(Stone) Soup for Thought

How one organization is inspiring positive change in a local neighborhood

by Esra Hashem

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An 8-year-old boy carrying a loaded gun approached Kathy Garabed, looking for help after receiving instructions from a local gang to carry out its next hit.

It was not the first time Garabed, a refugee resettlement worker, was faced with the violence cultivated within Fresno’s El Dorado Park neighborhood in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s — but it was a moment that inspired a new path for the community.

“Kathy formed Stone Soup Fresno with the idea of utilizing resources of the for-profit, the nonprofit and the educational community to work with Southeast Asian refugees in the El Dorado area,” says Chris Fiorentino, director of the Jan and Bud Richter Center for Community Engagement and Service-Learning at Fresno State. “The thought was they could address large issues faced by people in the area — crime, education, maintaining refugees’ Southeast Asian cultural heritage.”

Fiorentino says Garabed recognized the need to help refugees transition to life in the United States. While the government provided housing for Hmong, Vietnamese, Thai and Cambodian refugees, programs that eased their psychological transition were lacking.

“When some refugees started coming from Southeast Asia, you had cultures that had actually been at war for generations — even thousands of years — that were resettled in the same areas,” Fiorentino says. “What that led to was the development of some really violent gangs, especially among young people.”

Stone Soup Fresno, a community-benefit organization established in 1992 by Garabed, supports health, solace, education, culture and citizenship among Southeast Asian refugee families in Fresno.

Since its founding, Stone Soup has partnered with Fresno State to carry out its mission. As many as 300 students and several dozen faculty and staff have volunteered or worked at Stone Soup in a single year.

Tracy Galarza, a Fresno State alumna who grew up in the El Dorado Park neighborhood and attended Stone Soup as a child, says it was that experience
that influenced her decision to pursue a bachelor’s degree in sociology and
a master’s degree in counseling.

“I think growing up in this neighborhood has given me the opportunity to experience what it is like to live in a high-risk crime, theft and poverty neighborhood,” Galarza says. “I can relate to the difficulties in these neighborhoods and what they can lead to in children’s lives. Being able to overcome these barriers has created a passion for helping others in the same situation.”

Because of the organization’s proximity, Fiorentino says Fresno State students who serve there learn about and support the community where they live and go to school.

“We cannot function without the dedication and commitment of interns, work study students and volunteers who arrive each day through our doors from Fresno State,” says Lowell Ens, executive director of Stone Stoup Fresno. “Through our efforts over the past 20-plus years, our organization has served several thousand Southeast Asian immigrant families.”

The organization’s focus areas include early childhood education, cultural preservation and education advocacy.

“I remember almost everyone within the neighborhood attended Stone Soup or knew someone one who went there,” Galarza says. “There were so many activities for the youth of all ages, and my mother of four loved all that Stone Soup provided for us at no cost.”

EePay Yang, a master teacher at Stone Soup who became involved with the organization over 10 years ago, recognized these needs even within her own family.

“My parents had no educational background,” Yang says. “They understand that education is an important key to success and a better life — but they didn’t know how to go about it.”

Yang, who earned a bachelor’s degree in child development from Fresno State in the spring, says her goal is to educate the community about the importance of education in transforming children’s futures, and therefore their families’ futures.

Since she began working with Stone Soup, Yang says she has seen a different side of the El Dorado community than that of the violence Garabed witnessed. Instead, through education and building rapport, Yang has seen resilience and care within
the community.

“I realized that this community is willing to do anything for their children’s future.”

Esra Hashem is a marketing specialist in the Division of University Advancement at Fresno State.