By John Lam
More than 50 San Quentin inmates gathered in a rustic trailer to honor and bid farewell to a cherished volunteer, Hera Chan.
“There are no words to describe the impact that she has had in our Kid CAT curriculum,” said Cleo Cloman, lead Kid CAT facilitator. “Hera always shows up with a smile, and you will receive nothing less than genuine empathy and compassion from her.”
Chan’s reaction: “The difference between me and the men who are serving time in San Quentin is that I didn’t get caught for the stupid things I did in my past. No one suspects an innocent young Chinese girl to do the things I did.”
The July 31 gathering was prompted by Chan’s decision to move to Canada with her family.
Self-described as a shy person who dislikes public speaking, Hera brings a reassuring presence of acceptance, honesty, and compassion to both inmates and volunteers.
Kid CAT graduate Curtis “Wall Street” Carroll commented, “I didn’t like the program in the beginning, but Hera was so genuine and real, that she broke down the barriers that I had. She encouraged me to be real and talk about feelings and emotions that I didn’t want to talk about, all because she gave me the space that I needed.”
Hera commented, “It makes me feel really good to hear that I am seen as being authentic and real.”
Beyond reaching through emotional barriers, Hera enriched the lives of men through sharing cultural history of being a minority woman growing up in a society with which she didn’t identify.
“Growing up being an immigrant in Vancouver was difficult. I was bombarded by so many different models to live by, and it messed me up,” said Hera. “My parents didn’t teach me who to become, so I went through a rebellious stage at a young age.”
The power of Hera’s own story is exemplified by the words of Somsak Uppasay, a graduate of the curriculum.
“I graduated out of Kid CAT almost a year ago, and when I heard that she was leaving, I needed to tell her how she has changed my whole perspective of women in our Asian culture.”
“When she taught about how the Asian culture didn’t respect women; she woke me up. At the time, I didn’t have the courage to tell her I was sorry on behalf of Asian men, because I was guilty of it as well.
“Today, I just had to tell her how she impacted me with her story. After the class she taught, I called my mom and two younger sisters to apologize,” Uppasay added.
Hera’s journey to becoming a volunteer in San Quentin was paved by a wakeup call — after graduating from college she was told she had a tumor.
“I had to get surgery immediately; luckily it was benign,” said Hera. “That’s when I decided that I needed to take time to get to know myself.”
After taking a year off to teach English in France, Hera returned with renewed spirit and a new direction.
“Once I came back, and did some soul-searching, I knew I wanted to do something about the criminal justice system; I wanted to get involved in some way.
“I decided to obtain a master’s degree, and found CIIS (California Institute of Integral Studies) in San Francisco that offered a master’s degree in Somatic counseling.
“While I was taking a class there, my teacher, Dr. Monique La Sarre, talked about the work she did at San Quentin and I approached her about my interest, and she offered me an opportunity to get involved with Kid CAT.
“It’s now been three years since I first came in here, and I feel so lucky to be given this opportunity,” said Hera.
“One of the most important things I’ve learned from the people in San Quentin is that, if these men in these conditions, who are being told they are bad, not worthy of being in society or loved, if they can have hope, there is absolutely no reason I can’t have hope in my life,” said Hera.
“When I started volunteering here, I began praying, which I had never done before,” said Hera. “Life has so much hope and I want people to know that.”
“Working in San Quentin has inspired me to work in the San Francisco County Jail,” said Hera. “Through the county jail, I learned the importance of keeping families connected. The worst thing incarceration does is … it separates families, and it’s through that separation that a lot of pain is created.”
“Through this work, I hope to break the intergenerational cycle of incarceration, especially for children of incarcerated people.”
She hopes to continue the work she has started here in the criminal justice system.
“I was talking to someone the other day, a friend said, ‘Your life seems to revolve around working in San Quentin, or the county jail, or incarcerated mothers, fathers and children; it must be depressing.’ ”
“I said, ‘Well, I guess, it can be depressing, but it was in the prisons and jails, with who I met, that I learned how to love, how to have hope.’ ”