to solve, a challenge to meet, a call to action that they could not ignore.”

“Can you believe this?” Chinn said during the ceremony. “I can’t believe it. They made me wear a sign saying I was a child of the devil, and now I have this. Now, I’m in the White House.”

Chinn blinked back tears during the ceremony, and she hugged Obama at its conclusion with a big smile on her face. ♦

Chinami Tajika can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com

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